The backstory of my working mother burnout
When I was a young working mother, I felt very unsuccessful. Struggling to care for three children, work full-time as a physician, and get adequate help from my husband, I was chronically unhappy. Childcare challenges (an unexpectedly sick child) seemed to present themselves at the worst possible moments when I was knee-deep in NICU patients. My husband never asked me outright if he could be of help. My research work seemed to flounder. I hated my new job. Sure, I showed up for clinical work every day, but on many days, I wondered what I was doing and where I was headed in my career. I was burned out!
My seven-year-old son was transitioning poorly from Montessori to traditional school. My four-year-old daughter started biting her nails and wetting the bed. Only the baby seemed pretty chill. I was struggling to manage it all, as I am sure you do, too. I rarely asked for help from my partner
or my friends. I tried to be everything for everyone and do everything for everybody. Sound familiar?
Driving home in a rush to take some febrile child to the doctor’s office or sprinting down the halls of the elementary school to meet a teacher for a called conference or blasting out of the hospital to make it (for once) in time for the soccer game that started at 5:00 pm was routine.
The symptoms were all there. I found myself always frazzled, always rushing, and doing these things continually, repeatedly, without any resolution or help in sight. I wanted to do all the things that were important for my children, my family, and work full-time.
My desires as a working mother
Outwardly, I wanted to appear to be an involved, perfect, working mother and a competent, caring physician.
On the inside, I needed reassurance that I was a good-enough mother, because, so often, I doubted it. Despite my wanting to take care of everything, I could not be two places at once.
Was my career going in the right direction? I knew very little about publishing research and getting promoted. It was a scary time.
Where was the support and connection I needed from friends at work? I only had time to eke out a brief ten-minute visit during lunch.
The wall of struggles and challenges
Around age forty, I hit a wall as a young working mother, and it stopped me in my tracks. My terrible bad mood morphed into major depression. I did not sleep, and I barely ate. I was irritable and angry. I hated my work life and resented my husband. All I did was worry about everything and everyone – my children, my boss, my schedule, my (contented) husband, and money.
Does this sound familiar to anyone else? You hit a wall composed of all the things you try to do well (but only accomplish partially).
You struggle on the outside with appearances, while you struggle on the inside with your feelings.
I had become the man on the talent show who ran around the stage spinning plates on sticks. He would twirl the sticks and balance a spinning plate on each one, then he would add more and more twirling sticks and plates a-spinning. He ran around the stage re-spinning those plates that started to wobble. His goal was to manage all the plates and have them spinning perfectly together, the more the better. THIS WAS ME.
My epiphany about my burnout
At that time, I described myself as that crazy man running around spinning plates. I was able to finally see the problem. A good therapist helped me to see the necessary solution – take down some of the plates!
As a result, I paused to examine my priorities, my plates, and chose which ones to allow to crash and which ones to care for. And guess what else, I had to put up and spin a plate that was me. When I had my epiphany, I was not even one of my plates.
My plan to feel better
I began to assess my values and my time. I loved medicine and found great fulfillment in caring for patients, so I did not choose to give up on that.
A mentor was who I needed to help me assess my position, my current research projects, and possibilities for promotion.
I loved my children and being a mother, so of course, I wanted to devote my free time to my children and their well-being. I needed surefire childcare arrangements that allowed me the security necessary to be away from them.
There were some resentments about my husband, how much he loved his job. (I hated mine.) I resented his lack help that I imagined he should just know. Moreover, I needed his understanding of my feelings and his help with some of the motherhood chores that I seemed unable to accomplish. I learned that I needed to ask for his help in doing specific things for me and them.
The plate that was me and my self-care needed some spinning because, in all the busyness, I had forgotten to care for myself. There was no me time, no time to quietly reflect and think, no exercise program, no hobbies, and no long lunches or meetings for coffee with friends.
The conflicts along the way
Along the way to recovery, the conflicts I met were huge. The easiest thing to fix was better childcare coverage, a better nanny. I was fortunate enough to be able to afford that and a good nanny is worth her weight in gold and she becomes part of your family. She worked for me as much as she worked for my children.
My job was harder to fix, and despite a promotion, I abandoned clinical medicine for a period to work for a health maintenance organization as their medical director. I jumped the NICU ship into an easy lifeboat of working nine to five with weekends off. Attending meetings and traveling as an executive physician were not stressful.
My marriage was the hardest thing to repair.
We began by making a list of each activity that we did for our family. My long list of mother duties – you know this list – included costumes (I made my children’s by hand), teacher gifts, birthday parties, sports practices and games, class parties and fundraisers, parent teacher conferences, pediatrician visits, dental checkups, orthodontist appointments, music lessons, and on and on.
His list was considerably shorter. It was an excellent exercise for us – writing down all our duties. (You should try it.) We also planned and undertook date nights, really getting away for a nice dinner and the quietude to talk about our feelings. I discovered that he wanted to help me but did not know how until I spelled it out for him. (The sooner than you learn that your husband or partner cannot read your mind, the better off you will be.)
Taking care of me was straightforward. In addition to therapy, I scheduled time to walk in nature twice each week and work out at the gym at least twice. (A gym with childcare was a true lifesaver.) I resumed my old hobby of counted cross-stitch which allowed me to quietly turn off my left brain and pretend to be meditating.
I made a routine of meeting a friend for lunch to talk and feel supported. Playing the piano brought me solace, despite my poor ability to make the sounds properly. Even practicing music that I did not know well helped. Music carries you away from stress to another place within your right brain.
The achievements were oh, so sweet
A huge milestone for me was convincing my husband that we needed to both have good rewarding jobs, that we needed to move to another location for our children’s schooling, and that he needed to help out with the day-to-day childhood activities.
The achievement was also my feeling better, feeling renewed and rested. Feeling nourished and cared for. I had achieved this for myself using simple methods to better care for my wellbeing – exercise, sleep, hobbies, music, time in nature, and support from friends.
My transformation to good-enough mother
The transformation was not quick. It unfolded slowly, but steadily, over a two-year period. I changed jobs and made more money, and discovered that I was working fewer hours in my new position. After embarking on some professional development in an area of interest that required some new skills, I became known as an expert in that new field!
Feeling better about being a mother and being able to spend more quality time with my children while they were in elementary and middle school was icing on the cake. Their transitions to new public schools went smoothly.
I fell back in love with my husband of thirteen years, and we continued to make time for our marriage and support each other as needed.
Exercise and being outside in nature became mainstays for my wellbeing. I enjoyed running outside and staying physically fit. Playing music and performing hobbies were there as needed. I developed some amazing friendships (at work) that gave me a sense of feeling understood and supported.
Despite this wonderful story of transformation, I must admit that my plan was not easy to carry out and the conflicts I met along the way were tough. It took work, a lot of hard work. And it took therapy to help me identify key stumbling blocks to my happiness and fulfillment.
This process was so worth it to me, and it will be worth it to you, too.
This blog post is written for YOU, so that you can discover how to care for yourself during these busy working mother years, so that you will feel successful as a working mother. I want you to know what it feels like to be a good enough mother.
Below is an assessment checklist for you to consider. The link for these checklists is here. Consider well, mama.