Last weekend, I saw “A Bad Moms Christmas,” the sequel to the 2016 movie “Bad Moms,” about the overworked, self-sacrificing mom trope. Early in the film, “bad mom” Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) tells her mother that instead of trying to create the perfect holiday, she plans to enjoy the season. Her mom, Ruth, disagrees and responds by shouting, “Moms don’t enjoy, they give joy.”
These words highlight how parenting culture has shifted, focusing more on mothering than on motherhood. In fact, parenting wasn’t a recognized word in the dictionary until the 1950s, becoming more widely used by the 1970s. Because of this change, many of today’s parents view successful child-rearing as a task, which implies we can always do more for our kids and families. And if there’s one time of year when we feel responsible to provide happiness for everyone, it’s the holiday season.
Every Christmas, I feel pressure to make the holiday memorable for my child. To avoid the busyness of Black Friday, I start shopping after Halloween. Before Thanksgiving, I organize festive activities for the holiday season, purchasing tickets to Christmas plays, scheduling ice-skating, and sending out invitations for our annual party. Yet, in the midst of “giving joy,” I also find aspects of the holidays stressful. Because like many moms, taking care of everything and everyone leaves me weary.
As mothers, it can be challenging to balance self-care and family responsibilities, but research suggests there may be a psychological downside to always taking care of others, even family members. In fact, according to a recent study, just like business professionals and first responders, mothers can face burnout.
In a survey of more than 2,000 parents, researchers in Belgium found that mothers and fathers can suffer from parenting burnout. Of the parents surveyed, almost 13 percent reported feeling exhausted in their parenting roles. The study authors also discovered that burnout affects more mothers than fathers.
Burnout can affect one’s emotional and physical well-being, causing feelings of inadequacy, resent and detachment from family and work life.
According to psychologist Sheryl Ziegler, signs of mommy burnout may include forgetfulness, tearfulness, irritability, escape fantasies, and resent for a partner and other moms (especially if they’re perceived as having more freedom).
“In essence, instead of enjoying motherhood, these moms begin to dread the demands of parenting. Because they have nothing left to give, they can withdraw from their children, experiencing them as a source of stress,” Ziegler says.
She adds that mothers especially are more likely to feel tapped out during the holiday season, when financial and family stress can reach an all-time high. Deep exhaustion can also impact fathers, partners, and other caregivers. Left unaddressed, symptoms of burnout may linger long after the holidays are over, leading to depression, anxiety disorders and physical illnesses such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
How can parents (especially moms) avoid burnout during the holidays?
According to the American Psychological Association, holiday stress can be more intense for women because they do a majority of the shopping, baking and decorating. Because of the added workload, women are more likely than men to have trouble relaxing, causing them to rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as overeating and drinking alcohol, to get through the season. Hoping to create the most magical time of the year, many moms also sacrifice exercise to take care of the extra duties.
Unfortunately, ignoring one’s needs for others and neglecting self-care can lead to burnout, especially for overachieving, perfectionist moms. But even though holiday stress is inevitable, mothers can prevent fatigue by relying on friends and family for support.
“Moms are notoriously terrible at asking for help. Often, we expect our partners and family members to be mind readers, anticipating our needs ahead of time. But mothers can bypass this frustration by delegating tasks before things feel out of hand,” says Ziegler.
To create a more peaceful holiday, she recommends reaching out to family, friends and neighbors to coordinate child-care swaps, giving you extra time to shop and wrap gifts. To avoid endless hours of cooking, she suggests organizing a potluck or ordering holiday meals from a local grocery store.
And before filling the December calendar with multiple parties, cookie baking and shopping, try to be realistic about what’s doable. Ziegler says mothers can avoid the holiday haze by creating a to-do list and ranking tasks by importance.
Finally, even if it feels impossible to focus on self-care, it’s vital for mothers to nurture themselves by taking walks, talking with close friends and asking for help when they feel overwhelmed.
Partners can help, too
Partners can help prevent burnout by learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of chronic stress, such as insomnia, moodiness and low self-esteem.
I’ve told my husband that if I hide out in the bedroom, watching repeats of Grey’s Anatomy, it’s a sign of exhaustion, which means I need extra help.
“Moms may not always recognize what help they need, because feeling stressed has become a cultural norm. However, if she seems irritable, sad and withdrawn, remind her to de-stress and offer to shoulder some of the work,” Ziegler says.
Often, partners express empathy by trying to solve the problem. But jumping into “doing” mode may not always validate mom’s feelings. Instead, offer to listen. Often, this kind gesture, though small, can make a world of difference.
Try to be mindful
In the midst of the holiday chaos, it’s easy to overlook how stress affects children. But getting distracted, running around frantically and neglecting self-care may communicate to kids that celebrations are burdensome and make us miserable.
Sometimes, imagining setting limits around how much we do and spend during the season causes our guilt to arise. We may feel like Scrooge for saying no, believing we’re ruining our children’s fun. But Ziegler recommends letting go of holiday outcomes by adopting a mindful mind-set, focusing on moment-to-moment awareness, which can help us remain grounded.
“The best gift we can give our children is our presence,” Ziegler says.
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga.