Amanda Woodiel offers encouragement to moms who can't see their way out of burnout from life with small children.
A mother of two small children asked me the other day how to combat burnout. I looked at the toddling boy racing away from her and the 3-year-old girl clutching her leg and flashed back to those days in my own life when I had five children age 7 and younger:
- The incessant, urgent demands for me to die to self, die to self, die to self. First it was my body, then my free time, then my sense of control/orderliness, and finally the very space inside my brain, which endured a never-ending barrage of questions.
- The learning how to juggle motherhood with household chores. Never a day dawned where there weren’t piles of dishes to wash, meals to pull together, dozens of toys to pick up, and mounds of laundry to fold.
- The constant subjugating of what I had hoped to get done that day to the urgency of whatever minor scrape or disaster intervened.
- Learning to refrain from looking forward to something because probably someone would develop a fever (or worse, stomach flu).
Yes, I remember those days. There are plenty of joys within them, to be sure. But there is a whole lot of burnout looming overhead when you are on your third load of dishes, your second load of laundry, the fourth time of answering the question “What’s for dinner?”, and the tenth time of refereeing a sibling squabble ... all before lunch.
I looked to my usual resource, CatholicMom.com, for inspiration. Here are six tips for combating burnout:
- The first article I found was aptly titled “Worn and Weathered.” One tactic the author, Elizabeth Reardon, suggests is to set aside time to be alone. I know that we often feel guilty or selfish, but in reality, if you truly want to be like Jesus, you must set aside time to speak with the Father. Time and time again in Scripture, Jesus withdraws to pray. It’s not a suggestion; it’s the way we were created. I cannot emphasize this enough (maybe because I know how long it has taken me to accept it as truth): we must draw the strength for our vocation from Jesus. You will burn out if you try to bypass this step.
- Another way to combat burnout in motherhood is to incorporate play for yourself. A story I once read (though I don’t remember where) is that the Lord revealed to a saint that He doesn’t need people to do His work so much as He desires people to play with Him. Think about it: he can easily multiply fishes and loaves. What he wants is You. Me. He has an unquenchable thirst for Your love. No one else’s love can slake that thirst for Him. He wants to waste time with you.
God also delights in our delight. Think back to your childhood. What did you do to play? Did you act out stories? Read? Climb trees? Craft? What brought you joy? Take time to enjoy, even now as an adult, how God made you. This is not selfish; think of it as a gift you give to God to delight in how He made you! One year for my birthday I invited a couple of friends over and we tried painting a picture using a YouTube tutorial. It was a blast, and I have it hanging in my laundry room as a memento.
- Transform ordinary chores into prayers/sacrifices/or occasions of gratitude. Nothing invites burnout so much as thinking of your daily chores as nothing more than drudgery. MaryBeth Eberhard talks about transforming a frustrating common occurrence into an invitation to the Holy Spirit. Transform climbing the stairs into Hail Marys for a prayer intention. When you do the dishes (again), thank God that you have little people to feed and food to feed them with. Every time you pick up a sock, ask St. Joseph to pray for your family. When you do a household chore you particularly dislike, offer it up for a specific prayer intention.
- Make an act of faith and choose to believe older moms when they say it won’t always be this way. If you can get yourself to take the long view, you may stave off burnout in the short term. You won’t always be the one to do the laundry. There won’t always be diapers to change. You will one day sleep through the night. And it happens sooner than you think. My five children are age 12 to barely 5, and I have had a reprieve from burnout for years. A friend said to me that she doesn’t see how this is possible, since the older two of her four children are the same ages as my youngest two. But it makes all the difference how old the oldest one is -- that is of far more consequence than how many you have. The point is that you don’t have to tell yourself dramatically that it’s going to be this difficult until the last one is in college.
- De Yarrison suggests we speak one kind word to ourselves daily. You will succumb to burnout if you constantly tell yourself that you aren’t good enough, that you are a “bad” mom because you X or Y. In my own experience, I have found that I must choose to battle any negative mental narrative I have swirling around my head and actively renounce the lie within. Try this instead: “I renounce the lie that I am not good enough and proclaim the truth that God will give me His strength for my vocation” and “I renounce the lie that I am a ‘bad’ mom and proclaim the truth that I am the perfect mom for my children. God does not make mistakes.”
- Finally, one of the most effective ways to avoid burnout is to get outside of your own life and serve others. Look especially for moms with special needs children or children with emotional health challenges and see what you can do to lighten their load. I know that feels difficult because you yourself feel like you are drowning under piles of housework. Step forward in faith, sister. I promise you: giving of yourself and teaching your children to help others brings joy, purpose, and tranquility of spirit in a way that a clean house can’t.
About the Author
Amanda Woodiel is a Catholic convert, a mother to five children ages 11 to 3, a slipshod housekeeper, an enamored wife, and a “good enough” homeschooler who believes that the circumstances of her life -- both good and bad -- are pregnant with grace. She leads a moms' group at her parish that focuses on simple and meaningful ways to live the liturgical year at home. Amanda blogs at In a Place of Grace.