5 Ways to Prevent Burnout in Motherhood

After a decade of working in and consulting to organisations around workplace wellbeing, I shifted into the world of motherhood…

As I stood in the playground listening to the physical and mental symptoms being described by the women around me, it was all too familiar… physical ailments, emotional outbursts, catastrophic and negative thinking, feelings of helplessness, insomnia. They were burnt out. We all know that motherhood, with all of its bright spots, is undeniably relentless. So what can you do to prevent burning out? Read on for my top tips for taking care of yourself.

1. Learn to soothe your nervous system in the moment

If we stop for just one moment, you may recognise the signs of stress – tension around the shoulders, chest or head, short and shallow breaths, low energy, reduced libido, upset stomach, unusual eating patterns, irritability. These are all signs that our sympathetic nervous system is switched on – we are ready for fight or flight. Routinely check in on how you are feeling. When you notice you are stressed, you can intentionally try to calm your nervous system. The quickest and easiest method is via the breath – notice the sensation of breathing and try to elongate the breath in for a count of five, pause for a count of five and exhale out of the count of five (known as 5/5/5 breathing). Other tools to practice include mindfulness, keeping an eye on the level of stimulation in our day – food (sugars, processed food), drink (alcohol, caffeine) and also our visual diet (social media, screen time).

2. Initiate a self-nourishment routine

Self-care routines are individual – whether it’s a bath, a candle, listening to a playlist, time in the ocean, in the sun or a cherished glass of wine in the evening (note, one glass!). Brainstorm how you can prevent or remedy stress and fatigue and plan how frequently you get to engage in these activities. If you notice you are lacking and want to commit to change, it’s important to start small. This gives us the greatest chance to succeed and build confidence. Marking ‘x’ on a calendar on the days that you have carried through on your commitment is a great visual cue and often promotes an inner motivation to see more ‘x’s.

3. Prime yourself for positivity

We are primed to select negative information in our environment. In fact, we process negative information five times faster than positive information! So when we are trying to remedy stress, we need to look to ways to work against this bias and attend to the positive. A good and widely reported technique is to identify three things that went well in your day at bedtime. The mechanics behind this activity is that it sends your mind looking for events, interactions and actions in your day that are positive and meaningful for you. You will also start to seek out these events proactively during the day knowing that you need to report on them in the evening – you will become more aware of instances of things going well. To boost the effectiveness of this, I recommend that you physically write it down or tell someone, maybe your partner or make it a commitment with a friend. We know that positivity is contagious, so in making this a shared activity, you are also enabling the wellbeing of those around you.

4. Be strategic about routine

Routine and children – I can see you rolling your eyes! Bare with me. We know that the more decisions we have to make on a daily basis, the more fatigued we become. With this in mind, it is important to look for opportunities in your day to reduce the need to choose between the endless options available. At the end of the day, consider, ‘what can I plan for tonight in the next 10 minutes that will make my day easier tomorrow’. It may be your outfit, your meals, the park you are going to visit, whether you are going to check work emails and when or how much social media you choose to indulge in. The less frequently you draw on your decision making powers in advance, the greater conviction you will have in the momentary choices you make and the better energy levels you will enjoy.

5. Give yourself permission and a ‘budget’ for being unproductive

Women often find it difficult to detach from their pre-children self-concept of the ambitious, high achieving and reliable doer. The problem with this is that parenting intimately ties you to the emotions, health, preferences and “routine” of another little person. And the smaller the person, the less predictable and less apparent control we have. While I am not asking you to surrender to endless years of being unproductive, it’s important to consciously revisit your priorities and capacity after having a child/children. Giving yourself permission to redefine success in a day and scheduling time to be unambitious can be game changing. It unlocks pent up pressure and frustration to be on the front foot and results oriented all the time. While this can be challenging, remember that the wonder of motherhood can be in the process, not the end result. A sole focus on the end result thwarts the process and in doing so robs you of the quality, the connection and the opportunity to savour the present moment.

Negativity and stress can cascade and if you are serious about overcoming or avoiding burn out, it’s important to be able to break the cycle of negativity that when left unchecked can become pervasive and insidious. Shifting to a position of awareness, intention and self compassion can take time and may feel like more of an effort in the short term however in my view the benefit of this discomfort well outweighs the discomfort and difficulty of being burnt out and the detrimental impact this can have on your relationships, physical and mental health and that of those around you.