Working Moms Have a Burnout Problem
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- Working moms are dealing with four chronic stressors: parenting burnout, occupational burnout, barrier burnout, and crisis fatigue.
- To prevent burnout, moms should abandon martyrdom motherhood.
- Managers can help by incentivizing employee well-being and prioritizing performance.
- CEOs can do their part by instituting hiring and promotion practices that reduce bias against mothers.
On paper, Dr. Jaqueline Kerr is the ultimate working mom success story: Thompson Reuters counts her among "The World's Most Influential Scientific Minds." She has over $56 million in research grants. She runs her own business, has a popular TED Talk, and hosts two podcasts — one of which is called "Overcoming Working Mom Burnout."
But off-paper, her life hasn't exactly been a cakewalk. Recently, Kerr suffered her own bout of severe burnout. "I would cry all the way to work because I was so exhausted," she said. "Then I would cry all the way home because I knew that what waited for me there was equally overwhelming. No place offered relief from my desperation."
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Kerr has made it her mission to save other working moms from the ravages of burnout. In this interview, she unpacks the four chronic stressors moms are up against today and offers her expert advice for overcoming them.
Parenting Burnout: The Exhaustion Gap
"Women have always done a disproportionate amount of the unpaid labor at home," said Kerr. "It starts from the very beginning, especially if the mother takes time off from work to be with the baby and the father doesn't. She becomes the default manager of all the things: doctor's appointments, childcare, schools, camps, playdates, medications, sleep, and eating schedules. Even if her partner shares responsibilities, it isn't the same as managing that mental load. It's a full-time job."
Mothers also bear the lion's share of the family emotional load — a burden that got even heavier during the pandemic.
"The kids were distressed; normal boundaries went out the window. Working moms had to be emotionally present for struggling kids while simultaneously managing their own mental health and trying to excel in their jobs. Moms are exhausted."
Occupational Burnout: Overworked and Undervalued
"Overwork, lack of autonomy, and lack of recognition contribute massively to burnout. Anyone can experience these things, but working moms are more likely to because they aren't moving up the ranks," said Kerr.
"Companies often fail to value the unique skills mothers bring to the table. A really good example of that occurred during the pandemic, when women did a much better job of looking after the well-being of their teams. Employee well-being affects the bottom line, but only about 25% of companies reward that kind of work. Women are spending a lot of energy doing crucial but undervalued and under-rewarded work."
Barrier Burnout: The Broken Rung and the Maternal Wall
"When someone becomes a mother, suddenly everyone believes her new commitment to her family makes her less committed to her job. Meanwhile, a dad in the exact same situation is considered more committed to his work because he is now also committed to a family," said Kerr. "How can the same situation result in two different assumptions?"
"Mothers, of all the groups, are on the bottom rung, the broken rung. Mothers of color are even further down. And heaven forbid you do step out of the workplace for a while and then try to come back — you just can't get the same position at the same pay. You end up doing work you're overqualified for. It's deeply frustrating, because you know you are skilled and capable. But you just keep coming up against that maternal wall. No one warned you this was how it was going to be."
Crisis Fatigue: Sending Kids Into a Scary World
It's always been tough to send our kids out into the world. But since March 2020, it's been excruciating: Waiting to understand how the pandemic would impact children, waiting for them to get access to vaccines, and waiting to learn what long-term effects a COVID-19 infection might have on their developing bodies. There's still so much we don't know.
"Pandemic stress has been chronic," said Kerr. "We've undergone constantly changing recommendations, constantly changing norms. Uncertainty is something human beings cope with very poorly. Uncertainty about threats to our children is a major source of fear and stress."
On top of the invisible but ever-present danger of COVID-19, we are also coping with a school shooting epidemic. "As a result, 'out there' — away from Mom's watchful eye — has become more threatening than ever. Moms are tasked with determining what precautions will keep their families safe in a scary world — an impossible burden," said Kerr.
"It's important to realize that as a white mother, I have a certain level of fear for my children. It's constant; it's distracting. But that intense surge of fear that we all experienced in the aftermath of Uvalde is very real at all times for Black mothers. Statistically, the chances that their children will be victims of gun violence are much higher. Crisis fatigue is a daily reality for those moms even in 'normal times' — an added layer of emotional exhaustion, a terrible strain."
Feeling inspired to support moms? Here are three things you can do right now:
- Share this article. Do your part to normalize the conversation.
- Empower the moms around you to say "no" to office housework tasks and focus on the performance indicators that will get them promoted. Celebrate their successes publicly.
Promote policies and practices at your workplace that support working parents of all types — because collective action is the key to culture change.