Mothering is generally a well-respected and rewarding job, but few realize just how much it has in common with the other helping professions.
Motherhood is a demanding, rewarding profession. Nobody — teacher, preacher, psychologist — gets the same chance to mold human minds and nurture human bodies and emotions like a mother. It can be a tremendously satisfying Job, and the results of truly competent mothering can reverberate down through the generations. But mothers, like other professionals, are prone to certain occupational hazards — Not just dishpan hands, either, but the same kind of difficulties that plague other workers such as doctors, lawyers, and psychiatrists. One such hazard that has come to light lately is a phenomenon known as "professional burnout." Social workers, psychologists, ministers — those who deal with people intimately and intensely day after day — may after a period of months or years experience a common syndrome. The people and their problems finally "get to them." and cause them to go into a negative pattern of behavior — known as "burnout." Symptoms may include a widening emotional detachment from their patients or clients, a loss of love and concern for them as total human beings, unwarranted anger or emotional outbursts, and various stress-related physical and mental difficulties. But this phenomenon is not strictly limited to the "helping" professions. It can affect anybody who has to deal with people day after day without a break. And while motherhood does not normally include working with a case load of 300 clients or a group of patients who habitually call for advice at 3 a.m., it does at times mean a super intense relationship with one or more small human beings who may call for service twenty-four hours a day. And it's amazing how many mothers exhibit exactly the same behavior other professionals do when confronted with too many "people" demands.
For instance, tired professionals may distance themselves emotionally by various methods from those they serve. Doctors, for example, may refer to patients as "appendectomies" or "coronaries" instead of thinking of them as total human beings. Social workers may avoid involvement by withholding eye contact. They may minimize physical contact by using various body-language barriers like desks or counters. They may stand beside doors with their hand on the knob, ready to escape if things become too intense. Those who work with low-income families may begin to think of their clients in demeaning terms, blaming clients for their plights, instead of empathizing as they did when they first went to work in the field. Pros on the verge of a burnout may find themselves lecturing or shouting at clients for no logical reason — and perhaps they are normally kind people who would never think of behaving this way.
A burnt-out mother may exhibit many of the same symptoms. Instead of dealing with each of her children as an individual, she may refuse eye contact. She may answer questions with a mumble or a grunt, busying herself with household tasks that emotionally exclude her offspring. She may avoid touching, hugging or other forms of body contact for lengthy periods of time. And she may mention "the kids" in the same lone of voice another pro would refer to a "case load" or "docket." When she had her first child, she probably was intensely aware of him or her as a unique, precious individual. But time and routine may have taken a toll. The emotional stress of constantly dealing with a tiny human being who makes noise, messes, and is continually underfoot may have caused a gradual change to take place. Perhaps the arrival of one or two brothers or sisters took away the novelty and added to the load. Like a lawyer described by Dr. Christina Maslach, she may one day find herself screaming at her young "clients" for no good reason except she has reached the end of her emotional rope ("Burned-Out." Human Behavior, September 1976. p.16). Or she may hold in her frustration until it begins to exhibit itself as the "housewife syndrome." Described by sociologist Dr. Jesse Barnard, symptoms can include nervousness, inertia, insomnia, trembling hands, nightmares, perspiring, fainting, headaches, dizziness and heart palpitation — all with no physical or pathological explanation. Burnt-out professionals like policemen, psychiatrists, and prison guards experience the same deterioration in their health, and the list of symptoms is remarkably similar: insomnia, ulcers, migraine, perspiration, nervousness, and painful muscular tension. Mothers of small children have been known to say things like, "It's not that I can't do what I want — I can read a book, I can listen to a record. It's just that I can never do it when I want to" (Shirley L. Radi, Mother's Day Is Over, p. 190). Psychiatrists who have gone from hospital to private practice report experiencing the same feelings. They have difficulty finding time for a little peace and quiet alone, because there's nobody else to go on duty for them when the shift is over. One minister complained of the same imposition on his "down time" at home: "I hate to hear the phone ring — I'm afraid of who it's going to be and what they'll want." Dr. Maslach noted that for social workers the biggest sign of burnout was that a creative person with original thoughts and a fresh approach to the job found himself transformed into a "mechanical bureaucrat." This is also a signal of motherly burnout. One woman reported listening to her neighbor in an adjacent apartment scream "No!" to her active toddler over and over again in the course of a morning. Apparently all imagination (give the child some unbreakable goodies to play with; take him for a walk: read him a story) had vanished before the need to be a good bureaucrat (get the housework done immediately at any cost). Burnt-out psychologists may resort to cutting down the time of therapy sessions with clients. Burnt-out mothers send the kids outside for lengthening periods of time. The parallels are endless.
What Causes Burnout?
Our society has yet to take a straight, honest, collective look at motherhood and see it for what it is — a tremendously rewarding, but also tremendously demanding job that can provide immense satisfactions but sometimes exacts a terrific toll. Marriage is a fantastic opportunity for growth, and children give parents an even greater opportunity to grow and develop. But growth is sometimes, perhaps more often than not, a painful process. A young woman should be thoroughly prepared for the sacrifice, the self-denial, the total giving that's required of a mother before she ever says "I do." She needs to be a thoroughly mature person who "has her head on straight," so to speak. She should have lived, experienced, studied, worked, traveled enough to know what it means to give these things up for a certain number of years to become the willing servant of one or more small emotionally and physically demanding human beings. Young women may delude themselves into thinking they're prepared for this giant step when they definitely are not. They may have bought the fairy tale of Prince Charming as the answer to all their frustrations, when in actuality this "happy ending" will only aggravate their problems. Marriage is not for immature people — and neither is parenthood. Women who have married with this dream firmly in mind may be unable to give it up long after the honeymoon is over. Not ever having been presented with an honest alternative to this world's false concept of marriage and family life, they compare their reality with the media mirage and feel a vague or not-so-vague dissatisfaction, but can't really put their finger on the cause. Perhaps they blame themselves, their husbands, their income, their mother-in-law, or some other factor for their unhappy situation. But the real problem may be that they are unable to level with themselves as to the real nature of their jobs. When they find out motherhood isn't all fluffy pink dresses, talcum powder and pleasant moments in a rocking chair, they may not know how to handle it — and they may become prime candidates for burnout.
There is nobody who feels guiltier than a mother who paddles her child for a minor infraction that would have been ignored earlier in the day, but which at that moment was just too much on top of the noisy television, the ringing phone, the overflowing garbage disposal, and the newspaper-reading husband wondering when dinner was going to be ready. This can happen to the same woman who, a few years before, childless, vowed never to act like those other mothers she saw who flew off the handle "for no good reason" and seemed to be constantly harried by a plethora of details. She wasn't prepared for the possibility of her own burnout. A wife who works outside the home knows that the janitorial aspects of housewifery are not all that overwhelming. In an urban environment, a couple of hours a day or less of efficient effort usually suffice. But add children, and you instantly have a never-ending battle against grime, clutter and inadvertent destruction. On top of this add demands for emotional support, solace, geometry lessons, and advice to the puppy-lovelorn, and you have a recipe for imminent mental breakdown in many cases. Having compared these stresses of motherhood to the stresses of the helping professions, the parallel is obvious.
Hope Amidst the Ashes
But if professional burnout has been diagnosed and labeled, what can be done about it? Can it be minimized or cured? Dr. Maslach and her associates found several effective ways of dealing with the problem. First, burnout rates were lower among professionals who expressed and shared their feelings with fellow workers or colleagues. Second, guilt-free time away from the people they served was of great help. And third education in dealing with themselves and other people — preparation for the professional-client or doctor-patient relationship — proved immensely beneficial. If you're a prospective mother (or even if you've already had several children), what can you personally do to avoid the specter of burnout? If professionals can be helped by becoming more educated in interpersonal skills, then such studies should help mothers too. Perhaps no college or university offers the exact classes needed to prepare for motherhood, but taking a few courses in child growth and development can help. Reading a good number of books in this area may also be extremely beneficial. And it might be good to stay well informed on the advances made in recent years in the study of human behavior. Workers in this field have come up with some remarkable practical understanding of human nature and ways to work with it. At times their suggestions loudly echo biblical principles. But formal education isn't the total answer. Perhaps some "field experience" (say, taking over for a friend with several small children while she and her husband go on vacation) would be in order. But even this won't give you a total feel for what the job entails, since you'll be able to pack up and leave at the end of two or three weeks. Nonetheless, it can give you a general idea of what you'll be in for. And if you find you're just not cut out for such strenuous work, you've discovered this before it is too late, while alternatives are still available. Or you may find that this is exactly what you want to be deeply committed to for a large portion of your life.
Resident psychiatrists and doctors working in hospitals sometimes get together in informal professional groups to give each other advice and support. But once they leave the hospital and go into practice on their own, they sometimes find they desperately miss such contact. Mothers need the same kind of professional contact and support. Some women today find themselves totally isolated from what in former times would have been an intricate network of female family and friends (mothers, aunts, older sisters) who would have served this purpose. Now a woman may need to develop such a network of surrogate family from those in the local neighborhood, since real family may be scattered all across the country. The morning kaffeklatsch, rather than being a mere gossip session, is many times an informal attempt to provide this type of professional support. Adult education parent-participation nursery schools can serve the same function.
Dr. Maslach's research has shown that the one biggest help in preventing burnout is time off, time to escape without feeling a burden of guilt. "Time-offs" are possible in well-staffed hospitals and welfare agencies. But how does a mother take a time-off? She can't just call in sick. Of course it is a wife's and mother's job to deal with her children and make her home a peaceful haven for her family. But she needs peace too. She deeply needs an occasional respite from her work, just the same as her husband does — and perhaps even more desperately. Dr. James Dobson, well-known Christian psychologist and author of books on child and family problems, agrees with this premise and recommends two things: first of all, that domestic help for mothers of small children should be available if at all possible (he suggests hiring competent high school students if one cannot afford adult helpers): and secondly, that a wife "should get out of the house completely for one day a week doing something for sheer enjoyment. This seems more important to the happiness of the home than buying new drapes or a power saw for Dad" (What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women, p. 53). Another helpful alternative is for the father to take a more active role in parenting at critical junctures during the day. A recent study showed that the average time spent by middle-class fathers with their small children was thirty-seven seconds per day! Fathers directly interacted with their children an average of 2.7 times daily, each encounter lasting only ten to fifteen seconds! This shocking, tragic situation could be avoided if more fathers were aware of their wives' (and children's) needs and took over parenting for a while each day as a break for their battle-weary spouses. Studies have also shown that more home accidents occur around 5 p.m. — the time mother is cooking dinner, the kids are hungry and cranky, and dad has just returned from his day's trials. This is also the time when symptoms of burnout — the traditional shouting, screaming pre-dinner freak-out — usually occur. But a husband who really loves his wife as he loves himself won't have too much trouble empathizing with her situation. He will realize that if he can take only five minutes (or less) of his offspring before they begin to "get on his nerves," then he will know how she feels, having been with them all day long with no break.
There Is Hope
But what if you're already a burned-out mother? Is the situation hopeless? Not at all. Burned-out mothers, like burned-out doctors and social workers, can be rehabilitated. It takes time and caring, though, and a conscious effort on the mother's part to face reality, accept her condition, and do something about it. Awareness is half the battle. If you know you are going to be worn out at a particular time, reschedule the day if possible or warn your family of your delicate condition. They can't cooperate and avoid pushing you to the brink unless they know how you feel. They'll probably make noise, for example, unless they realize quiet is needed. In his book Parent Effectiveness Training, Dr. Thomas Gordon mentions that one father made his small daughter aware of his need for "quiet time" when he first got home, promising to spend time with her once he had "recharged his batteries." She became so solicitous that she, who formerly bugged him to death, now kept others away, explaining his need for temporary rest. Perhaps mothers could put the same strategy into action. Studies have also shown that regular daily exercise can be of great value in working off tensions that can lead to symptoms of burnout. Although some of this exercise can be had on family outings, it's probably best to have a program that can be worked on alone. Exercises like running, jumping rope, or working with weights (which can be very beneficial to women as well as men) can be done privately with no need for car-pooling or finding a babysitter. Or a mother may want to schedule a trip to the local health club as part of her weekly "timeout." And one can always do calisthenics along with a TV exercise show. Time alone is therapeutic. Room for privacy is also important. While it may be nearly impossible for parents to afford a house where each child has his or her own room and both parents have some sort of den, sewing room, or whatever, a mother needs a nook or cranny she can call her own — a place where she can at least temporarily have undisturbed privacy. Sometimes evening walks alone can be helpful in this respect.
A Priceless Opportunity
It cannot be emphasized enough that marriage and motherhood can be a tremendous opportunity for growth and character development — and this, after all, is our purpose for being here. Without daily problems and challenges to face openly and honestly, life would indeed be boring and purposeless. Each individual family and each mother will have to come up with their own particular strategy for coping with the possibility or the reality of burnout in their lives. Not all of the above suggestions will work for everybody; nobody's situation is exactly the same. But given enough creative thought, love and support, the problem of the burned-out mother can be resolved.
RECOMMENDED READING • Parent Effectiveness Training, Dr. Thomas Gordon (New York: Peter H. Wyden) • What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women, Dr. James Dobson (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.) • Reality Therapy, Dr. William Glasser (New York: Harper and Row)