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Burnout: The Nemesis of Motherhood

A working mother's real story to breaking point... and the journey back to wholeness.

Image credits: Luvena & Lionel Rangel
Image credits: Luvena & Lionel Rangel

A mother’s work is never done! Wiser words were never spoken. Well, wiser words might have been spoken – I might not have been listening! All I knew was that I was expected to manage my career, children and marriage in a new country without a support system – and manage it perfectly.

I had just returned to work after maternity leave – back to my 12 hour shifts. I was breastfeeding a 6-month old and catering to the needs of a 4 year old. My baby was a light sleeper and woke for her feed every hour and a half. It would have impossible for me to work day shifts in that sleep deprived state. So I opted to work 12 hour night shifts from home for the next six months instead.

The Sleep Factor

The problem, however, was that I wasn’t able to catch up on sleeping during the day either! My son’s school bus arrived at 6.30am! Breakfast, lunch boxes, uniform, shower and the bus stop run often accompanied by tantrums was a nightmare! The rest of my morning would include naps between feeds, quick lunches, chores and keeping up with my baby. After my son returned from school things would get busy with activities, school work, getting his dinner organized. Before I knew it, it was time for my shift.

It wasn’t a healthy dynamic, this ‘mom thing’ but it is the bane of many Indian families where patriarchal stereotypes perpetuate a gendering of parenting tasks.

Building Stress

Those months also saw me rush to the ER at least ten times as my daughter managed to dislocate her elbows frequently while learning to roll over. By the time I began setting her Nanny’s elbow episodes, my son fractured his arm during playtime.

A week thereafter, he got his cast wet!

He actually wet his cast!

How? He went playing with his friend and the two of them decided that the neighborhood mosque’s courtyard needed cleaning, so the boys decided to wash it. Yes, the hilarity of the situation is not lost on me in hindsight.  Back then, I was at my wits’ end!

Those days, I was clocking an average of about 3 to a maximum of 4 hours of sleep collectively – not at a stretch. I was exhausted, cranky and short tempered. My son’s playfulness was intolerable and left my nerves raw and grating. I was an ace performer at the office, but at home I was like a ticking timebomb.

By late 2007, my body was screaming in pain. Every inch of my body was hurting. I developed painful cysts in my wrist limiting my movement – sometimes making it difficult to even hold a spoon! I had no idea what was wrong but I put off visiting my doctor.

The Last Straw

My husband was in Turkey at the time for an extended work assignment. My son just had another week to have his arm cast taken off. I had almost given up on normalcy. Honestly, I might have been justified in doing so. One evening my son came running back home from the playground having stepped on a piece of broken glass that went through his Crocs!

The ensuing chaos that day was the absolute last straw. I somehow gathered the strength to think straight, dress the wound and drive to the ER. My body was screaming and my head was a numb wreck of shrieking silence. The silence scared me. I knew I needed help.

Doctor Healer

My doctor ran me through a series of tests. Every single one of them came out absolutely clear. After taking note of my diet, lifestyle and routine, he paused to look at me intently. I was worried that something was seriously wrong with me.

He pulled out his prescription pad and spoke aloud as he wrote:

Get a massage or two. Sleep Well. Drink lots of water.

“All you need is sleep and rest.”, he said and asked me to see him in a week’s time.

I realized how I had never considered how much I was doing and how little I was resting. I had stopped making myself a priority.

Time to heal

I insisted my husband get back home on the next flight, left the kids in his care and took a break from everything. Over the next week, I just allowed my body to eat, sleep, get massaged, and just be nourished.

At the end of the week, my pain had disappeared. It took the cysts a few more weeks to subside, but they did.

Looking ahead

It’s been 12 years since. I’ve learnt to understand my body better. Pain and tightness are my indicators to slow down – sometimes even from loving too much. It isn’t easy being a single parent. But I recognize the need to prioritize my own wellbeing.

It all boils down to self care. To care for others I need recharge too. I take my sleep very seriously and rectify any backlog within a week. I sometimes forget that kindness begins with me – so I give myself some more TLC whenever I remember. Daily yoga and meditation are my soul food.

And, of course, I pause often. It helps me the most.

Burnout is real – and it is ugly. A mother’s work is never done, but burnout doesn’t have to be the price we pay for it.

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