Exhausted + Burned Out: Finding My Break In The Work From Home Era

mom working in background with child playing
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

I know I’m not alone when I say I am overwhelmed. I am exhausted. I am burned out. 

It started with working from home in March, which was sustainable because the Army wanted my husband working from home as well. Of course, that didn’t last forever. When he returned to work, I was suddenly still working from home…but with two young children.

While it was doable, it was not sustainable.

mom working in background with child playing
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

I was only working part time, but I can count on one hand how many times I had a solid hour to work uninterrupted. I am lucky and grateful my clients were/are understanding that it’s a global pandemic and we are all doing the best we can. Please excuse my two year old.

I was constantly telling my kids to leave me alone and frequently interrupting my clients to tend to the needs of my kids. I lamented to my husband,

I feel like I’m half-heartedly working and half-heartedly mothering and failing at both.

At the end of the day, my two-year-old would take my face in her hands and say, “yay, you’re done! Can we talk to you now?” Heartbreaking (No, she had not stopped talking to me prior to that moment; she just knew she was supposed to stop).

In August, as my oldest returned to school for two days of in-person learning per week, I reluctantly sent my toddler back to the cesspool of germs that is daycare. I was trading the safety of keeping them home for my sanity to work uninterrupted (at least for 10 hours per week). I spread the rest of my work across the remaining three days when I only had one child and her virtual learning requirements to contend with.

However, I was also burned out. Because I never got a break.

Working from home means you never get a reprieve from your dear, sweet family; add in co-sleeping for next level family time.

I envied my husband’s 40-minute (each way!) commute. I envied him doing his work uninterrupted. I envied him exercising, showering, eating, and using the bathroom without children. The only time I was ever away from them was a bi-weekly trip to the grocery store on the weekend. And it wasn’t even the fancy grocery store where it feels pleasant to wander the aisles, because I refuse to pay $8 for ketchup. So that was my “me time:” an hour at Walmart. It was time to re-evaluate my life.

woman breaking down and crying
Photo by Fa Barboza on Unsplash

Overwhelmed by it all, I finally broke down.

I cried, raised my voice, and expressed it all: my jealousy, my exhaustion, my worry about sending them to school, my uncertainty in doing so, and my frustration at the situation. “I need a break!” I yelled. “Then ask for one!” my wise husband replied. 

Well, then. 

This has been an issue for years now. I feel guilty asking for time for myself. I don’t say this to seem like a martyr or as selfless Mom of the Year. I say this to share what an idiot I am. No one has done this to me except me.

I am a therapist, and I regularly preach to my clients that they need to seek out ways to engage in self care. Yet the truth is that I rarely do it for myself.

when a mom says she needs a break
Via @s.l.a.m nation @mrsmegmercier via Instagram

My husband would regularly go on motorcycle rides (before he sold it.) He would let me know if he was meeting a friend for lunch or beers on the weekend. He may get a chance to go out to lunch with coworkers or friends during the week.  Yet I never sought out the same type of activities for myself. I think I erroneously believed that weekends are for family time only.

I was a little better at prioritizing alone time prior to COVID-19; I worked four days a week, and while I often used that day off to catch up on other responsibilities, I did use the time to accomplish things kid-free. And once in awhile (okay, literally, once) I got breakfast by myself. Another time I went with a friend. Once or twice I went to Kohl’s. I would go for a run without pushing a stroller, or to a drop-in gym class. But it wasn’t about the activity necessarily, it was the hours of solitude. 

That is what I have yearned for since March. Solitude.

And this is when I give an air high five and a Katniss kiss to every Mom who never got Mondays of Solitude. You are working full time, or you are staying home with your kids and never getting a break. I hope for your sake you are better than me at making time for yourselves. 

katniss everdeen kiss

But for those of you that feel like you are drowning, that you are on the cusp of a nervous breakdown…ask for help.

This might mean leaving the kids with your spouse/a friend/a babysitter so you can go get a cup of coffee by yourself. It may mean getting a haircut if those are allowed where you live. Maybe you just lock the bedroom door and watch Netflix alone for a few hours. 

I have arranged for a babysitter to come once a week for a few hours. Last week was our first week; I went for a run (without a stroller!), took a shower (alone! Uninterrupted!) and then worked for 3 hours with someone to watch my child. Some weeks I may work more, others I may go sit outside at a local restaurant to enjoy a meal or coffee alone. I am still relatively prudent about where and when I’m willing to go out in public, but I am realizing that occasionally safely entering a half-empty eatery while wearing a mask makes me feel better than sitting home in my safe bubble, slowly losing my mind. 

Likewise, we also got the babysitter to come recently so we could go out for dinner. I thought long and hard and realized the last time we went out together was sometime in 2019. That’s almost a year! Our recent date wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was monumental in that it was the first time we could spend time together without worrying about anyone except each other. Highly recommended. 

I am reminded of a motto I often use with my clients: “Put on your own oxygen mask first.” I recall being baffled at that instruction when I was flying once with my younger siblings.  The idea of putting on MY mask before theirs, as young and helpless as they were, truly dumbfounded me.

But I get it now. You can’t help anyone else if you’re incapacitated yourself. So in order to be able to best care for our loved ones, we have to take care of ourselves first. 

I have asked what other friends do for themselves, and I was told everything from crafting, reading/audiobooks/podcasts, watching Netflix, hiking, scrolling social media, treats you can enjoy at home, bubble baths, driving around alone, coloring, walking the dog, and exercise. 

coffee, snack and e-book for a break
This is me taking a break

For me, this means a babysitter. This means going for a run by myself and not feeling guilty if that means Saturday morning family breakfast is either delayed or canceled. It means putting off chores around the house and reading my book or going to get coffee if I have a break from work. It means spending money on fancy coffee when we have coffee at home. 

Figure out what your more is.

Determine what your oxygen mask looks like (and for the sake of the country, ask “What Would Dr. Fauci Do?” before doing it). But find a way to schedule your break, so you don’t break down.