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Do You Have Caregiver Fatigue?

Photograph by Twenty20

Caregiver Fatigue is a familiar term in elder care circles, but it's not one most moms have heard of. It is what it sounds like, though. It's "when a caregiver's emotional and physical reserves are so drained from caring for others that it's hard to feel emotionally and physcially balanced, Caregiver Fatigue sets in," explains Carrie Contey, Ph.D., a parenting expert and family coach based in Austin, Texas. "In other words, caregivers can become so depleted that they have a tough time functioning."

Moms, particularly stay-at-home moms with young children or those whose kids have special needs of any kind, are particularly susceptible. We LOVE our kids and want to give the best of ourselves to them, but when sleep deprivation rears its head or when life otherwise falls way off balance, our own needs often fall far behind other priorities. This makes exhaustion and burnout real threats to our own—and thus our family's—well-being.

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"Caregiver Fatigue most often looks like extreme exhaustion. It can also manifest as anxiety, fear, self-doubt, sadness, anger and guilt," Contey says. In fact, these types of feelings should be recognized as red flags that a mom is more than simply tired. Cotney adds that "if the caregiver is starting to hear a lot of negative self-talk, that's a clear sign of deep fatigue and that some form of self-care is necessary."

Of course, what self-care looks like for most people may be impossible in the context of full-time parenting. It's tough to take a few days—let alone a few minutes—off when your very-small people depend on you for, well, absolutely everything they need. And on top of logistical challenges, many moms face emotional barriers to self-care, as well. "Unfortunately, there's a widespread cultural message that says self-care is selfish," says parenting coach Suzi Lula. "Moms are led to feel guilt and shame around the idea of caring for themselves in any meaningful way. But, of course, they must."

Then, moms need to take action to help themselves to not just hang in there and keep the kids alive but to, you know, get back in the saddle and thrive.

First, moms must grant themselves permission to check in and acknowledge their own internal states. "Mothers can begin to attune themselves to their own 'energy tank,' says Lula. "Are they running on full or empty?" Noticing the red flags—the negative self-talk, the irritability, feelings of resentment or frustration —is crucial. Then, moms need to take action to help themselves to not just hang in there and keep the kids alive but to, you know, get back in the saddle and thrive.

Contey recommends "small, medium and large fill ups depending on how dysregulated and overdone moms are." Sometimes simply pausing, acknowledging aloud how you're feeling, and breathing deeply – taking all of 30 seconds— is enough to lower stress levels. Other quick fill-ups that can stave off a meltdown include stepping outside, shifting your focus (Contey recommends pointing to and saying the names of ten objects in the room), or, if another adult is around, making eye contact or asking for a hug.

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Medium fill-ups that moms can work into their daily routines can include showering alone, making tea, listening to music or meditating. And, of course, making regular time for the big things like calling in childcare backup to take a date night or a nap, which can make all the difference in the world.

Contey adds, however, that "if the caregiver feels like they are in a crisis, it's important to reach out for support from a therapist or counselor."

So stay strong, super moms! And take care of yourselves, because Caregiver Fatigue is real, and you're kind of a big deal.

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