“Mom-Burnout”: The Impact of Intensive Mothering on High-Achieving Women of Color

May 10, 2024

Vanessa Leveille

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I'm a therapist-mom who writes in hopes of helping moms of color navigate the matrescence journey and create a more harmonious and fulfilling life.

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Hi, I'm vanessa

Feeling the pinch of “mom burnout”? You’re in good company. As a fellow toddler mom and a therapist with over a decade of experience, I’ve got a front-row seat to the highs and lows of what high-achieving mothers of color face during Matrescence

This blog post is about how to navigate the choppy waters of “Intensive Mothering”—an ideology that can suck the joy of motherhood right out of you, leaving you feeling more like a shell than a person. 

We’re going to dive deep into how this affects your mental health, unpack some strategies to manage these enormous demands, and give you actionable steps to reclaim your sparkle in both your personal and professional worlds.

image of black mom tired working at a table on a therapy blog for moms of color

What is “Intensive Mothering”?

The term “intensive mothering” was first introduced by sociologist Sharon Hays in her groundbreaking 1996 book, “The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood.”

Hays shined a light on how cultural ideals push moms to strive for perfect parenting. At its heart, intensive mothering is about putting your kiddo’s needs first, always, even at the risk of self neglect. It expects moms to be the primary, all-in, emotionally-tuned-in caregivers.

While admirable, and often what many moms aspire to— giving and doing the best for their children, intensive mothering is a lot. Sounds exhausting? It is. It’s emotionally, physically, and financially draining.

This ideology, Hays argued, sets sky-high standards that can lead to significant stress and self-sacrifice for mothers.

It can take a toll on your mental health and personal identity. Getting lost in the role of “mom” under the weight of intensive mothering can lead to serious “mom burnout.” 

It’s not just about being physically tired—it’s about feeling completely overwhelmed and losing touch with who you are beyond motherhood. The mental health stakes are high: increased anxiety, depression, and a major loss of personal identity are all too common for moms striving to meet these relentless standards.

And, let’s peel back another layer. 

For moms of color, these expectations are dialed up even more thanks to cultural pressures. Whether it’s adhering to traditional roles that are celebrated and strictly enforced, or juggling added responsibilities like family care, community involvement, or religious duties—these all add complex layers to an already intense set of expectations.

Intersectionality and Its Effects

Let’s talk intersectionality—how your race, gender, and career form a complex cocktail that uniquely shapes your experience. 

For high-achieving women of color, these elements deeply impact every corner of life: motherhood, career ambitions, and personal identity, and introduces unique challenges. 

Professional environments often throw up barriers for women of color, which only get tougher when mixed with motherhood expectations. You might face discrimination or find yourself hitting a glass ceiling that seems just out of reach (think: the motherhood penalty). Plus, cultural expectations might nudge you toward a traditional mothering model that’s at odds with modern career demands, brewing a perfect storm of tension between your professional and personal lives.

Balancing these roles is no joke.

The constant tug-of-war to meet the perfect mothering standards while chasing career goals can feel like you’re always coming up short. This balancing act often means making trade-offs, and it can feel like success in one area sacrifices success in another. 

It’s not just about time management; it’s about identity management—figuring out who you are as a professional, a mother, and an individual, all rolled into one can help with “mom burnout”.

Getting a grip on these challenges is crucial. It’s not just about finding more hours in the day—it’s about reshaping expectations and structures that define what success looks like in both your work and home life.

The Tangible “Mom Burnout” of Intensive Mothering on Mental Health

Intensive mothering is a daily reality that can rattle your mental health and overall well-being causing “mom burnout”. Picture this: every day kicks off with you already lagging behind. 

From the moment your day starts, you’re sprinting through a marathon of getting kids ready, fielding work responsibilities, and tackling household chores, all while striving to hit a mark of mothering perfection that feels like a constant moving target.

This, as discussed in the Huffington Post, often leaves high achievers feeling irritable and emotionally drained, struggling under the weight of compounded expectations.

Here are some ways in which you may feel the impact of Intensive Mothering:

Emotional Exhaustion and Stress:

For too many moms, the relentless drive to excel both at home and at work culminates in emotional exhaustion and “mom burnout”. You might find yourself feeling down, or withdrawn, which doesn’t just dim your own light but can strain the bonds you have with your kids and partner. It’s like being stuck on an escalator going nowhere—you’re putting in the work but not making the progress, leaving you drained and frustrated.

Loss of Personal Identity:

One of the most profound casualties of intensive mothering is your personal identity. It’s all too easy for the ‘mom’ role to eclipse who you are as an individual. Over time, you might notice your personal interests and ambitions slipping away, making you feel like a spectator in your own life.

Anxiety and Guilt:

Then there’s the anxiety and guilt—the constant worry about whether you’re making the right choices or if you’re contributing enough at work. This often comes hand-in-hand with guilt over working too much or not living up to your own mothering standards.

Physical Symptoms:

“Mom burnout” it’s not all in your head—intensive mothering stress can manifest physically. You might battle headaches, exhaustion, or sleep issues, all your body’s way of waving a red flag that the pressure is just too much. This part right here is what I see with many of my clients, which is why I take an integrated approach to my therapy work with them [link to holistic therapy page]

These aren’t fleeting feelings; they’re loud and clear signals that intensive mothering is taking its toll. 

Recognizing these signs is your cue to start making changes. 

So What Can You Do About “Mom Burnout”: Practical Tips and Strategies

Mastering the demands of intensive mothering takes more than guts; it takes a game plan and a mindset geared towards self-preservation. 

Intensive Mothering is touching your life more than you realize, and sometimes you may not even be aware of it. It’s everywhere: in coffee talks, across social media feeds, and even in those quiet moments we spend second-guessing ourselves.

Even though this ideology seems all-consuming, we’re not stuck with it. Think of it like this—first, we’ve got to really see it for what it is. Once we know it’s there, we can start tweaking things.

What if we started reshaping what motherhood looks like for us? Imagine setting up boundaries that actually serve our mental health and well-being. It’s about finding what works for you and owning it, rather than letting those external pressures dictate your daily life.

Here’s how to take back control of “mom burnout”and boost your well-being:

Define Your Parenting Manifesto:

Grab a beverage, a notebook, and take a moment to jot down what truly matters to you as a mom. What are your core values? How do you want to feel at the end of the day? This isn’t about crafting the perfect goals; it’s about figuring out what parenting success looks like for you, on your own terms. Once you’ve got it down, this manifesto becomes your north star—guiding your decisions and helping you stay true to your unique parenting style, even when external pressures try to steer you off course.

Create Your ‘Not-To-Do’ List: 

We’ve all got to-do lists a mile long, but what about a not-to-do list? This is all about setting boundaries. Write down the parenting “musts” that you’re going to let go of. Maybe it’s not attending every single bake sale, or maybe it’s saying no to that extra hour of screen time guilt. Whatever it is, give yourself permission to ditch these without remorse. This list can help you push back against the grind of intensive mothering by clearly defining what you won’t let take up your time and emotional energy.

Schedule Weekly ‘Me Time’:

This might sound like a tall order, but hear me out. Block out a weekly slot—just for you, no kids, no partners, just you and whatever fills your cup. Whether it’s a body movement class, reading a book, or just sitting quietly in your favorite cafe, this time is crucial. It’s about reconnecting with yourself beyond your role as a mom and reminding yourself that your needs and interests matter too.

Build a Village: 

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes one to support a mom. Connect with other parents who share your values or have similar parenting styles to what you want that doesn’t look like intensive mothering. This could be through local community groups, online forums, or even just neighbors. Sharing experiences, swapping tips, and sometimes just venting can make a world of difference. You’ll feel less isolated and more empowered to handle the pressures of mothering in your own way.

Prioritizing Self-Care and Professional Help:

Self-care isn’t selfish; it’s essential (I know.. so cliche, but so true). Carve out time for activities that recharge your batteries, whether it’s a daily dose of meditation, a weekly body movement session, or just some quiet time with a good book. And if you find yourself struggling, there’s no shame in seeking professional help. A mom-therapist [link to my homepage] or counselor can offer strategies to manage the pressures of motherhood and work, helping you maintain your sanity and happiness.

These strategies aren’t just about managing motherhood—they’re about transforming it into an experience that’s more fulfilling and less draining. 

By identifying your core values, setting clear boundaries, taking essential personal time, and building supportive networks, you can start to lift the weight of intensive mothering off your shoulders. 

So, while the script of intensive mothering and “mom burnout” is written pretty large, our little rewrites can make a big difference—not just for us but for everyone around us. Every small step we take is a leap towards a more realistic and joyful motherhood journey.

Questions my Therapy Clients Ask Related to “Intensive Mothering”:

How does intensive mothering affect my professional identity?

Intensive mothering can put your professional identity through the wringer, demanding so much time and emotional bandwidth that it feels like there’s little left for career ambitions. For women of color who are high achievers, balancing these expectations means setting clear work boundaries and choosing projects that align with both professional growth and personal fulfillment.

What specific cultural expectations compound the pressures of intensive mothering for women of color?

For women of color, cultural expectations often involve an extra layer of protecting your children from the world at all costs, and not passing down generational traumas. We strive to be perfect, and to do it all for our children, often at their own developmental detriment. Additionally, extra family duties and community involvement, ramp up the demands of intensive mothering. These cultural scripts can complicate your mothering experience, making it crucial to navigate these waters with clearly communicated boundaries and a firm grasp of your own mothering and professional needs.

How can I manage the guilt associated with not fulfilling the intensive mothering ideal?

Tackle mothering guilt by redefining what success looks like for you, not just succumbing to external pressures. Realize that you can’t do everything and that’s okay. Focus on the meaningful interactions you have with your family rather than tallying up the hours spent. By aligning your mothering with your personal values and embracing quality over quantity, you can shed the guilt and embrace a more balanced approach.

Are there any specific mental health risks for high-achieving mothers of color due to intensive mothering?

Yes, high-achieving mothers of color face a slew of mental health challenges from the dual pressures of intensive mothering and maintaining a career, alongside racism and oppression. These can manifest as increased stress, anxiety, and even depression. Early recognition of mental exhaustion and seeking timely therapeutic intervention can be crucial in developing coping strategies that support both mental and emotional well-being.

What support systems are most beneficial for mothers like me?

For the go-getter moms of color, finding support systems that truly understand the unique blend of professional and personal challenges you face is key. Look for networks—professional and personal—that offer not just empathy but also practical resources. Whether it’s a professional women’s group, a mothers’ support network, or online forums, these communities can provide crucial support and valuable insights to help you manage the intense demands of motherhood and career.

How can I maintain a healthy relationship with my partner and family while navigating the demands of intensive mothering?

Maintaining healthy relationships amid intensive mothering and professional commitments involves honest communication and shared expectations. Talk openly with your partner and family about your needs and challenges. Set clear boundaries and share responsibilities—it’s about teamwork. By fostering an environment where duties are distributed and expectations are managed, you can nurture stronger, more supportive family dynamics.

What steps can I take to protect my mental health while striving to meet high standards in both my career and motherhood?

Protecting your mental health involves setting boundaries, practicing regular self-care, and being proactive about mental wellness. Establish clear limits on what you can realistically manage, make time for activities that rejuvenate your spirit, and don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed. Balancing mental wellness with professional and maternal duties is not just possible—it’s essential for your overall happiness and effectiveness in both roles.

How do I reclaim my identity beyond motherhood and professional roles?

Reclaiming your identity outside of motherhood and your professional life means carving out space for your passions and interests. Dedicate time to hobbies and activities that light you up and connect you with your core self. Whether it’s painting, writing, hiking, or anything else that feels just yours, these pursuits can remind you of who you are beyond your roles as a mother and a professional.

Final Thoughts:

Navigating the intense landscape of mothering and career can often feel like an uphill battle, with the pressures of “mom burnout” lurking around every corner. 

But remember, you’re not alone. 

Intensive mothering might feel like a high-stakes game that everyone around us is playing, but it doesn’t have to define your journey as a mom. With the strategies we’ve discussed—from crafting your own parenting manifesto to carving out essential ‘me time’—you’re equipping yourself to push back against overwhelming norms and create a motherhood experience that’s right for you and your family.

Embracing these approaches means not just surviving the daily grind but thriving within it, nurturing a lifestyle where you feel valued not just as a mother, but as a complete individual with dreams, desires, and needs. 

So, as you step forward, carry with you the confidence that you can redefine the expectations of motherhood. Remember, every small step you take is a powerful stride towards a more balanced, joyful, and authentic life.

If you’re ready to start shedding the weight of mom burnout and want to dive deeper into understanding what’s driving your motherhood challenges, I’ve got something for you. Take a moment to check out the “What is causing you to lose yourself in motherhood?” quiz.

This quick quiz is designed to help you pinpoint the culprits behind your motherhood struggles and offer actionable advice on how to tackle them head-on. Don’t wait—take the quiz now and step into a more empowered and balanced version of you.

Seek Support from a Matrescence Therapist

If you’re a mom of color, who is also high-achieving, in Massachusetts or Texas seeking compassionate and culturally informed online therapy to help you navigate postpartum, motherhood, and Matrescence, I invite you to reach out to me. I am a perinatal therapist who specializes in working with moms of color and can provide you with the support and guidance you need to navigate the challenges of Matrescence and feel more self-assured in your motherhood and womanhood.

Fill out the form on my contact page so we can chat more and explore how I can support you on your journey.

Remember, you don’t have to go through this alone. I’m here to help you overcome challenges, thrive as a mother, and discover the strength and resilience that lies within you.

If you want to learn more about the journey of becoming a mother, called Matrescence, download your free guide today and embark on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment.

Click link here to download the free guide.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this blog post. What resonated with you most? What questions do you have? Share your insights and experiences in the comments section below.

Together, we can create a supportive community for moms of color, sharing our journeys, encouraging each other, and finding strength in our shared experiences.

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