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Unfortunately, moms often believe that they’re supposed to be a never-ending fountain of compassion for their children. We’re supposed feel our children’s pain and adequately express our empathy so they feel heard, understood, safe, and loved.
But, what happens when the compassion well runs dry? How do you know when you’re running low on compassion? How do you refill your compassion supply as a mom?
When Moms Suffer From Compassion Fatigue
Part of the reason I left the practice of family therapy was due to compassion fatigue. Even though I was familiar with what compassion fatigue felt like it took me a couple more years to realize I also suffered from motherhood-related compassion fatigue.
One day, when my boys were around 13, 11, and 9, I suddenly realized that I could go hours or maybe even a whole day at a time without having to express empathy for someone’s stubbed toe, hurt feelings, or other pain (real or imagined). I thought back to the days of emotional Whack-a-Mole when one child would finish crying just in time for another one to start. Or, the more likely scenario, two or more children would be upset at once.
I don’t know when all of the crying stopped. I’m sure it lessened each time one of the boys turned seven. That’s when parenting starts to get easier, after all. I only know that when I look back over the early years of parenting I know for certain that I dealt with compassion fatigue and that I had no support for that aspect of motherhood.
Why Do Moms Get Compassion Fatigue?
If you’re a mother of young children you deal with tears and tantrums from morning to night. Even though having children is rewarding there is no give-and-take when it comes to emotional support. When your best friend needs a shoulder she is also prepared to lend a shoulder if you need one. Your children can’t (and shouldn’t) be a source of emotional support for you, however.
This makes the mother-child relationship quite one-sided. (At least for a time. Eventually, they may become our caregivers, right?) Children’s need for emotional support occurs many times per day which makes caregiving really intense.
As mothers we’re ready to dole out empathy all day every day and we believe we should never run out of cares to give. A kind and gentle mother doesn’t respond to her child with, “I told you that would happen!” or “You did it to yourself.” Even when that’s exactly what she’s thinking.
We can’t say to our children, “Hey, it’s 9 AM and I’ve already dealt with a scraped knee, a splinter, four sibling squabbles, two complaints about snacks, three tantrums each from two different children, your spilled milk, your sister’s stomach virus, and your big feelings about sharing the iPad. I know you’re having a moment because your blankie is in the washing machine, but I’m going to take a hot shower and eat a piece of chocolate before mommy turns into a monster. We’ll talk about the blankie later.”
Yeah. That’s not acceptable, right? You stay in the moment and reflect their feelings and show them that you understand their grief. But, that shower and that chocolate would go a long way toward helping us keep our sanity – if only we could have them before our compassion well ran dry.
Of course, I don’t want to make light of the importance of showing our children empathy. It’s vital for our children’s emotional development to provide a soft place for them to express their feelings and be heard and understood. I’m just saying it’s a near constant job and compassion burnout in motherhood is a real thing.
Day after day and year after year of physical and emotional caregiving is exhausting. We hear about nurses, therapists, and other helping professionals getting compassion fatigue. We hear about compassion fatigue among those who provide care for elderly parents or special needs children. We know the importance of respite care in those situations. But we don’t often acknowledge or even see our own motherhood-induced compassion fatigue.
Do You Have Motherhood-Related Compassion Fatigue?
According to Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, the symptoms of compassion fatigue include excessive blaming, bottled up emotions, isolation, excessive complaining, substance abuse, compulsive behaviors, poor self-care, physical ailments, apathy, concentration issues, and mental and physical exhaustion. There are more symptoms that you can read about on the CFAP website, but I chose the ones that are more likely to occur because of motherhood compassion fatigue.
I believe some of the symptoms are more extreme than others. If you’re in the beginning stages of motherhood-related compassion fatigue you might experience excessive blaming and complaining or bottled up emotions and isolation. Mental and physical exhaustion are likely a part of the first stages of compassion fatigue, as well.
If you don’t experience relief as time goes on, you might move into poor self-care, physical ailments, apathy and difficulty concentrating.
The symptoms of compassion fatigue may further lead to substance abuse, compulsive behaviors, and even relationship troubles.
Do you have compassion fatigue as a mom? Think about your answers to the following questions:
Do you feel anger toward your partner for not doing enough to help you with the children? Do you blame your partner for how difficult your day-to-day life has become? (It might be true that your partner isn’t doing enough to help. This may be part of the reason you’re suffering from compassion fatigue.)
Do you feel resentment toward your children for being so needy? (You might not say it out loud or act upon it.)
Do you often complain about how difficult motherhood is? Or, have you stopped talking about the difficulties altogether because it feels pointless or because you feel guilty for your feelings?
Do you avoid interaction with other adults because the thought of it no longer brings you joy or feels like another demand you? Do you feel like you’re drowning in the act of mothering and it’s all you have time or energy for?
Do self-care actions such as showers, brushing your teeth, eating a balanced diet and other basics feel like a chore? Do you do them anyway or go days between – even when you have enough time to quickly accomplish them?
So you feel apathy, a lack of joy, and have difficulty concentrating?
Do you suspect you have issues with substance misuse or even abuse, sugar or carb addiction, compulsive shopping, or other addictive, obsessive, or compulsive behaviors?
Are your relationships with other adults (partner, parents, siblings, friends) difficult or deteriorating? Do you feel like the only relationships that matter are those you have with your children?
How to Deal With Compassion Fatigue as a Mother
If you’re thinking, “Whoa! Some of those questions list examples that are extreme! Sure, I’m tired all the time and a little overwhelmed by parenting, but I’m not an alcoholic and I don’t hate my husband . . . yet.” Well, that’s when you need to start paying attention to how you feel. If you’re in the beginning stages of compassion fatigue or burnout, you’re still in great shape to do something about it. For those of you who relate to the more severe symptoms (the ones that sound a lot like depression and anxiety because, well, they are) you may need help from a professional to feel better.
If you’re just starting to notice that something is off and you suspect you may have motherhood-related compassion fatigue, here are my best tips for moving back into a place of appropriate, non-consuming compassion for your children.
- Realize that you are not responsible for your children’s happiness.
- Discover if you are an empath with this empath quiz – if you are you’ll need to be aware of your tendency to deeply feel the pain of others and learn to protect yourself. This doesn’t mean you become a compassion-less mother. It means you learn to stop internalize the pain of others so that you can be an emotionally-whole, truly helpful mother.
- Share the burden. Ask for help. Take help when it’s offered. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I know all too well that many of us who practice attachment parenting also have a “I can do it all by myself” attitude when it comes to mothering.
- Make time for self-care. Even if that means the baby cries in someone else’s arms while you do it. In the long run your children will be better served by an emotionally healthy mama than a zombie-martyr mom who was merely there all the time.
- Tell someone how you feel. Be honest about how hard mothering is. Be honest about how hard it is to be the sole emotional support for another human being – or multiple human beings. It’s okay to say it. It doesn’t mean you love your children any less. It doesn’t mean you don’t empathize with their pain, no matter how big or seemingly small it looks from the outside. It’s a relief just to be honest about how hard it is.
We often fail to see our own compassion fatigue as mothers. I’ve noticed that those of us who tend toward an attachment parenting mindset also tend to dismiss our own needs as mothers. It’s as if we expect ourselves to be superhuman.
If we had a loved one who required our empathy as much as our children do – over every small thing – we’d eventually find a way to avoid that person. It would be a smart move for our own emotional health. No one would fault us. Of course, we can’t avoid our children and their need for our empathy, but we can make it easier on ourselves by admitting how difficult it can be and by doing what we can to shore up our supply of compassion instead of forcing ourselves to run on empty. We, and the precious souls we’re raising to be emotionally-whole adults, will be better for it.
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