Everyone is tired right now. Like, really tired. Anxiety and stress levels are skyrocketing due to disruptions wrought by the pandemic, and the World Health Organization has even entered burnout into its classification of diseases. But the truth is that moms are suffering the most.
Between March 2020 and February 2021, the amount of unpaid labor performed by women increased a startling 153%. Managing remote schooling, caregiving during a public health crisis, job demands—these are just some of the factors that have contributed to an unprecedented “exhaustion gap” for mothers, characterized by extreme fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, and the boredom that results from never having a chance to recharge. “Women are putting themselves last,” explains Jennifer DaSilva, president of Berlin Cameron, the creative agency that spearheaded a new study called Exploring the Exhaustion Gap, and it’s taking a toll.
“Women might get more sleep,” says Kelly Murray, a Chicago-based certified adult sleep coach who works with executives, corporations and families. “But it’s poorer quality sleep than what men get.”
Although studies show that on average women get 11-13 more minutes sleep per night than men, we are not, in fact, better rested. That’s because women are 40% more likely to develop insomnia during their lifetimes and twice as likely to experience sleep disruptions. We’re also disproportionately responsible for handling children’s nighttime wake-ups, and experience hormone fluctuations from puberty through childbearing years and into menopause that can complicate sleep. “Women might get more sleep,” says Kelly Murray, a Chicago-based certified adult sleep coach who works with executives, corporations and families. “But it’s poorer quality sleep than what men get.”
Women are also more susceptible to exhaustion and burnout because we shoulder more of the mental load of family life and have less choice regarding how we spend our time. “As a society, we protect and value men’s time more than women’s,” says Eve Rodsky, author of Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (And More Life to Live), who partnered with DaSilva to research the exhaustion gap.
“We’re not used to wasting men’s time,” says Rodsky. Meanwhile, women are taught to believe that our time is infinite and flexible—and that tricks us into believing myths like women are better multitaskers.
That’s why we laugh, Rodsky tells SheKnows, when we imagine a carpool line of 30 dads instead of moms. “We’re not used to wasting men’s time,” says Rodsky. Meanwhile, women are taught to believe that our time is infinite and flexible—and that tricks us into believing myths like women are better multitaskers. “Saying things like ‘In the time it takes me to tell my husband how to do it, I could do it myself’ is how women end up doing $1.9 trillion of unpaid labor annually,” Rodsky argues.
According to the new study, 68% of women are feeling burned out, while 57% are experiencing more stress. In addition, almost 40% of women never or rarely have the chance to do something for themselves because they’re spending 60% of the week doing things for others. To cope, women are increasingly turning to unhealthy distractions such as stress eating, binge watching, late-night revenge procrastination and increased alcohol consumption, all of which further deplete our energy reserves and are compounding our malaise. “The problem isn’t that women lack motivation,” says DaSilva, “but rather that many of us just don’t have the energy right now that we did before the pandemic.”
For moms to find genuine relief, big changes need to happen. Decision makers and corporations need to acknowledge the pressures women face and implement policies (such as more generous parental leave and flexible scheduling) that can help offset them. Fathers can contribute by taking on their fair share of housework and chores — plus the mental load that goes with them.
“Men need to cultivate an ownership mindset [toward household tasks] from start to finish so that women’s cognitive labor can decrease and we can stop being so anxious, overwhelmed and bored,” says Rodsky. “They need to finally step into their full power in the home so that women can step into their full power in the world.”
Taking a break from the things that are tiring us out — namely responsibilities associated with parenting, our careers and sometimes even our partners — can also help mothers close the exhaustion gap. We just need to permit ourselves to do so.
“We’ve been ‘allowed’ to strive for professional excellence, to take care of our partners, and to parent our children,” Rodsky says. “But we’ve been conditioned to not give ourselves permission to be unavailable from these roles.”
As women, “we’ve been ‘allowed’ to strive for professional excellence, to take care of our partners, and to parent our children,” Rodsky says. “But we’ve been conditioned to not give ourselves permission to be unavailable from these roles.”
To flip the script, mothers need to carve out space to identify and enjoy what Rodsky calls a “unicorn space,” or an activity that allows you to satisfy a curiosity, connect with others, and relish the satisfaction of actually completing something (which something moms don’t always get to experience!). So go ahead and try that yoga class or enroll in a language course. Take a walk with friends or read a juicy novel during the day without feeling guilty. The idea is to temporarily unplug from the stressors in our lives and recharge our batteries with something that fills us with the feeling of I can’t believe I did that! “That spark of rejuvenation and surprise … that is the antidote to the overwhelming boredom and exhaustion,” says Rodsky.
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