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Diagnosis: Burnout

All work and no play was making one very crabby mom.
By Janel Breitenstein


I felt it descending rapidly—fiercely.

My symptoms?

Exhausted. Depressed. Sense of futility (I swear I just emptied this dishwasher. I am cleaning a house that is never actually clean. I am so tired of looking at laundry that maybe I should just let you run around in your underwear next week).

Resentful (Hi. Please do not ask me to do anything for you).

Irritable (No! You may not have a drink! I mean yes. [Sigh.] Yes. You can have a drink).

Sick from the same cold for two weeks.

And the feeling that my task list wasn’t facilitating my life; it was becoming my life.

Diagnosis: Burnout.

All work and no play was making one crabby mom. I had been working at one thing or another until 10:30 on most nights: folding laundry; helping out with that little task from the ministry where I work; prepping activities for my kids; responding to requests for small favors. That may sound very noble of me. If so, please see above paragraph.

I’m a stay-at-home mom who volunteers one day a week (technically, although that oozes over to the other six days, which in truth, I like). Add that to the homemaking, homeschooling, Sunday school teaching, freelance writing, loving on people, etc., etc. … and if I weren’t doing all this at home, you might accuse me of being a workaholic.

I don’t think that I’m alone. Looking around, it seems that exhausted Christian women are the somewhat-admired norm.

But my husband, my perennial protector, was not about to stand idly by while I worked myself into the ground. In gentle words both strange and familiar, he pointed out, “You know, you can’t expect people to say no for you, or to not ask. If you can’t say no, having too much to do is your fault.”

True. But … okay. True.

But, I explained to him between wide gestures and tears, I have a hard time rationalizing my own rest and enjoyment if me saying “no” means someone else is up a creek without a paddle.

Why am I doing this?

Which brought me to the real question of why I was going down in flames. Yes, I was overcommitted and working my tail off for good, even great things. But why in the world was I doing this?

I needed to spend some intentional time in prayer. It was clear I needed to hush my multitasking mind and allow God to show me what was going on in my heart. How, and why, had my schedule come to the point that I was being self-destructive? And destructive, also, to the very people I was working to serve—particularly my family? Sometimes I felt acutely the tension that, in my pursuit of doing all the best things in every category, I actually ended up losing what was important.

Many of the reasons that I can't seem to just stop working are very good ones: Significantly more demands than I have resources; longing to serve God with every bit of the resources He's given; helping people; wanting to be the Proverbs 31 woman to my family, to name a few. But like Paul, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21). My very good reasons morph, twisting themselves into godless heart conditions that quietly work their destruction on me and those I love. For example:

1. I realized that allowing my task list to churn late into the night, eating lunch standing up, constantly multitasking, etc., was feeding my martyr complexIt's that strange but highly errant sensation that if I'm uncomfortable or suffering to some degree, I am a better person. In the Garden of Eden and in heaven, there is no record of suffering. It’s not part of God’s original intent for His creation. Since sin entered the world, it’s an instrument directed toward His vast purposes. Suffering is not an end in itself; in my understanding, God did not create us to desire suffering, but rather to desire the purposes beyond it.

2. Serving others made me look goodIt put me in the "giver" position, rather than the humble role of receiving. Martha and Peter are my biblical co-laborers in this. Working feeds my insatiable pride, my self-righteousness, and my desire for respect.

3. I was seeking validation from other sources rather than from God alone.  My overworking made me feel more important, more worthy, more in control. In that way, it subverts the power of the gospel in my life. I depend on something else to save me, something other than Jesus' work to make me "saveable" in His eyes. I try to bring something else to the table rather than grace through faith. Working can cement the idea that I am earning God's favor—rather than Christ's work gaining my favor with God.

4. I was  working out of fear, not trusting God's ability to provide for me—His ability to give me the time I need to accomplish what He's asked of me (and nothing more). In truth, when I'm doing "more" than He asks, it's stepping out of His will. I am doing less than His best for me. My labor can become an active worry—though in my mind, it's more of an active concern, or concerted effort. This is the worry of laboring and spinning rather than trusting that, like He does for the lilies, God will supply my needs. After all, each day has enough trouble of its own. My work can proceed from fear rather than faith.

The effects of overwork

The problem is that toiling away can turn me into a profound "elder brother" like the one in the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s the character of one lacking compassion, full of arrogance and contempt as I labor beneath a burden of my own making—not unlike Martha’s angst toward Jesus and her sister Mary.  (If you think you can identify, I recommend Timothy Keller’s excellent book, The Prodigal God.) Denying myself rest can withhold me from sitting at Jesus' feet, so to speak. It prevents me from taking the time to listen and enjoy God like Mary did.

Overwork also kept me from enjoying some truly great gifts—my family—as well as the knowledge of God's goodness, the sheer joy of Him. I've missed moments of prayer, of laughing, of enjoying my kids that I will never redeem in this life. I've foregone opportunities for relationships and for adoring God rather than chafing under a burden I've created in His Name. I even jeopardize what my kids think success looks like: “Well, to start with, I need to be busy!”

The same God who created me to work and take care of my family also repeatedly associates Himself with rest. He commands me to rest, created me to rest not only every seven days, but one-third of every day. And I have a reputation for not listening. Simply sitting down, doing little but savoring something God created me to enjoy seems to necessitate a sturdy roll of duct tape (with a strip for my mouth—and one for my brain, if they make those).

This weekend, God gently encouraged me to abandon an escalating heap of dishes, a basket of unfolded whites, un-vacuumed stairs, and unanswered e-mail for a round of family hide-and-seek, a nap, and a little dance with my son to some music. I also carved out some leisurely time with God making sure I was getting my thirst truly quenched—and from the right source.

Interestingly enough, patience and joy came much easier to me this weekend. I also got to laugh loudly with my kids, because when big people play hide-and-seek, parts of them stick out.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad way for a slightly crispy mom to spend a weekend. Pass the duct tape, would you?

Copyright © 2011 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family. 



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