Mindful Moment is a mindfulness column from Psych Central that invites you to look within. Each month features a conversation with a mindfulness expert, plus tools, tips, and inspiration to help you tap into your inner resources to create meaningful change in your life.
Women have traditionally borne the brunt of childcare, which, for many mothers, became more burdensome during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But other research suggests that parenting burnout can affect anyone in a caregiving role. A 2022 report from Ohio State University shows that 66% of working parents have felt exhausted and overwhelmed throughout the pandemic and describes the current state of parental burnout as an “epidemic.”
Why is this the case? Why is it that so many caregivers continue to say “yes” when they might benefit from saying “no”?
For many parents and caregivers, saying no can lead to feelings of guilt. Asking for help might make you question your ability to be effective and productive. But boundary setting can give you a moment for yourself and even benefit everyone around you. Here’s why.
Sex and gender exist on a spectrum. We use “women” and “men” in this article to reflect the terms assigned at birth. However, gender is solely about how you identify yourself, independent of your physical body.
If you’re a parent or caregiver with a lot on your plate, you may feel an obligation to “do it all.” And if saying no or asking for help makes you feel guilty or selfish, you may benefit from learning how to set boundaries.
Latham Thomas, the founder of Mama Glow, a maternal health and education company, believes that many people in caregiving roles feel a “maternal guilt” when it comes to saying no.
I recently spoke with Thomas to learn why boundary setting can be a powerful act of self-care and what parents can do to get started.
What are boundaries and why are they important?
Thomas: A good friend of mine describes our boundaries as fences and says that fences keep good neighbors. This metaphor makes me think about how we design our lives and what we allow within the boundaries of our fencing.
When we’re encountering another person, there are physical boundaries, and then there are emotional boundaries where we’re pulled in directions that are uncomfortable, often to our detriment. It’s important to understand the physicality of where we begin and where we end. And then it’s important to design these invisible but very real boundaries around our persona — our desires, wishes, needs, and sense of self.
The foundation of a boundary is to maintain our safety, dignity, and sense of belonging. If we’re pushed into a place where we compromise our safety or dignity, our boundaries are being transgressed.
When we start to feel trampled, compressed, constricted, or anxious, we feel in conflict with something in our lives. We have to assess and decide how we’re going to maintain our well-being while traversing the delicate nature of boundaries as they relate to our relationships.
In any caregiving role, you’re often giving until you can’t give anymore.
Why is saying ‘no’ an act of self-care for parents and caregivers?
Thomas: I think there’s an archetype that people have for mothers, where there’s this benevolence, giving, and selflessness; a person who has no boundaries in terms of what she will do for her community, her children, or her family.
It’s an archetype that upholds a capitalist framework because we don’t really consider the fact that it doesn’t just take a mother to look after children — it takes an entire family or a village; a caregiving system that helps us to maintain and raise children.
And since we’ve built systems that often put all of the responsibilities onto one parent or caregiver, if that person does something for themselves, the perception is they’ve failed. If they miss a recital, cupcake day, or whatever it is, they feel an enormous amount of guilt because they’re part of a system that’s essentially set them up for failure.
The circumstances for maternal guilt are manufactured. We could have support in place. We could have people who help divide the labor so that it’s not just a mother who’s the crux of the family. But we’re not designing the world that way.
In any caregiving role, you’re often giving until you can’t give anymore. A lot of us have watched other people make sacrifices for us. We’ve seen them give up something, or we were told the story of how someone gave something up for us. So there’s an enormous responsibility we feel we have to carry and shoes we have to fill. We carry the weight of sacrifice and pass it on to our children.
The amount of work that goes into caring for someone is underappreciated.
Are caregivers undervalued and underappreciated?
Thomas: Whether you’re caring for someone of an older age, a child, or someone who’s sick, caregiving is work of the home, and work of the home is not valued in the West.
Many caregiver workers are underpaid and underinsured. And many parents don’t have paid leave in the United States, the only developed nation that doesn’t have a federal paid leave policy.
When you put all of these things together, it sets us up for guilt. Our sense of duty sets us up to have our boundaries transgressed because our boundaries are in conflict with our desires and our responsibilities.
If we designed our lives differently so that a mother or caregiver could have some time to themselves and someone else could look after the children, they wouldn’t be burning out.
We see this lack of support across different fields. Doulas push themselves to the limit, and so do yoga teachers and massage therapists — people who really give so much of themselves and are often undercompensated.
The amount of work that goes into caring for someone is underappreciated, and that leaves a space for resentment, burnout, and guilt, which can erode the spirit over time and make caregiving or parenting feel less fulfilling.
Being of service to others is the most potent way to show up in the world. And yet, look how we treat people who show up in that type of leadership. Caregivers need to feel the love and energy they put in is being reciprocated. They need to feel appreciated.
How does setting boundaries help us be more present with our loved ones?
Thomas: Self-care is something we can work on every day, but you can’t just bubble bath your problems away. It’s about checking in on a moment-to-moment basis and asking yourself what you need.
When you consider your needs from a place of emergence rather than doubt or duty, whatever comes through you is coming from a place of wisdom. You’ll be more responsive to your needs — whether it’s a nap, something to eat, some yoga, or a walk after an intense conversation.
When I first started putting boundaries in place, I realized I didn’t have to sit through somebody’s lecturing or gossiping. I learned I didn’t have to endure conversations like that anymore and became very clear about how I spend my time and energy.
It’s the simple things: I’m not going to overextend myself over a deadline — I’m going to get a good night’s rest, and I’m going to wake up early and get it done when I have optimal energy. I’m going to say “no” when I need to.
When you become more astute at listening to your needs, it teaches people where you begin and where you end.
How can parents and caregivers say ‘no’ without feeling guilty?
Thomas: When you become more astute at listening to your needs, it teaches people where you begin and where you end.
You don’t have to say no to everything, but you can start saying no to certain things. Sometimes, I mark a “red tent” week on my calendar, which is usually aligned with my cycle so that I can rest and be at home. I don’t care who’s in town or what’s happening — the answer is “no” to anything during this week because I’m resting.
I had a conversation recently with Gwyneth Paltrow about work-life balance. She said she doesn’t work on weekends and neither does her staff, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I work on weekends — I should not be working on weekends!” So I decided this was a goal I wanted to work toward. The next thing, of course, is implementing it.
For the most part, I don’t really work on weekends anymore. Sometimes I’m organizing or catching up, but I don’t do work-related outreach or answer work-related texts or emails until Monday. I just let everybody have their weekend, so I can have mine. I taught other people through my behavior without even having a conversation about it. It’s an example of showing people how we want them to engage with us and the culture we want to uphold.
Parents and caregivers can maintain a lot of power by exerting boundaries. You have to voice what your needs are, especially when you have kids. If your needs are not met, you cannot perform at the level that’s desired and at the level you would like to perform at.
For me, that was the self-care practice, because I was able to say to somebody, “This is what works for me,” and “This is how I can show up for you,” and, “This is what my needs are so I can take care of my family.”
Stay soft and move slow.
What helps you to prioritize self-care?
Thomas: I like to remind myself to “stay soft and move slow,” because I’ve been raised by strong women who just plow through and get it done. If I move too fast, I burn out — but softness is the ability to bend and not break.
I’m always thinking about how I can stay soft. How can I keep my body and mind soft, pliant, and flexible? How can I respond to this moment in a soft and flexible fashion? If I’m hard and encased in armor, I can’t be flexible, and I can’t respond with ease or graciousness.
A big part of it is un-busying ourselves and doing the things we love with joy. When we slow down, we allow our needs to come to the surface. It could be any practice — yoga, meditation, painting, singing, poetry.
Sometimes, I put on music and start dancing to let the energy move through me. But when I’m moving too fast or when I can’t think straight or come to a solution, I like to lie down, un-busy myself, and get quiet.
According to Thomas, getting in touch with your needs won’t happen by just sitting in front of the computer and trying to think your way through it. Tuning into what it is you really need happens when you make time to slow down.
A short practice to get in touch with your needs
- Lie down on your back to recharge — because we’re all doing too much.
- Breathe deeply and allow the breath to move through you. Even if the kids are around running around you, just lie down and welcome the grounding energy of the earth beneath you. Start to slow down and find stillness in your body and mind.
- Allow thoughts about what your needs are to come to the surface. Try asking yourself, “what do I need to thrive in this moment?” This may look like support or solutions around managing all that’s on your plate.
- Stay here for as long as you need to (or are able to).
- Sit up and take a few moments to write down what came up during the experience before you jump back into the busyness of the day. If you’re having trouble getting clarity on what it is you need, you may wish to consider the journaling prompts below.
Journaling prompts for reflection
If you think about your life in terms of design, it can serve as a reminder that you have some say in how it plays out.
Here are a few journaling prompts to help you get in touch with your needs and design your support system:
- In what ways can I expand my capacity to receive?
- What does designing support look like for me?
- How can I establish healthy boundaries to support my mental health?
- What does constraint feel like in my body? What does it feel like in my body to be liberated?
- Who do I need to engage to create a safety net of support?
Boundaries create personal space, which can, in turn, help us to show up for our loved ones with our best foot forward.
While parents and caregivers may require different boundaries than others, remember that getting in touch with what you need and voicing your needs to others can help you avoid burnout.
Anyone in a service role gives so much time and energy, and it’s important to honor their needs and show up for them when you can. Having empathy toward those who give so much of themselves to the work they do can help them feel appreciated, valued, and loved.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
After giving birth to her son Fulano in 2003, Latham Thomas set out on a mission to help women reclaim birth. A graduate of Columbia University & The Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Latham is a maternity lifestyle maven, world-renowned wellness leader, master birth doula, and founder of Mama Glow, a global maternal health and doula education company. Named one of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul 100, Latham is bridging the gap between optimal wellness, spiritual growth, and radical self-care and is the go-to-guru for a modern holistic lifestyle for women. She authored the bestselling book titled, “Mama Glow: A Hip Guide to a Fabulous and Abundant Pregnancy,” and the recently published bestseller “OWN YOUR GLOW: A Soulful Guide to Luminous Living and Crowning the Queen Within.” Latham serves on the TUFTS University Nutrition Council and is also a member of the Well + Good Council where she provides expertise in women’s wellness, pregnancy, and self-care. In 2018, Latham released the meditation audio program, MEDITATIONS: Guided Meditations and Rituals for Rest and Renewal. She teaches at universities and teaching hospitals around the country, helping to improve the patient labor and delivery experience.
Andrea Rice (she/her) is an award-winning journalist based in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a staff writer for PsychCentral, she covers mental health news and trending topics. Her work has appeared in news outlets such as The New York Times and INDY Week, and wellness publications such as Yoga Journal, Verywell, and mindbodygreen. As a yoga and meditation teacher since 2010, Andrea’s book, The Yoga Almanac, offers seasonal practices to nourish the body and mind. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter, and read more of her work on her website.