Bond through life passages — 30 March 2009
Dealing with women’s nurturing burnout

Women, by the gift of childbearing capacity, have been destined to become society’s primary nurturers. The lifelong practice of putting other people’s needs ahead of their own is exhausting, depleting and often leading to a nurturing burnout.

The term “burnout” was coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in his 1974 book “Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement”. He defined burnout as: “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

The concept of vocational and emotional burnout spawned research about soldiers, firefighters, teachers, physicians, nurses, caregivers and therapists, among other occupations that are highly stressful, involve caring for others and require substantial compassion and empathy for human pain and suffering.

I chose the term “nurturing burnout” to describe an emotional state of some women who have reached a point in their lives where they no longer feel gratified by being nurturers. They describe: depleted energy, extreme fatigue, emotional exhaustion, reduced interest, motivation or drive for their formerly energizing endeavors, and a need for a new self-focused path for their lives.

Though these complaints are akin to some depressive symptoms, these women’s exhaustion is specific to caring for others. They do have enthusiasm, vigor and interest in becoming the recipients of their own nurturing, finding pleasure and satisfaction for themselves and seeking their own inner balance.

These women state that having been there for the mate, the children, the parents, the family and friends, the job, home and all other life’s demands, caused them to abandon themselves. They grieve for their unmet needs, their lack of assertiveness and self-regard, the neglect of their health, interests, or talents. With the sadness comes anger towards those they hold responsible for allowing them to become self-forgetting. Classically, it is the mate who bears the brunt of the woman’s anger about her personal sacrifices and her long unmet needs.

A few of these women abruptly ‘resign’ from all their previous tasks and relationship participation. They retire from doing the chores they always did, disavow relationship accountability, demand their individuation, abstain from intimacy and do so through excessively demanding tone and language. Their mates are often bewildered, hurt, feel unjustifiably accused, abandoned and neglected.

If you are a young woman:

• Be aware of the role you are choosing for yourself. Give in moderation – be a good enough caregiver but not at your own expense.
• Negotiate with your partner sharing caregiving responsibilities. Though it is not part of their primary self-identity, men are suited for compassion, empathy, loving tenderness and caring for others. Invite your mate to share the nurturing. Be specific about how your partner can help you by assisting those you care for.
• Abstain from using others’ needs as justification for becoming a ‘martyr’.
• Do not abandon your health, intellectual, emotional or physical needs. Carve for yourself a part of the total pie of caring you have for others.
• Remember that how you treat yourself today will have a cumulative effect on your happiness, self-esteem and relationship satisfaction in the future.

If you are a mature woman:

• Understand that you have been a product of the era of your youth and maturation and of the values of your parents and grandparents’ generations.
• Do not blame yourself or your mate for the sacrifices you made for those you love. Pride yourself for the excellent job you did as manifested by your family’s benefits.
• Accept that a nurturing burnout is a normal phase of discontent aimed to guide you towards focusing now on self-preservation and happiness.
• You need not be angry, withdraw or retire from your connection to your mate to care for yourself. Renegotiate your role, obligations and privileges with your partner.
• Create your new path that includes and improves your relationship as you venture toward self-actualization.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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