Lifestyle

Can You Cure Motherhood Burnout? The Germans Seem to Think So

I had been parenting alone for the better part of two years when my doctor, after repeatedly treating me for fatigue, decided to write a unique prescription. A cure, as they say in German. Taking in the air, as we once said in English.

Whatever you call it, the treatment felt luxurious to this American: a three-week time-out with my kid on a quiet, car-free island, paid for by my insurance company. We would stay in a dormitory and I, along with 24 other exhausted mothers, would be taking classes on things like budgeting and stretching as a means of self-care. There would be day care and housekeeping and meal service, so we could concentrate on our lives beyond work and domesticity.

I had no idea what to expect. All I wanted was to see the ocean, watch the waves roll in, spend some time with my kid without work hovering. A vacation, really.

When we arrived on the East Frisian island of Langeoog, a 30-minute ferry ride timed for passage at high tide to keep the boats from running aground, we were met at the dock by a pair of horses drawing an apple cart. We pulled our coats tight against the late summer breeze and hopped into the cart, the horses trotting us down red-bricked streets lined with orange-berried sea buckthorn hedges. We stopped at a low brick building hidden behind the shifting sand dunes on the west side of the island. The drastic difference to our city life was noticeable; without the ambient noise of traffic and freight trains, we could hear the sea grass rustling in the wind.

All I wanted was to see the ocean and spend some time with my kid without work hovering.

Although around 1,800 residents live on Langeoog year-round, everything about the island felt empty upon our arrival. Even the dormitory looked vacant. “The other moms are at the beach,” the counselor who met me at the door said. She handed me a plate of sliced rye bread, raw vegetables, and deli meats—a budget charcuterie. “We saved you some dinner.”

And then, she gave me the rundown. Like everything else in Germany, this cure came highly regimented: There was a small window of time for each meal, which was to be served punctually, and there was no skipping collective meals—not even to taste the locally caught fish at a restaurant in town. The next day, we would get physicals and individualized plans for healing, which we were expected to follow to a T. After an early breakfast, we’d be doing an introductory group session. In the afternoon, we could learn how to speed walk or head to the beach for a round of Kneipping—walking through knee-high freezing water to get our circulation going. So much for chilling on the beach with a book.

But that was all part of the plan, the doctor told me in his office the next day. Routine is key to avoiding mental health woes, and the insurance company doesn’t want the cure to be too vacation like, so they fill up your day with group exercise classes and therapy or targeted health care sessions. If I had eczema, I could cover myself in a mud pack made of worm droppings to treat the itching. Since my main diagnosis was fatigue, I was assigned to guided meditation sessions in the overheated gym, where I had to lie on a padded mat while a Judith Light lookalike slowly recited the names of every muscle in the body before hissing, “Relax.

Like everything else in Germany, this cure came highly regimented.

“You’re smart,” the doctor said. “And you’re fit. Just show up to a few group exercise sessions to check your name off and keep running.”

It didn’t seem like much of a plan, but it left me plenty of time to read Full Catastrophe Living and get to know the other mothers struggling with parenting. Over my years of single parenting, I’d often wondered how other mothers were coping. Were they as tired as I was? Were the marrieds shoving the chores off onto their husbands? How did they still find time to put on makeup every morning? It had gotten depressing pretending to my circle of mom friends that everything was hunky-dory each day when I was sleeping four hours a night and secretly fighting my boss to pay me a living wage.

Going on cure let me know that I wasn’t alone in my exhaustion, even if I was the only one parenting alone, thousands of miles from any family. The cure, which got its start in the rubble of World War II, had been approved for more than 47,000 people the year before the pandemic; another two million people are estimated to be in need of one. Raising a child is clearly exhausting, especially under these circumstances.

Over my years of single parenting, I’d often wondered how other mothers were coping.

Elly Heuss-Knapp, the wife of Germany’s first postwar president, knew this firsthand; raised by a single father after her mother had been committed to an asylum, Heuss-Knapp introduced the concept of sending stressed out mothers to rural places for retreats in the early 1950s. In doing so, she enshrined the needs of women, hundreds of thousands of whom were widowed or dealing with traumatized husbands, into law in a newly formed country whose Constitution did not prioritize the rights of women. After such profound social disruption, the women (who were themselves often traumatized after surviving the war) needed a quiet time-out to grieve in peace and regain a sense of normalcy. Whole towns grew up around these dedicated “cure houses,” and these retreats were enshrined in law.

Though my situation wasn’t in any way comparable to what women went through in postwar Europe, the other mothers I met were certainly going through it. A diverse bunch, the most common issue affecting us was poverty, which was unsurprising given that 90 percent of women in Germany earn less than 2000 euros ($2,300) a month, with 43 percent of single mothers falling under the definition of the working poor. There were others with children whose severe asthma kept them awake all night, those who divided their time between caring for disabled parents and their own children, those whose abusive ex-husbands kept terrorizing them while not paying child support.

My exhaustion felt minor in comparison to what these women were going through—and in retrospect, after living for nearly two years in a pandemic, it feels almost trivial—yet there we all were, bouncing on exercise balls to stabilize our cores while our kids made seashell necklaces in the day care. Although we had very little in common, for the three weeks we were on Langeoog together, it felt nice to be part of a community. Without cars on the roads, we could trust our kids to bike through the village. We knew that every day at dinnertime, without fail, one of us would be in tears, and instead of judgment, we’d get a supportive smile or an ear if we needed it.

Parenting isn’t a disease to treat.

And that counted for more than any of the classes we were expected to attend as part of the insurance company’s programming. Because parenting isn’t a disease to treat. There is no pill to pop, no magic prescription to counteract the stress of modern-day parenthood. As much as the German cure sounds like a luxurious retreat—and time off from everyday bullshit certainly feels luxurious—in its implementation, it often felt as though mothers were shamed for not being able to keep up in a society that’s consistently pushing women down. Who has 30 minutes before bedtime to lie on a mat and listen to a recording of crashing waves when there are dishes in the sink, toys on the floor, inboxes overflowing.

On Langeoog, as at home, I could go for a run each day to clear my head. But that didn’t alleviate the stress of a divorce long drawn out because I couldn’t pay the legal fees. A fellow mother could do back exercises until her belly hurt, but she still wouldn’t earn enough to feed her children. As luxurious as a three-week time-out can seem, this cure felt a lot like applying a children’s Band-Aid to the gaping wound that is modern-day parenting: It might keep the blood from staining your clothes, but it won’t stop the bleeding.

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