I’m going to take a wild guess and say that if you’re a parent with children at home, you’re probably burned out. And you’re not alone.
Studies have been done on workplace burnout before, but starting in 2017, research started popping up on the phenomenon of parental burnout. That was in the Before Times, so I can’t imagine it’s improved now that we've been trying to work/school/stay at home for over a year.
There are so many pieces to this, and layers and layers to consider. I’ll try to be as concise as I can, and actually suggest some solutions to help. Let’s see how I do.
What Is Parental Burnout?
Parental burnout, according to a 2019 study, “is characterized by an overwhelming exhaustion related to one’s parental role, an emotional distancing from one’s children, and a sense of parental ineffectiveness.”
The term burnout was originally coined in the 1970s referencing staff workers. We can argue the semantics of whether or not parenting is a “job,” but it’s certainly a lot of work, and it’s unpaid labor.
Considering that close to 75% of mothers in the US with children under 18 are also part of the workforce, AND in heterosexual couples, women are more likely to be shouldering more of the household burden as well, it’s no wonder we’re burned out.
Symptoms of parental burnout may include:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Physical and emotional exhaustion
- Feeling disconnected from your children
- Feeling like an ineffective parent
For many this can look like “zoning out,” being on our phones too much, acting irritable or controlling, and wanting to “give up.” We’re under stress and don’t manage that well, then there is always more stress to pile on top of it. We can only handle so much.
This definition from the Mayo Clinic was nice and concise: “Stress is your body's reaction to the demands of the world. Stressors are events or conditions in your surroundings that may trigger stress.”
Being a parent is a stressor.
Sleep deprivation is a stressor.
A global pandemic is a stressor.
Financial insecurity is a stressor.
Racial microagressions are stressors.
Why Do Parents Get Burned Out?
The list above is pretty obvious, but let’s get into some of the details.
Lack of Sleep
There’s a reason that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. Someday I will write my manifesto about why “sleep training” is a patriarchal construct, but let’s face it: I’m tired. Lack of sleep can affect your driving as much as drinking alcohol. Insufficient sleep suppresses the immune system and adversely impacts memory. It can also make you irritable which makes it harder to stay patient with your kids and others (apologies to my husband).
Part of this is from trying to do everything--and “everything” is different for each person, but it’s still not possible. It's partially due to the rest of the reasons listed below. Most parents are also led to believe that babies will naturally sleep for long stretches in the first year (and that you can "make" your baby sleep) which simply isn't true. Without adequate parental leave in the U.S., this is a no-win situation.
As someone with a baby who struggled with sleep, I was a total zombie for almost 3 years. Many parents compensate with carbs and coffee, which can lead to adrenal fatigue and exacerbate physical symptoms in a vicious cycle. When we can't get everything done, what do we do? Stay up late. 😴
Lack of Support (Systemic and Personal)
We no longer live in village communities of extended families with elders to pass down their wisdom to us, and many of us live hundreds or thousands of miles from our extended family. Either you, your partner if you have one, or most likely both, work outside the home for many hours, plus commute. We often have to outsource childcare, housework/errands, or both.
A full 25% of birthing parents have to go back to work within just 2 weeks of their baby being born. Since being away from a newborn is not biologically normal, this is very stressful for the parent/baby dyad, but people need to pay their bills--and keep their health insurance! A 2020 study showed that almost 80% of mothers work full-time, and as any working mom will tell you, the pressure to “parent like you don’t have a job, and work like you don’t have kids” is strong.
We’re constantly told to “lean in,” make “me time,” and outsource (usually to other women, often underpaid women of color), but the systems are not set up for working parents to succeed. Then we're told it's a personal failing as a parent, employee, or both.
Since the 1970s (ye olde days of sending kids out to play in the neighborhood until the sun went down) time spent “actively parenting” has steadily increased. We’re driving kids across town for activities and classes and school, commuting farther and farther to work, and everything costs a lot - food, childcare, gas, insurance, and housing.
And somehow we’re supposed to feed our kids a healthy variety of foods, dress them like catalog models, set up crafts like a Pinterest Mom™, throw $1000 birthday parties with themed plastic-free favor bags, and volunteer at their organic forest school on top of working? Oh, and I haven’t even gotten to being an attentive romantic partner who doesn’t visibly age.
We’re constantly being shown everyone else’s highlight reel on social media and told we just need to try harder at everything. That sets us all up to fail.
“The problem with ‘everything’ is that it ends up looking an awful lot like nothing: just one long haze of frantic activity, with all the meaning sheared away. Time has passed so quickly while I have been raising a child and writing books, and working a full-time job that often sprawls into my weekends, that I can’t quite account for it. The preceding years are not a blank exactly, but they’re certainly a blur, and one that’s strangely devoid of meaning, except for a clawing sense of survival.”- Katherine May, Wintering
The pandemic has increased this pressure since so many parents are living, working, and schooling at home with little support. We're expected to continue being productive employees and empathetic parents when most people are just trying to make it through each day.
Pressure to Be Productive at All Times
You’ve probably seen the meme, “Sleep when the baby sleeps; clean when the baby cleans.” While it IS funny, it’s also symptomatic of our capitalist cultural inability to value rest. We often have to frame rest as a productivity tip! There’s so much pressure to be productive at all times, but a lack of sleep (as mentioned above) heavily contributes to burnout.
It’s not just sleep, as I mentioned above, but time spent doing anything that doesn’t make someone money. Have a hobby? Turn it into a side hustle! Work a gig job! Grab someone else’s groceries while you buy your own! Turn your home into a daycare! Capitalism depends on the unpaid (or underpaid) labor, mainly of women, as caregivers, but also denigrates that labor in the same breath.
Even having generous parental leave policies at a full-time job doesn’t guarantee you won’t be penalized at work for taking advantage of it. And so help me if I hear anyone refer to parental leave as “vacation” ever again…
So what can you do? It's not like you can just overthrow systemic issues on your own.
3 Ways to Avoid Parental Burnout
With the clients I support, I often see burnout when we’re trying to meet totally unreasonable expectations.
Adjust Expectations and Set Clear Boundaries
I recently worked with one mom whose job responsibilities had rapidly increased and she was constantly trying to catch up despite having a workload for 1.5-2 people. After we broke it down and she acknowledged that there was literally no way she could actually get all that work done by herself, she was able to draw some healthier boundaries and talk to her boss.
On a similar note, many of us need to redefine what a “good mother” is. So much of this pressure is internal (or at least internalized). We’re so busy trying to “do it all” because we think we “should” that we don’t have time to consider if that’s actually making us or our kids happier.
Model What You Want Your Kids to See
That brings up my next point: Focus on your parenting values, not on social expectations. Every human being has different strengths and interests, including you and your kids. Just because someone else can work full time and homeschool 8 kids and make rainbow cakes on weekends and juggle doesn’t mean you need to. In my Mom School program, we start by identifying our top values for our families so we can make sure that our goals actually align with how we want to raise our kids.
Often one parent falls into the “default” role, and in heterosexual relationships that’s usually Mom. There are many layers to these gender roles, but getting your partner on board with their share of housework is a huge step to preventing burnout for you if you’re carrying a larger load. This also shows your kids that grownups communicate and cooperate to get things done as a team, and that people all of genders can cook and do laundry.
Get Serious About Self-Care
A study I read (but can’t find) asked parents and kids what the kids wanted most. The parents guessed that their kids wanted their parents to spend more time with them.
The kids? They just wanted their parents to be happier. Are there areas of compromise? Absolutely. But making yourself miserable to put in more parenting time isn’t actually helpful for you or your children.
That’s actually the biggest argument I hear when clients insist that they can’t take time for themselves for self-care: they think need to spend more time with their kids. I always ask how they feel without self-care (answer: resentful and unhappy) and if that’s how they want their kids to remember their time together.
It’s absolutely a valid use of your time to prioritize self-care, including adequate rest and physical movement. It makes you a better you, so that you can be a better, more patient parent.
5 Tips To Recover From Parental Burnout
What if it’s too late and you’re already toast? First you need to focus on recovering, then preventing a second round. Sometimes the most important step is simply accepting that you can’t power through any more.
In Wintering, the author says she finally finds a healthcare practitioner who actually makes her feel better by simply acknowledging that it is how it is. “This isn’t about you getting fixed,” he said. “This is about you living the best life you can with the parameters that you have.”
Parenting is hard, and there are a lot of factors that aren’t under our control. But some are, so let’s focus on those to minimize the damage.
Tip 1: You Need to Rest
Again, sleep deprivation is used as torture for a reason. You can’t MAKE your kids sleep (trust me) so this isn’t “8 straight hours or bust.” This might be going to bed 15 minutes earlier, or power napping on the weekends, or trading “sleep-in days” with your partner. It might even be having "quiet time" with your kids.
When my oldest was a baby and my partner was working a billion hours a week, I asked a friend to come play with the baby for 2 hours and took the best nap of my life. Sleep is when our minds and bodies process and repair--that IS productive.
But I also love this explanation:
“But we think rest matters not because it makes you more productive, but because it makes you happier and healthier, less grumpy, and more creative. We think rest matters because you matter. You are not here to be ‘productive.’ You are here to be you, to engage with your Something Larger, to move through the world with confidence and joy. And to do that, you require rest.”- Emily and Amelia Nagoski, Burnout
Tip 2: You Have Permission to Slow Down
We’re perpetually busy--or we were before the pandemic. So many people, while mourning the lives lost, are also grateful for the chance to slow the pace of life down even though it has its own challenges. It can be challenging to say no to activities and obligations, but if you're burned out from being too busy, it's not working for you.
If it feels like there’s nothing to eliminate from your schedule, join me for Mom School to focus on what you want your family life to look like, or schedule a call with me to see how else I can support you.
Tip 3: Complete the Stress Cycle
You can’t think your way out of a stress cycle; you need to physically complete it. I do highly recommend their book, but for just this piece, the best ways to complete the stress cycle are with exercise, or by going muscle group by muscle group and tensing, holding, and releasing each one to help your body process the adrenaline. Otherwise your body is still on edge in case of tiger attack.
“Completing the cycle isn’t an intellectual decision; it’s a physiological shift.”- Emily and Amelia Nagoski, Burnout
Tip 4: Reduce, Minimize, and Manage Stressors
Now that you’ve released some of the stress your body was physically holding, you can’t just fill it back up with adrenaline! (Well, you can, but that’s a one-way ticket back to burnout.)
Ideally, you’ll reduce the amount of stress in your life. (I can already hear you protesting that it’s impossible.) But living at the edge of burnout isn’t sustainable, and something has to give. This way you can choose what that thing is instead of crashing and burning unexpectedly.
- What’s the most stressful part of your life, and what about that stress is under your control?
- If you can’t get rid of a stressor, can you minimize its impact or time required?
- And if not, how can you manage the number of stressors or the stress they cause?
You can’t self-care your way out unless you restructure your support system and manage expectations. If you need more support and perspective to figure this out, schedule a free call with me and we’ll talk through it.
Tip 5: Tap Your Support System, Join, or Create One
We are not meant to do this alone. That’s one reason the pandemic has been so intense -- we’re not supposed to eat, sleep, work, parent, and educate in our house for a year or more. We’re social creatures who are supposed to have secure relationships with multiple people. That goes for our kids AND for us.
“We are all walking around co-regulating one another all the time, synchronizing without trying, without even necessarily being aware that it’s happening. Your internal state is profoundly contagious, and it is profoundly susceptible to ‘catching’ the internal states of the people around you at work and at home and at the grocery store and on the bus.”- Emily and Amelia Nagoski, Burnout
Think of a time a friend asked you for help and you were able to support them. Did you feel upset that they had the audacity to ask you to do something, or happy that you could help make a friend’s life easier? I’m guessing you felt pretty good about it.
Now think about how you approach asking others for help. Are you worried you’re annoying people or asking for too much? If they can't help you right now, they can say no. If they can help, they would probably feel pretty awesome.
A few years ago I badly wanted to go celebrate a friend's mother’s blessing, but my husband worked weekends. I posted on Facebook to see if someone could help watch my (then) two kids, and people came out of the woodwork. I was shocked. All I had to do was ask. My kids had a blast playing with her kids, and the gathering was beautiful.
If you don’t have close family or friends near you, it’s so important to create your own village, whether in person or online. Join us in the Semi-Crunchy Mama® Club!
Are You Feeling Burned Out?
Right now burnout can feel unavoidable. If it feels overwhelming to even think about, just try to imagine what the first, smallest step could be, or what’s the one thing you could do that would have the biggest impact?Wintering by Katherine May
May, the mother of one child, experiences a health setback that requires her to dramatically slow down the pace of her life. She writes about the changes and challenges of the season, and how becoming a parent is one of those times when our perspective and priorities necessarily shift. Just reading the book can be a way to slow down a bit.
Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski
It's a whole book about burnout! The authors are twins -- Emily is a sex educator, Amelia is a music professor and mom -- who write about the science and psychology of stress, especially as experienced by those socialized as women. It's not entirely focused on parents, but the general info also applies because we're humans in this world.
Still Stuck, and Tired of Being Overwhelmed?
Schedule a free call with me and let’s figure it out together. Seriously. No pressure, let's find you some place to start.
"Stacy's really good at asking questions to help you clarify what you want, and she has a wealth of knowledge that she can then share to help you get there. You don't have to be "ready" or already know what you need help with. She was really good at helping me figure out the right next step."- Rachel, individual coaching client