While we’ve been facing the challenges brought on by Covid-19 in the past year, there’s been another kind of epidemic going on behind closed doors as well – a hidden one, sending hairline fractures through household dynamics and shaking the foundations of relationships. Parental burnout is real and rife, and we need to talk about it.
I’ve slid down the fridge as hot tears fell; I’ve uttered words I rarely use under my breath on a Friday afternoon. I’ve eyed up the door while battling over home learning, fantasising about running out of it. I’ve zoned out for hours on my phone. I’ve harboured rageful resentment for my partner working diligently upstairs. I’ve felt and thought things that found me questioning both my sanity and my motherhood ability. I have been claustrophobic in a life I love.
I am privileged, as a psychotherapist, to have a wealth of knowledge and tools to draw upon, but even then, I have not been immune to parenting burnout this past year. In many ways we have all been a victim to the circumstances surrounding us, but there are things we can do to help ourselves find our breath again, and that’s what I’m here to help you with.
What is parental burnout?
Parental burnout is the result of keeping too many balls in the air for too long. It’s finding yourself empty but having to carry on regardless. It’s being unable to rest, or finding it hard to take the opportunities that do arise.
This past year has found parents stepping into roles they’ve never played before, while having to continue plugging away at familiar ones. Support networks, childcare, social lives, family lives have all been warped out of recognition. More has been required of us, while less has been available to us. Less rest, less space, less of the things that make us feel refuelled, refreshed and able to give.
Simply put, burnout is the result of us repeatedly having to (or choosing to) push through the limits of our resources, flatten our own boundaries, ignore our own needs, and nudge aside our feelings. It creeps up slowly, little red flags of irritability or feelings of failure go ignored, until we find ourselves sliding down the fridge, settling on the cold tiles, and wondering how things got so bad.
What are the symptoms of parental burnout?
As parental burnout happens over time, not overnight, it can be helpful to see a list of symptoms to watch out for. These include:
- Low self-esteem and feelings of failure or self-doubt
- Feeling helpless and trapped
- Increased negative and anxious thoughts
- Exhaustion and a desire to escape or retreat
- Feeling low, depressed, irritable, frustrated, or angry
- Struggling to think straight, make decisions, or rationalise thoughts
- Loss of motivation to do the things you normally enjoy
The problem is that burnout will not go away on its own. As burnout is composed of unmet feelings and needs, to ignore it is to fuel the issue itself.
The symptoms of parental burnout are the same as burnout in a work setting. And while both have unique challenges, the complicating factor is that you cannot get signed off parenting for a couple of weeks by your doctor. So, if you are feeling the parenting burnout, while still parenting, here are some things that could help.
What to do about it?
Talk to others
It’s easy to invalidate your feelings, but sharing them brings relief and connection.
Welcome the ‘little’
Often I’d not bother to do small things for myself, like sit down for five minutes, or workout for only 10, as it just didn’t feel enough! But you should never underestimate the power of the small things. A five-minute sit down might only refuel me a little, but a little is certainly better than nothing!
As opportunities arise for your calendar to refill, pause before you say yes. Say ‘Let me check the diary’ before committing. Take a moment to have a look at the bigger picture of your week, and the demands on your energy.
The to-do list will never end
Adding rest as a to-do will make you more efficient when you do tackle it. Your attention may be focused on the needs of others, but yours are equally valid! Ask yourself what you need and find a way to meet that need, even if it’s only in a small way.
Find time to be proud of yourself
It’s easy to fixate on the ways we feel we’ve missed the bar, and neglect celebrating what we’ve achieved.
Cut corners, delegate and lessen perfectionist standards
When you’re feeling burnt out, you need to take your foot off the gas however you can.
Welcome gratitude to bring balance to negative feelings
I love replacing ‘I’ve got to’ with ‘I get to’. For example: ‘I’ve got to do the washing’ with ‘I get to do the washing’. It shines a light on some of my privileges of having kids, clothes, and electricity, and can instantly shift my mood.
Breathe away feelings of stress and tension
Use a simple exercise such as inhaling to the count of four, and exhaling for 6–8. It calms your nervous system and lessens feelings of anxiety.
Close your eyes for 10 minutes a day
It gives you a bit of a reset, and some welcome sensory deprivation.
Seek professional support where needed. Where there is help, there is hope, and sometimes we really need the help to feel the hope.
Be kind to yourself as you address your burnout. You need compassion and support instead of lashings of guilt and shame.
In a culture that dances to the beat of ‘you are what you do’, that praises efficiency, lauding rest as lazy, resting is a pretty renegade thing to do. But this explains why we are all burnt out and on our knees! This way of living is in no way sustainable, and it has a cost. That cost has been the sparkle in your eye, the ease in your laughter, and your ability to enjoy the good things in your life, which bring balance to, and rationalise, the tough.
A life-changing thing for me has been to stop cringing at the idea of self-care. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that it’s not selfish but an absolute necessity for addressing burnout. So, crank it up! Do more of the things that refill, refuel, and nourish you. Prioritise these things as if your mental health depends on it, and as if your kids depend on your mental health. Because, both are true.
And remember, you’re not a failure, you’re exhausted.
Anna Mathur’s book ‘Know Your Worth’ is out now, and dives deeply into how our worth is so often dictated by what we do and how well we do it! You are worthy of rest, having your feelings validated, and your needs met, and Anna’s book will have you daring to believe that is true.
To connect with a counsellor and discuss feelings of parental burnout, visit counselling-directory.org.uk