Parental burnout is real. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, many parents were feeling over-taxed, under-resourced and simply exhausted. Because while parenting is among the most rewarding endeavors anyone can take on, it’s also sometimes really tough. And in this country, especially, child care is expensive and families often have few social supports, making the challenges that much more intense. Parenting through a pandemic has only raised the stakes. So, this week we thought we’d dig in a bit and look at what’s out there on the topic as well as the resources available for parents to manage when they’re feeling particularly overwhelmed.
If you’re not sure what parental burnout is, here’s a basic overview that might prove helpful. Then, a good place to start your reading might include this package from the New York Times that came out earlier this year about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on America’s working mothers. You might have already seen it, but we’re including it here because it pretty much covers all the bases—the personal experiences of moms around the country trying to do their jobs, teach their kids and survive a global pandemic; the anemic government and policy supports for families that the crisis laid bare; a psychiatrist’s recommendations for how parents might try to cope with, and ameliorate, their burnout and more. That latter piece, might be of particular interest because of the suggestions it includes for how working mothers can respond when feeling what she calls not just burnout, but “societal betrayal.” Interestingly, she cautions that “self-care,” in its traditional sense, may just be one more thing to add to the mental load working moms carry. Instead, she suggests understanding self-care to be “recognizing you are the only one who can give yourself permission to take back your time and energy.” That might mean having some hard conversations to set boundaries, but it is taking care of yourself in a real way.
But it’s not just American moms who are struggling. Parents all over the world continue to find the job of caring for their children while getting through this confusing, worrying time, challenging. This story in The Guardian, explores the experiences of exhausted, overwhelmed parents in the U.K., including those with children with special needs, many of whom have seen services to their families cut or reduced because of funding shortages brought on by the pandemic. While the stories are distressing, the article also offers some suggestions that might help. Take breaks, trust your instincts (rather than being guided by the choices of others), and know that it’s OK to put yourself first sometimes and to tell your children that you’re doing so.
If you were feeling like the pandemic changed the way you parent, well, you’re not alone. This article from NBC News explores that very phenomenon in the lives of parents across the country. They describe how they have re-evaluated their expectations of themselves, how they’ve been forced to be more honest with their children about what they don’t know or can’t control; how they just don’t (and can’t) worry as much about little things like how dirty their children get when playing, or how often they order takeout instead of cooking, or how many extra minutes of screen time their children get. It also includes practical tips for managing the stress of parenthood like encouraging autonomy in your children and having them pitch in with age-appropriate tasks around the house, getting regular exercise and doing something that brings you joy every day. This doesn’t need to require a massive effort or tons of time. It can be as simple as laying in the sun for a few precious moments. Just let it be something that makes you happy and do it daily.
If you’re not surprised that the first few articles we’ve linked to are from the U.S. and Europe, there may be a reason. According to the findings from a recent study by a psychologist in Belgium, parental burnout is highest in Western nations. The differentiating factor, she hypothesized, is the level of individualism in the country. That is, those places where communal caregiving is the norm have lower levels of parental burnout. “Parenting in individualist countries is often an intensely solitary pursuit. Parents living in countries with a culture of collectivism, meanwhile, can rely on extended family and friends, even acquaintances, to share in child rearing.” So maybe it is time to start that commune of moms you’ve always joked about…!
Of course, burnout doesn’t just affect the parents who are bone tired and desperate for a pause. It impacts their children in significant ways, too. This story from PBS focuses on how to think about what children really need from their parents. And, surprise, it’s not all our time and 100 percent of our attention non-stop. The author, an advanced licensed clinical social worker, suggests that when parents need breaks, and actually take them, it’s not only good for them, it’s good for their children, too. Other ways parents can give kids what they really need? She has a few ideas: 1) Be a present, loving, attentive parent by setting limits. “It is much better to be present and responsive for less time than distracted and on a short fuse for longer periods.” 2) Make quiet time a regular part of your schedule. And 3) Don’t do everything and fix everything for your children. Help build their self-esteem by letting them struggle a bit and figure things out for themselves, thus conveying your confidence in them and their abilities.
Finally, here’s a list of seven podcasts “for parents who need a break,” as well as a few selections to keep the littles happy at the same time. Not only do the shows here cover just about all the situations you might encounter while parenting, but they will “provide a sense of community,” too. Because if burnout is anything, it’s definitely lonely. Don’t let it be.