We don’t need to tell you that being a parent comes with a whole host of stresses (understatement of the century?). Sometimes navigating life with tiny humans can feel like an exhausting game of Buckaroo, where you’re carefully balancing everything on an unstable surface that could kick off at any time. What happens when that balancing act becomes overwhelming and we move from exhaustion to parental burnout?
Over the last year, as parents, we’ve all been juggling a lot (another understatement) and as a result, we’ve seen a rise in the term “parental burnout”. But we’re all exhausted, right? It’s part and parcel of being parents? Yes…although burnout is another kettle of fish. According to psychologists burnout refers to situations of “emotional imbalance” in “situations where exhaustion occurs as a result of being physically and emotionally overwhelmed by one’s parental role”.
What does burnout mean?
It’s a topic shrouded in unwelcome stigma. Many parents still fear that they’ll be judged as not good enough, incapable or incompetent if they ask for help when they’re struggling. We’re conditioned to think that exhaustion is part and parcel of having kids but when parents are burnt out, the whole family suffers. A recent study even found that parental burnout can also lead to “neglectful and violent behaviour toward one’s children.” Parents suffering from burnout were more likely to use verbal, psychological and even physical aggression when communicating with their kids and were also more likely to fantasise about giving up on parenting. Burnout is real – but with a little bit of TLC, it can be dealt with.
Warning signs of parental burnout
Your body might be giving you the heads up that it’s time to take a break if you’re regularly experiencing:
Withdrawal or emotional detachment from your partner or children
Lack of enjoyment
Causes of parental burnout
But what causes parental burnout? A multiplicity of things. Being a parent is a complex role that comes with numerous challenges. There’s not a lot we can do about the sleepless nights, the cluster feeds, the eternal juggle and the day-to-day stresses that come with life as a parent, but there are certain things that we can do that may increase the risks of us developing burn out:
Believing harmful myths
Parenting can be magical. It can be wonderful. It can be full of beautiful moments. But it can also be really bloody hard. It can test you and it can push you to limits you never even knew you had. It is frequently exhausting and overwhelming. There are so many myths that we have been conditioned to believe around “perfect parenting” and as soon as we “fall short” we start to berate ourselves for not being good enough. Parenting guilt is real and a firm driver in making parents push themselves through exhaustion to burnout levels.
Not making time for yourself
Another myth we’ve been led to believe is that we should be available for our kids at all times, but believing this means that we often fail to take time out. That old chestnut “you can’t pour from an empty cup” has become the thing of widely shared Instagram memes for a reason. When you’re tired or stressed, you’re not able to give as much to your loved ones. It is impossible to take care of others when you’re running on empty.
Trying to be perfect
Parenting burnout is nearly always a sign that you’re trying to do too much, trying too hard to be the perfect parent. But with parenting, as with life, there is no such thing as perfect.
Lack of support is one of the main reasons why so many parents are exhausted. Parenting is even harder when you have to do it alone or when your child has additional needs. Parenting without support means having to do everything without backup and without someone to rally when you’re feeling the strain.
Tips for avoiding parental burnout
The “good enough” approach: Stop striving for perfect. Perfection isn’t attainable. Go for “good enough”. Because “good enough” is more than enough. It’s plenty. Your best is good enough. Is there somewhere you can relax your expectations of yourself? Because you can guarantee they’re higher than they need to be
Avoid comparison: Social media is GREAT for so many reasons but it’s a sucker for making us all compare ourselves to other parents. Remember that what we see of other parents (whether online or IRL) is often only a snapshot of a moment in time and they’ve also experienced the explosive poonamis and the moments where they’ve felt like a terrible parent. Comparison is a thief.
Protected self care time: Self care isn’t all about massages and bubble baths. It might be making sure you allow time to debrief on the week with your partner or someone you trust. It might be exercising or going to bed early with a good book, but it’s about factoring this time into your schedule and making sure it doesn’t slip. Make it an appointment that you keep with yourself, without fail. Whether you manage 30 minutes a week or a bit more – time to yourself to recharge is crucial.
Find a mindful moment: When you have kids, it can be easy to get lost in their routines. They dictate the morning schedule, meal times, nap times. They even dictate when you can have a wee or a cup of tea so writing in your journal every morning is probably out the window. But finding a mindful moment is possible, even if it’s just taking five deep breaths while you’re boiling the kettle or while you’re pushing the buggy around the park. Those five deep breaths can be a great way to reboot and reset your system.
Empower yourself: Seek out new parenting skills or tips that might help you with whatever challenges you’re facing. Maybe you speak to other parents or treat yourself to a new parenting book. Perhaps you make the time to listen to an expert you admire speak about topics that matter to you. Arm yourself with an arsenal of skills that will make you feel stronger to take on whatever challenges are thrown your way.
Talk about it: The classic. If we’re going to break stigma, we’ve got to talk about it. It’s an outdated belief that if you’re finding things tough you’re a terrible parent. Our Happy Mum Happy Baby Facebook community is a friendly group of parents who get it but chatting to pals IRL, other parents, your partner, NCT groups, or your doctor if you’re really concerned, is essential. If you’re a single parent, charities like Gingerbread can be a great resource. The more we talk, the less alone we will feel.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and a little burnt out, know you’re not alone. Recognising the signs of burnout and taking action is a really positive step to feeling better and brighter. Parenting is TOUGH, but remember, so are you. You’ve got this.
For more advice on managing burnout, Gi chatted to Dr Punam Krishan, Dr Shruti Nathwani and Dr Stephanie Jen Chyi Ooi at our Spring Virtual Meetup: