Are You Suffering From Parental Pandemic Burnout?

'I've drained the well and the shock is setting in. I wake up feeling like I've been hit by a bus.'

Parental burnout

by Genevieve Roberts |

It was one of the hardest emails to write. ‘Could we chat about me taking a break from work? I feel like I need some decompression and recovery time from such an intense pandemic period...so I'm not constantly just one sleepless night away from crisis mode.’

As someone who is almost relentlessly (possibly annoyingly) optimistic, I’d rather cartwheel naked through an all-company video call than admit that I’m completely depleted of energy after 18 months of near-constant multitasking; that I was starting to fear that the lack of respite that had left me feeling burnt out at work and too-frequently shouty with my children could, if not addressed, tip into something more serious.

I’m not alone in experiencing Pandemic Burnout now, just as restrictions are being lifted. Author Charlotte Philby, whose spy novel The Second Woman was published this month, says that while she initially found the reserves for working and homeschooling, writing two books with three children at home, she’s now exhausted. “It's almost like the adrenaline has run out; I've drained the well and the shock is setting in,” she explains. ”I wake up feeling like I've been hit by a bus. I've done everything at double pace for so long and now my body needs me to move at half-speed, but I can't because there are still three children to look after and another book to deliver, and now there is the additional pressure of catching up with old friends and taking the children places they've been kept away from, and trying to manage the long-term impact on their mental health. It's like a post-traumatic shock.”

Parents have been carrying their children’s emotions through this time, which inevitably leads to exhaustion.

Dominique Afacan, solo mum to a seven-month-old and founder of newsletter Nesting, has also hit a wall. “I don’t think I realised I was struggling until it was too late because I was so busy,” she says. “Usually, when I’m making big decisions or doing slightly risky things, I rely on something rock solid in life. But there’s nothing to cling onto, just flailing arms clinging onto non-existent handles.” She says she’s finding therapy, and making sure she doesn’t fill every spare window of time, helpful.

Dr Rachel Andrew, Director of Time Psychology, says experiencing Pandemic Burnout is not surprising. “Things are opening, there’s an idea of embracing new opportunities, but this is on the back of a traumatic and difficult experience. There hasn’t been space or opportunity for people to reflect and recover from what they’ve been through.” She says that parents - and mothers in particular, still in the majority of families - have been carrying their children’s emotions through this time, and holding their family’s fear, anxiety and upset, which inevitably leads to exhaustion.

I felt a sense of guilt admitting I was finding it tough, when I’ve had, knock on wood, an easy pandemic. I’m not a frontline worker, nor grieving for close relatives. As a solo mum to Astrid, four, and Xavi, two, I spent lockdown with my two favourite people in the world. We have a garden, the seaside on our doorstep and a house filled with love and Lego. I’m naturally very sociable and ached for adult company in January, though I had emotional support from friends and family. And being a solo mum taught me, even pre-pandemic, to say yes to help.

Talia, a teacher and mother of three children, living in north London, feels a similar guilt. “We’re all alive and fit, we’re secure. I feel so grateful and fortunate,” she says. “Yet I’ve got no positive spin left. I’m exhausted to my bones, physically and emotionally. No one wants to be the weak link.”

If anyone asks more of me, I reach a stress point very quickly.

Anna Mathur, psychotherapist and bestselling author of Know Your Worth, says that gratitude can be a positive way of making it through, but sometimes we use it as a way of invalidating what we’re feeling. “We can be grateful and overwhelmed,” she says. She recommends using and, rather than but, when talking about seemingly contradictory emotions, such as how tough something is and how grateful we are for our individual situation, otherwise we can plough over our emotions. She says that acknowledging that something is hard can also be tied up with our own feelings of failure. “If we hear ourselves saying it’s hard, we’re coming to terms with the idea that we can’t do it all,” she says. “We’re acknowledging that we’re one person who has gone beyond the limit of our own resources.”

Mathur herself is experiencing signs of burnout, with low resilience. “As soon as I step away from responsibility, I’m fine,” she says. “But if anyone asks more of me, I reach a stress point very quickly.” So whether it’s a cucumber not fitting in her fridge door, or flies in the snug, she’s liable to feel strong emotions. “It’s those chronic, ongoing, unexpressed feelings that are pushing through, albeit sideways,” she explains.

She suggests implementing tiny things to give a top up. These can be as basic as making sure you are drinking enough water, so your body isn’t stressed from dehydration, to being honest with yourself about how you're feeling and accepting help.

Dr Andrew recommends that, where possible, people take time to relax and ground themselves, whether that’s a creative class, sport, or being by the sea or in nature.

My colleagues at the design and technology agency where I work were incredibly supportive. I’ve taken unpaid leave: this month I haven’t even logged onto my emails. It hasn’t quite given me the rest I expected; my children’s nursery bubble popped twice so they’ve managed a grand total of one full day of childcare. The writing I’ve been itching to do remains unwritten, the swims I’d hoped for, with a few delicious exceptions, unswum. But I’ve been able to focus on Astrid and Xavi exclusively, rather than feeling like I’m failing at both parenting and work. And many days into isolation, I noticed how much more I was enjoying playing with my children with all time pressure and guilt removed, and how much less I was shouting.

I still feel incredibly uncomfortable admitting that I’d reached my limit and needed to press pause on work, but I’m also proud and relieved that I didn’t wait another six months to find out what happens if I keep running on empty.

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