Do You Have Parental Burnout?

Stretched too thin and running on stress? You may have parental burnout - but there are ways to tackle it

parental burnout

by Maria Lally |

I remember a particularly awful afternoon in 2020, when I was buckling under the pressure of work and home schooling my two young children, where I tried to imagine a future when life had returned to normal, and parenting seemed manageable again. Two years on from that very first lockdown, it seems that for many parents (myself included) it’s anything but.

Two years of repeated school closures (with the niggling fear they might close again at any moment), the resulting stress and loneliness, plus the cost of living crisis, has left 66% of parents meeting the criteria for ‘parental burnout’, according to a new study by Ohio State University. The study of 1,285 working parents was conducted between January and April 2021 – when we were deep into lockdown –but the authors believe parental burnout hasn’t gone anywhere.

‘Parental burnout isn’t just going to end magically when the pandemic finally ends,’ says Bernadette Melnyk, dean of the College of Nursing at Ohio State and the study’s author. ‘The chronicity of the pandemic has taken a toll and depleted many parents’ coping reserves that will take time and patience to build up again.’

The study found the criteria for parental burnout – a non-clinical but World Heath Organisation-recognised syndrome – is feeling so exhausted by the pressures of parenting you feel you have nothing left to give. Other signs include tiredness, changes in sleeping and eating habits, irritability and unexplained aches and pains. ‘It’s a state where you have been giving, and giving, and giving and giving – until you’re totally empty,’ says Kate Kripke, a maternal mental health expert. Or, as one of the study’s burnout scale statements puts it, ‘I feel like I am in survival mode as a parent.’

This latest study follows similar research from Moira Mikolajczak, a professor of psychology at the University of Louvain in Belgium, who has been studying parental burnout for years. She talks of exhaustion that isn’t solved by a good night’s sleep, and experiencing ‘the awful suffering of not enjoying being with [your children]’ while becoming increasingly impatient and irritable. Mikolajczak says it can affect any parent, although you’re more susceptible if you’re a perfectionist who puts pressure on yourself.

The Ohio State study found a burnout gender split, with 68% of mums feeling burnt out compared to 42% of fathers. Little wonder, when studies show the pandemic played right into age-old inequalities, with mothers bearing the brunt of home schooling and childcare. In October 2021, researchers found working mothers are 23% more likely to experience burnout than working dads, largely ‘due to unequal demands of home and work’.

‘This latest study was an American one, but its findings absolutely resonate with me, as a parent of two, and with what my clients are sharing,’ says leadership coach Katy Murray, author of new book Change Makers: A Woman’s Guide To Stepping Up Without Burning Out At Work. ‘I’m not surprised parents are burning out at an increasing rate, with mothers disproportionately impacted because we tend to shoulder more of the load, and lockdown and its aftermath have increased that load. What struck me about this report is the holistic nature of parental burnout – its effects are physical, mental, professional and financial. This goes deep and there isn’t a quick fix.’

Murray says that self-care alone won’t solve this, but rather systemic change. ‘A nice bath won’t solve parental burnout. Governments talk about mental health, but they need to think about the cost-of-living crisis, and access to affordable childcare. Organisations who preach about wellness need to think about how much flexibility they offer workers, and how hybrid working has blurred the line for some working parents.

‘Working from home is all well and good, but we know from research it can lead to a double and invisible shift for working mothers. So, if necessary, speak to your boss about workloads or hours, and your partner about a fair split of chores and childcare. And don’t forget the preventive basics: sleeping, hydrating, exercise, nutritious food, taking regular breaks, and connecting with the people and things that bring you joy. We know from neuroscience the last one in particular really replenishes us and can prevent the tip into burnout.’

Lastly, Murray says that rather than seeing parental burnout as a catchy new term, we should see it for what it is: ‘A health crisis that we shouldn’t ignore. If you feel taxed, broken and overwhelmed, don’t ignore it, and don’t paper over the cracks with a spa trip. Instead, dial up the preventative basics and speak to those around you to make changes.’

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