Parental Burnout: What to Do If You Feel Overwhelmed as a Parent
Last year, an article in the New York Times described “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting.” That word struck me at the time and has stuck with me ever since. Speaking as a mom of two, the expectations and pressures weighing on parents can indeed feel relentless.
It’s not enough to keep our children clothed and fed, get them to school, and take the occasional family vacation. Parents today should provide optimal nutrition from birth and ensure that kids have the best educational opportunities. We’re told to enroll them in sports, extracurriculars, and tutoring to give them a competitive edge for college, then we’re obliged to volunteer as assistant coach, snack mom, and classroom parent. By the way, you’re already saving money for college, right?
Don’t forget, we’re also in charge of arranging playdates, monitoring screen time, and searching Pinterest for unique birthday party ideas and fun hijinks for the Elf on the Shelf.
No wonder parents are succumbing to burnout.
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What is Parental Burnout?
For academics, the term parental burnout has a specific meaning. In 2018, Belgian researchers developed the Parental Burnout Assessment, which comprises four factors:1
- Exhaustion, e.g., “I feel completely run down by my role as a parent.”
- Contrast with previous parental self, e.g., “I don’t think I’m the good father/mother that I used to be to my child(ren).”
- Feeling fed up, e.g., “I feel like I can’t take any more as a parent.”
- Emotional distancing from one’s children, e.g., “I’m no longer able to show my child(ren) how much I love them.”
By this definition, burnout is more than just stress, worry, or fatigue, which all parents experience sometimes. It’s a deep, deep weariness that drains your ability to parent effectively, leaving you empty and unable to connect to your kids. Left unchecked, it can lead to parental neglect and violence. Burnout also correlates with depression, sleep disturbances, and addictive behaviors, though it’s unclear if burnout causes those issues or vice versa.2
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Risk Factors for Parental Burnout
Some of the factors that make a parent more vulnerable to burnout are:
- Holding themselves to unrealistic standards
- Difficult family situations due to socioeconomic pressures, strain with co-parents, or children with special health or developmental challenges, for example
- Not wanting to be a parent in the first place
- Lack of social support, not having a “village”
- Personality traits like neuroticism, general lack of coping skills
Is Parental Burnout an Especially Modern Phenomenon?
Since research into parental burnout is fairly new, there’s no longitudinal data that speaks directly to this. Intuitively, though, it feels like parents today must experience more burnout than previous generations.
Parenting is continually evolving. Both mothers and fathers spend considerably more time interacting with their kids than they did 50 years ago.3 We’re overscheduled and overcommitted, which means we’re overstressed.4 The financial cost of raising a child continues to rise. Social media presents a host of new challenges—cyberbullying, mommy wars, and FOMO, oh my!
More to the point, parents face social pressure to be constantly “on” like never before. Sociologists refer to this as intensive parenting, so named by Sharon Hays in her 1996 book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. Parents, especially mothers, are expected to invest heavily in their children, devoting nearly unlimited time, emotional energy, and money to parenting. Intensive parenting holds that parents are responsible for managing every aspect of kids’ lives, preventing all manner of potential harm, and ensuring the best possible outcomes for their children.
Clearly, these standards are unattainable for many—perhaps most—parents. In particular, wealth heavily impacts the types of opportunities parents can access for their kids and the amount of time they can devote to parenting. Yet parents across the spectrum endorse intensive parenting ideals.5
The pressure to live up to the ideal is intense, and it’s both external and internal. A study of 1725 Finnish parents, mostly mothers, revealed that the biggest risk factor for burnout was “socially prescribed perfectionism,” especially when coupled with self-expectations of perfectionism.6 Not surprisingly, intensive parenting beliefs are associated with greater stress, depression, anxiety, and guilt for mothers.7
How Common Is Parental Burnout?
It’s hard to know how many parents experience burnout according to the academic criteria described above. Studies suggest it’s anywhere from 1 percent to 20 percent, depending on where the study is done.8 9 10 That doesn’t take into account extenuating circumstances such as having a child with chronic illness, which is known to increase parental stress.11
You might not reach the official threshold for Parental Burnout with a capital P-B. Still, most of my fellow parents can probably relate to sometimes—or often—feeling exhausted, like you have nothing left to offer at the end of the day. A March 2020 survey asked more than 3,000 American moms, “In the past month, how often have you felt ‘burned out’ by motherhood?” Thirty-five percent of respondents said they frequently do, while 6 percent said always.
That’s a lot. Only 14 percent said they rarely or never feel this way. That doesn’t mean these moms don’t find parenting to be rewarding and enjoyable overall, but it reinforces just how demanding modern parenting is.
What about Fathers, Can’t They Experience Burnout?
Definitely. However, parenting and burnout research focuses mainly on mothers. On average, mothers spend more time than fathers on parenting activities, and by and large, mothers bear the brunt of societal and self-imposed pressure to live up to ideals of parenting perfection.12 13
Of course, there are standards for fathers, too, and those standards continue to rise. Fathers who feel overwhelmed by them, or who expect too much of themselves, can absolutely succumb to burnout. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, equal numbers of mothers and fathers said that parenting is extremely or very important to their sense of identity, but working fathers are especially likely to feel that they don’t spend enough time with their kids.14 At least one study found that mothers and fathers experience parental burnout at the same rate.15 Another study published earlier this year found that while mothers were more likely to experience burnout, the consequences were more severe for burned out fathers.16
Are Primal Parents Especially at Risk?
I’ve been going back and forth on this. On the one hand, isolation and lack of social support are huge risk factors for burnout, and parenting outside the norm can feel lonely. Repeatedly explaining—and defending—your choices to family members, pediatricians, teachers, and fellow parents can be exhausting, especially when they challenge you and call your parenting into question.
On the other hand, Primal parents may be more comfortable with the idea of free-range parenting—exempting ourselves from the pressures of intensive parenting and opting instead for a more relaxed, less “helicopter-y” style. For these parents, I’d expect burnout to be considerably lower.
Not to ignore the elephant in the room, parenting through a pandemic takes the notion of parental burnout to a whole other level. It’s terribly hard to rely on our villages while adhering to social distancing guidelines. The stress of trying to keep everyone safe, working from home, and carving out time for ourselves can become overwhelming.
Ironically, though, the pandemic and lockdowns probably alleviated burnout for some parents. We’ve been forced—or rather, given the opportunity—to slow down and spend more time with our kids. In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association at the end of May, 82 percent of parents said they were grateful for this extra time.17
Coping with Parental Burnout
In case it’s not perfectly clear, you can feel burned out without experiencing “parental burnout” in the academic sense. Whether or not you hit that threshold, which is admittedly a bit murky, the following practices are worthwhile.
Focus on the positive
It’s easy to get sucked into a negativity spiral when you’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Plus, self-deprecation is the norm nowadays. We’re much more likely to say, “I’m a hot mess, send wine,” than “I did some A+ parenting today and am feeling great about my kids.” That’s no good for parents already on the verge of burnout.
Experts recommend taking the time each day to focus on what went right. This might mean going around the dinner table and each naming something that made you happy, or writing a simple gratitude statement in your journal each night. Even on the worst days, it’s usually possible to find one small ray of sunshine.
The usual self-care stuff
Taking a bath or getting regular exercise isn’t a cure-all for burnout, but it can’t hurt. All of us parents should be taking the time to fill our own buckets whenever possible.
Lower your expectations
This is a big one: actively reject the intensive parenting ideal. Remind yourself it’s ok if the laundry isn’t done, your kid is five minutes late to soccer practice, you forgot to brush their hair on school picture day, and the Tooth Fairy failed to pick up the tooth last night.
This is not an overnight process, but it helps to realize that a lot of burnout stems from buying into societal standards—standards that you don’t have to live up to to be a kind and loving parent.
Here’s the real kicker: It’s not even clear that putting ourselves through all this stress pays off in terms of having happier or more successful children.18 So, how about we all try to stop holding ourselves, and each other, to unrealistic standards that make us miserable, okay?
Stop parenting on social media
Another big one. Don’t spend valuable time and energy curating a parenting facade on social media. More importantly, stop following people who make you feel “less than” in comparison. You don’t need to compete with other parents to see whose kid is having the most magical childhood. Keep your eyes on your own paper.
You deserve to feel good about yourself as a parent, period. If you don’t, whether it’s because you are overwhelmed or need help developing effective parenting tools, don’t wait until you’re totally underwater. Ask for help now.
Burnout isn’t an inevitable consequence of modern parenting. Many parents shield themselves from the weight of the expectations and find everyday joy in raising their small humans. It’s not easy… but nothing about parenting is, is it?
I usually end by asking for feedback, but today I’d just like to offer a virtual high-five, fist bump, or hug to my fellow parents out there. Parenting is tough, but you’re tougher! You’ve got this.
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