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What Can You Do When You’re Burned Out — Not on Work, but on Family?

Parental burnout is a thing, although after 200,000 years of raising children, we’ve only just realized it’s a problem — and a potentially dangerous one

Casting my mind way back to that simpler, more carefree, above all nicer-smelling time before I became a parent, there are three things I wish people had told me about having kids. First, that putting their socks on is a 10-minute job. Second — and this is so important — that no matter where you go or what you have planned, you must always, always have a packet of wet wipes on hand.

Yet from my present vantage point, having shepherded three of the chaotic little mogwais through toddlerhood, the third vital detail I missed seems so crazily obvious now — yet it’s the one thing no parent I know has ever seemed truly prepared for. Nobody thinks to tell you how utterly exhausting it’s going to be. Not your own parents, nor siblings and friends struggling to be heard over their own deafening children, not even the medical profession (except perhaps when it’s focusing on fatigue as a symptom in a narrow clinical sense, as in post-natal depression).

But as every careworn, prematurely graying parent knows, for all its reproductive wonder and the highs of love and fulfillment it might bring you, being in charge of a helpless junior human is also a hamster wheel of repetitive tasks and anxieties — washing faces; tying shoes; maintaining finger hygiene; preparing meals destined for rejection; head injury after head injury after head injury; indulging whims that in any adult would be adjudged criminally insane; delousing; feigning interest in the numbers one to ten; weathering random cyclones of rage; constantly wiping awful things off skin and clothes and surfaces and trying to forget what you saw (wipes! Always wet wipes!) — and at times it can all feel profoundly, endlessly draining. They’re just lucky they are sometimes cute.

“It’s kind of taboo to speak about ‘parental burnout’ in a culture that puts so much emphasis on the interests and the development of children,” says Moïra Mikolajczak, professor of emotion and health psychology at the University of Louvain in Belgium. But in academic circles at least, the grueling treadmill of day-to-day parenting is beginning to be recognized as a widespread source of “burnout” in the sense we’d usually apply to a breakdown caused by overwork or job stress — and that’s in part thanks to the work of Mikolajczak and her colleague, Isabelle Roskam.

Five years ago, Mikolajczak realized she was herself suffering all the classic symptoms of burnout — a state of chronic fatigue characterized in 1974 by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger as “mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.” But for Mikolajczak something wasn’t tallying: “I could recognize the exhaustion and some of the other signs, which I knew very well because I worked on emotional intelligence and job burnout — except for the fact that I wasn’t experiencing these symptoms at work. At work, I felt full of energy.” 

Convinced her slump was instead related to parenting pressures outside of work, she approached Roksam, a developmental psychologist in her faculty. Struck by the fact that they could find only three previous studies explicitly relating to parental burnout — “all were on parents of severely ill children” — the two agreed to look into it, as “a very teeny side project.”

An initial survey, though, signaled that this was a widespread phenomenon that affected parents from all types of family situations, regardless of their children’s clinical status. “We found that in a very general sample of parents there was a significant proportion of people who were indeed presenting very severe exhaustion symptoms, but in the parenting domain and not especially in the work domain,” says Mikolajczak, “so someone could be exhausted in one sphere and not in another.”

Mikolajczak and Roksam now run the Parental Burnout Research lab at Louvain, a locus for research and public awareness — including online tests for parents who are concerned they’re nearing the end of their rope — in what’s become a swelling subcategory of mental-health research. In some of their recent findings, published in August last year, they identified links between childcare-induced physical and emotional exhaustion and the parents’ behavior patterns of neglecting or distancing themselves from their kids; of fantasizing about escape from their responsibilities; and sometimes of suicidal thoughts. 

“Burnout” might sound like an expression that’s tossed around all the time by caffeine-dependent professionals, but whether it’s brought on by your nine-to-five or your nine-to-five-year-olds, it is, warns Mikolajczak, “a serious disorder that can lead to death.” 

Hidden Costs of Childcare

While it’s difficult to say exactly how prevalent the problem is — since it’s a new field of inquiry, and the decades’ worth of data required for a hard measure isn’t yet available — estimating from samples, Mikolajczak says that at any given time, “we see that between 5 percent and 7 percent of parents are in burnout.”

This is, of course, on a relatively good day, since her estimate is based on findings from a time before many adults around the world went into long periods of confinement with their children as a result of coronavirus lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders. A recent paper in the Journal of Family Violence by Annette K. Griffiths raises concerns that changes to daily life in the U.S. wrought by the COVID crisis are likely to be heightening risk factors for burnout for millions of parents, a thought, the author notes, which “is particularly troubling as parents experiencing parental burnout are more likely to engage in child abuse and neglect.”

Meanwhile, a project coordinated across 20 countries by Dutch researcher Hedwig van Bakel, whose full results are yet to be published, indicates that, in many countries, levels of parental burnout have increased overall in tandem with population-wide measures such as school closures and stay-at-home mandates. Early findings from Portugal suggest that national and local lockdowns have had mixed impacts on both parents and their children: According to the University of Coimbra, while “19 percent of fathers and 31 percent of mothers stated that confinement to housing and social isolation caused an increase in parental burnout symptoms,” the same proportion of fathers and only slightly fewer mothers (27 percent) saw these upheavals as “an opportunity to increase the quality of their parenting and their relationship with their children, accompanied by a reduction in the burnout related to… parenting.” 

In Belgium there has been a similarly scattered pattern, notes Mikolajczak, where “about a third of parents benefited and a third of parents deteriorated during the quarantine. But apparently this isn’t the case in many other countries.” This perhaps points to factors such as confinement, homeschooling and prolonged proximity to progeny as having an intensifying effect on parental states of mind — perhaps if you feel you’re coping well and are able to focus on the rewards, more daily daddy time leads to more joy all round. But if you were at risk of burnout already, parenting during the COVID crisis might well have made crumbling into exhaustion more likely, and its effects perhaps more dramatic.

Assessing stress more generally across the U.S. during the pandemic’s early stretch, the American Psychological Association reported in April and May that “American parents are, on average, feeling significantly higher levels of stress than adults without children.” Tellingly, this split was dramatic: 46 percent of parents of children under the age of 18 said their stress level was high, whereas only 28 percent of adults without children reported the same; among adults without kids this represents roughly a 12 percent increase when compared to the nationwide average stress level reported for 2019 — while for those with kids it’s a 37 percent jump on last year.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting Burnout

Aside from the family setting, what exactly distinguishes parental burnout from that thing that vloggers, social influencers and young multi-hyphenate professionals — and, let’s face it, anyone with a work email inbox — often complain about? In many respects the symptoms of exhaustion are the same. Just like a burned-out office worker, “the parent feels exhausted, drained, at the end of their rope,” says Mikolajczak. “This exhaustion can manifest itself at the emotional level — a feeling of no longer being able; the cognitive level — a feeling of no longer being able to think properly; and/or a physical level — fatigue.”

Added to this, though, are negative effects that reach beyond the struggling parent themselves to impact the rest of the family. “The second symptom is saturation and loss of pleasure in parenting,” says Mikolajczak, while a third — and perhaps the most recognizable to many parents — is “the emotional distancing from his or her children. Too tired,” she explains, “the parent no longer has the energy to get involved in the relationship, or at least not as much as usual. He pays less attention to what his children tell him or listens to them with a distracted ear; he no longer gives as much importance to what they experience and feel, he no longer gets involved (as much) in their education. He does what he has to do — drives them to school, prepares food, puts them to bed — but no more.”

Characteristic of a state of burnout, she adds, is an acute knowledge that sufferers are no longer the parents they imagined themselves to be: “He no longer recognizes himself, he is ashamed of the parent he has become.” And making this contrast often generates “feelings of strangeness, guilt and shame in the parent.”

“Studies have shown that parental burnout has the same consequences as professional burnout — sleep disorders, health problems, increased alcohol consumption, suicidal thoughts,” says Mikolajczak. “However, the latter are more present in the case of parental burnout, probably because you cannot resign from your role as a parent.” But, as she explains in a 2019 paper, parental burnout differs from both job burnout and depressive states in general in its strong association with certain distinct outcomes, such as neglect (typically “the neglect of the child’s emotional needs first appears, and only then the neglect of physical needs”) and parental violence, links which aren’t as clearly defined in other contexts.

The condition also has a distinct gender dimension, with Mikolajczak keen to point out that it’s a society-wide problem for fathers as well as mothers, despite the fact that women everywhere still take on the bulk of childcare. Among those with parental burnout, she says, “epidemiological studies indicate that two-thirds of them are women and one-third are men; although women still perform two-thirds of the parenting tasks, men are increasingly taking their place.” And at the individual level, due to the way we implicitly learn our future parenting roles from early childhood onward, the knockout blows delivered by the reality of childcare might even, all else being equal, be hitting men harder. “Women have been socialized for this role since they were very young. Men, no,” she argues. “And the men of this generation didn’t see their father being a ‘father’ [in the way that’s] expected of men today.” Often men who are deeply involved in their children’s upbringing, “therefore learn their role late and ‘on the job.’”

Which, I can fully attest as a stay-at-home dad, has on occasion been a recipe for an onset of stress the likes of which I’ve never encountered in my life outside of kids — not in work panics, not in raised-voice arguments, not in illness, not in money worries. Perhaps the only thing that’s come close has been either of those two times I’ve found myself charging through an airport only to miss my flight by a minute or so. If you don’t have children and you’re struggling to empathize with much of the above, picture that plane taking off, and you left panting at the gate with nothing to keep you company but a drastically raised heart rate and a gallon of cortisol and adrenaline pulsing round your system for the next couple of hours. Now imagine that happening two, three, four or more times a week. With everyone yelling.

Perfect Parenthood Is a Perilous Path

So it was with a small amount of trepidation that I took Roskam and Mikolajczak’s “Are You Suffering From Parental Burnout?” test to see how prone to a full-scale paternal shutdown I might be. After answering 23 fairly searching questions as honestly as I could, I was relieved/scared to be assessed as at “moderate” risk of parental burnout. Relieved to discover I’m “still in good shape overall”; scared to have it confirmed that “sometimes you feel like you have too much to deal with as a parent” (aye) and that “fatigue is then felt and sometimes it prevents you from getting involved as you would like to with your children” (amen) and that “sometimes you feel like you’re not the parent you want to be” (fair enough).

According to Mikolajczak, Roskam and other experts in the field, one of the most powerful psychological levers pulling parents onto a downward trajectory is a propensity for perfectionism. This can be a dangerous trait in child-rearing because, says Mikolajczak, “having too-high parental standards is a major risk factor for parental burnout. But it’s also dangerous for children because a perfect parent unintentionally puts incredible pressure on their children.”

It’s a dynamic that’s been escalated in recent years by the compulsive childhood chronicling that goes on on social media, which exerts a caustic kind of ideal-parent feedback effect. Mikolajczak says the relationship between sharing our children’s lives online and the burnout phenomenon hasn’t yet been explored fully by psychologists but cites a colleague, Loes Meeussen from the Catholic University of Leuven, also in Belgium, with whom she discussed this. 

“Loes says she has the feeling that social media might play a double role in increasing vulnerability to parental burnout,” Mikolajczak explains. “First, because everyone posts only the best of one’s parenting, which increases the standard. You have the feeling that you have to make this beautiful cake of the queen from Frozen for your children, because that neighbor has done it — and then this other friend always brings her children to the best theater shows. But you forget that these are different people: One cooks, the other is interested in the theater — and now you feel that you have to do all these things. She also thinks that on social media it’s very hard to disclose things like exhaustion difficulties. And because of that, she says the emotional management that you have to have on social media is also costly.” 

In other words, it burns you up internally to have to turn your life into a newsfeed from Perfect Parent magazine — and that can be yet another contributor to emotional burnout.

This reluctance to show even the barest hint of inadequacy when it comes to our kids burrows to the heart of why, until recently, burnout was such an understudied, unmentioned — just about unmentionable — affliction in the parental sphere.

“Nowadays we’re really at the service of the good development of our children,” says Mikolajczak. “If you asked your grandmother or grandfather, they would probably tell us that what a parent has to do for his or her child is to maintain him or her in good health and provide an education. And that’s all.” To us hopelessly coddling 21st century parents, that sounds like a dereliction of duty. “We want our children to be happy; to have friends; of course, to be healthy and educated — but not just educated: We want the best education for our children. We want the best health. So it’s really kind of optimization of child development.” 

In a culture in which we’re herded by algorithms and apps toward idealized, flawless lives, there is perhaps no better word for it. But there is an alternative aspiration. Echoing a line you often hear from those who work in family and developmental psychology, “The parent must be good enough,” she says, referring to the ideas of Donald Winnicott, who developed a whole philosophy around “the sound instincts of normal parents” — “Good enough, but not perfect!”

Another reason parental burnout is a phenomenon that’s largely gone uncommented upon is that for those without kids, the energy burden of having a small child in your home is a difficult demand to appreciate. “Frankly, I’m not sure that people who don’t have kids — or at least who don’t have any nephews or nieces, or a godchild, that they have ever had for an entire day and night — can really sympathize,” says Mikolajczak. “Because until you have children, you just don’t know how stressful it can be.” 

It’s a demographic division that’s particularly relevant at the moment, she notes, since “during the pandemic, many people have suffered from their bosses being less understanding of their situation.” Perhaps many employers’ reliance on video conferencing, with tiny intruders and parents’ feral snarls shattering the professional façade, will have done something to redress that.

As with any other unproductive social taboo, in the world at large you’ll only really hear honest admissions about the life-sapping side of parenting from comedians. “I’m tired all the time because of how many children I have,” said Boston-born comic Rob Delaney in an interview, explaining some of the inspiration behind the genius parenting sitcom he co-created, Catastrophe.

Watch an episode or two of that, or of the brilliantly spiky early 2010s sitcom Up All Night with a weary Will Arnett and Christina Applegate, or the recent BBC show Motherland, or the unimprovable seven-season treatise on parenthood-as-war Malcolm in the Middle — these are about the only places you’ll find blunt, candid portrayals of the physical and emotional attrition of real-world parenting. Or, if you’re pushed for time, ingest this bit from British standup Michael McIntyre who — never mind the wheel — might actually be a hamster, which just about captures it:

The Solution: Engineer Some Equilibrium

And if you do understand burnout all too well, because your spark is sputtering or has already flickered out, what’s the solution? For a start, you could take the Parental Burnout Lab’s “Risks and resources” test — because the key to restoring your buoyancy at home lies in all the people and outlets around you that you can enlist in support and that can give you space to regroup.

My own test report comes as a relief. Accurately I think, the automated results suggest I’m “unlikely to fall into parental burn-out: your protective factors compensate for the risks that are currently present in your life.” Which, going by my answers to the survey questions, amount to a very supportive partner and at least a baseline level of regular engagement with my kids’ activities and interests. Added to this, I count myself extremely lucky in that my children are all (at time of writing) broadly healthy, developmentally on-track, neurotypical kids — albeit endowed with very, very loud voices.

For others, though, whose family lives involve other permutations of stressors and sources of respite, the resources that can help stave off burnout might look completely different. “The trick lies in finding ways to rebalance the balance,” says Mikolajczak. Every parent will “at some moments have too many things that pile up to stress you out.” But you’re in trouble, she says, “if you don’t find any resource to either decrease these stressors or to find time to breathe out of parenting and decrease the level of physiological activation” — that is, build in to your day some positive, child-free habits and interactions to offset that corrosive stress state. 

“Imagine you’ve had a very stressful day with the children, and then you can go out with friends and relax,” she suggests. “That’s very different from having a very stressful day with children and then going to bed and having insomnia. Resource can be very [diverse]: It can be a spouse with whom you can just emotionally share what you’ve lived with the children through the day. In some families, parents can ask the eldest children to take care of some of the things with the youngest ones.”

Simple fixes like these might be harder in practice right now, with more of us working from home more of the time, and with a world outside the home that seems increasingly designed to inflict psychological strain. Insanity in politics, economic winter, COVID contagion and conflict in society are the obvious, headline-grabbing challenges to our mental wellbeing, and they’re not exactly helping. But what makes parenting such a dangerous site of potential distress is that its emotional and physical burdens tend to slip onto your shoulders so insidiously and incrementally that the threat often goes unnoticed, even by those most affected. “The problem with parenting is that it’s very, very teeny stressors that just pile up,” says Mikolajczak. 

It’s a painful truth that, in the end, there’s no way to fully escape those teeny stressors — but don’t they look so peaceful while they’re sleeping?

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