Maybe the sitter has canceled last minute and ruined long-made happy hour plans. Perhaps your supervisor asked you to lead another early-morning meeting after another sleepless night with your newborn, or 5 pm looms and your partner bursts into your home office asking, "What's for dinner?" As if you have even had time to think about dinner. Every mother, at one point or another, has found themselves stressed out by the demands of parenting, especially as they remain responsible for much of household labor. According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, mothers in the U.S. spend about four hours a day on unpaid household work compared with about two and a half hours for fathers. Meanwhile, a study from UrbanSitter found that less than one-third of parents surveyed said that childcare was split evenly among both parents. Add to that the ongoing pressure and societal expectations put on parents to be nothing less than perfect in all aspects of child-rearing and the situation is front-loaded for stress.
The pandemic has only added to parental responsibilities. Between keeping children engaged in "Zoom school" while juggling their own professional and personal workloads and needs, any mother can get overwhelmed to the point of parental burnout.
What is parental burnout?
In a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, parental burnout is characterized by three aspects that echo the characteristics of professional burnout while differentiating from them because of their relation to parenting:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion
- Emotional distancing from one's children
- A sense of incompetency in one's parenting role.
The pandemic has only magnified the potential for this already serious concern.
Of course, no one goes into motherhood envisioning a situation where they feel burnout. So, how did we end up here? More importantly, how can we enhance our ability to weather stress, curb burnout, and avoid derailing our ability to nurture both ourselves and our children?
What are the warning signs of burnout?
Burnout results when the burden of perceived stress exceeds our resources to cope. Given that, there are warning signs for when our ability to cope effectively is waning.
For instance, ask yourself:
- Are there changes in your spending?
- Are you eating more, less or differently?
- Have you seen changes in your exercise? In your sleep?
- Have you become more or less social?
- Do you get more easily agitated by things you can usually tolerate?
- Do you find yourself scrolling social media more?
The earlier we can recognize our warning signs, the more proactive and preventative we can be about safeguarding our well-being and preventing burnout.
What is resilience and how can it help with burnout?
We are all different and operate within our own unique set of circumstances. As always, it is important to acknowledge that our identities and the groups we belong to have an impact on our context and what privileges we are afforded, as well as our internal and external stressors.
Like most things, stress is nuanced. Not all stress is bad. Eustress or "good stress" is when we have the resources to effectively manage our stressors. This is actually motivating and invigorating. However, when we don't have the support or resources to handle demands, we see it turn into distress or "bad stress," which, if not managed, can lead to burnout.
My colleague, Dr. Sharon Okonkwo-Holmes, an internal medicine specialist and REACH (Reflection, Education, Assessment, Coaching, Health, and well-being) coach for first-year medical students at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine (KPSOM), describes a concept shared with students called the ABCs of resilience: adversity, beliefs, consequences. These include understanding that:
- Adverse events/triggers don't lead to how we feel/react. We must first interpret and explain the trigger before our brain constructs our emotional reaction.
- Although we cannot control adverse or positive events, we CAN choose which beliefs to focus on and thus influence more useful emotional and behavioral consequences.
- People with a resilient mindset don't stay stuck in "thinking traps." They can challenge and change how strongly they attach to a belief.
- Our beliefs are the words we use all the time to interpret or explain events around us and they shape how we feel or behave. Resilient people don't attach as much to destructive beliefs and learn to attach more strongly to useful or empowering beliefs.
How can I be more resilient?
The good news? We all have the ability to be resilient. And we are typically more resilient than we think.
There are some common behaviors people with a resilient mindset share. They tend to have an optimistic outlook and a growth versus fixed mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence, skills and abilities are static and strive for success, avoiding failure at all costs. Those with a growth mindset, in contrast, view challenges as an opportunity for development and expanding their abilities. This is additionally important because it plays into our capacity to think from multiple perspectives and learn from past experiences.
Resilient people cultivate and maintain healthy relationships. This includes enacting boundaries in order to manage relationships. Resilient people are curious and they find the humor. Children tend to naturally have both of these. As we enter into adulthood, these behaviors tend to decrease. Studies show that children laugh an average of 300 to 400 times per day versus 20 or less for adults.
Because resilience is a skill, there are accessible tools we can utilize to help build and strengthen our resilience. It just requires some intention and self-reflection.
Strategies for cultivating a resilient mindset and preventing burnout
Practicing mindfulness, moment-to-moment awareness of one's experience without judgment, is key and often gets lost when we are stressed or overwhelmed. It's important to remember that you can do anything mindfully.
As the Health and Well-Being Program Manager at KPSOM, I work with our medical students to create a personalized well-being plan that utilizes a holistic approach. The following are some of the strategies and techniques I use when helping people find ways to incorporate well-being into their lives:
1. Belly breathing
When we are stressed or anxious, our breathing tends to be quick and shallow. A strategy I recommend is diaphragmatic breathing, deep breathing or "belly breathing." Belly breathing allows us to fully engage the stomach, abdominal muscles and diaphragm. Doing so fills our lungs more efficiently versus shallow breathing centered in the chest.
If you aren't sure you are breathing this way, you can place one hand on your upper chest and another on your belly. Breathe in (counting to 4 helps!) through your nose and exhale (count to 4 again) through your nose, holding for a pause between. The hand on your stomach should be the only hand moving. This technique helps lower stress and reset your heartrate. It is a strategy you can easily employ when you are feeling overwhelmed and out of balance. You can also teach the technique to your children and practice together.
Even if just done briefly, meditation is extremely helpful and an example of a mindfulness practice. Another colleague, Dr. La Tanya Hines, an obstetrician and gynecologist who also serves as a professor of Clinical Sciences at the school, plays a short video for patients who come in feeling overwhelmed that teaches them how to meditate. "It talks them through a one-minute meditation and shows them that in just 60 seconds quieting your mind will help you re-establish focus and accomplish whatever it is you think you want to do," said Dr. Hines.
There are many free apps, like Insight Timer, that provide a range of guided meditations.
Exercise, or simply adding some movement into your day is a great way to mitigate stress and tend to your well-being. You can even incorporate your children in appropriate-level workouts and bond with them at the same time. While experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week (which you can break down any way you'd like), this may feel daunting or unrealistic. However, any amount of movement during your day makes a difference. This can include walking your dog, doing some yoga poses, going for a bike ride, or having a dance party with your kids. There is also a ton of free workout content online.
4. Pay attention to your spiritual, mental health and financial well-being.
Take time to figure out what nourishes you. A little honest self-care check-in goes a long way. How are you really feeling? What's working and what's not? Are there things you can change or improve? What do you need? What are you proud of? What can you let go of? Once you have checked in with yourself, you can readjust accordingly.
5. Practice sleep hygiene
Most adults do not get enough sleep. For many of us, this is the norm, but sleep deprivation (six hours or less per night) has become the leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease outside of genetic predisposition according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Your body needs sleep to recharge and perform optimally. And, getting sufficient sleep, both in quantity and quality, is essential for stress management and overall well-being.
Here are some ways to improve your sleep hygiene:
- Eliminating electronics in the bedroom or bed
- Keeping your room at a comfortable, low temperature
- Creating a cozy and inviting bed
- Maintaining a dark room
- Developing a bedtime ritual or routine
6. Spend time in nature
Studies have shown that 3 to 5 minutes in nature helps alleviate stress. Even if you can't work a hike into your routine, sitting outside, gardening or even just looking out the window helps.
7. Write it down
When you see a therapist, the mere practice of saying aloud what is bothering you, getting it out of your mind and body, is helpful for self-reflection and perspective-taking. Journaling can have a similar impact.
8. Cultivate healthy relationships
Pay attention to how you feel after social interactions. Do you feel nourished or depleted? Do you need to create or modify your boundaries?
9. Practice self-compassion
The person you speak to most is yourself. And the things we say to ourselves are not always kind, helpful or even true. Identify self-affirmations that you know are true, which can be something as simple as, "I care about my family." By focusing on self-affirmations, we actually change the way we narrate our lives.
10. Be realistic
Be realistic, but also find joy and let yourself laugh. Reflect on what you can realistically fit into your day to reduce stress and enhance your well-being. When can you take a break, do something you enjoy, and find balance? What makes you laugh? Maybe it's a quick meditation, listening to a podcast, or chatting with a friend.
Building resilience takes practice and intention. Just like learning any skill, it is not a linear process, but rather one that ebbs and flows. I advocate taking a scaffolding approach, in which one skill builds on another. This could be trying five minutes of yoga this week and building to 10 minutes next week or starting to journal. Little things go a long way.
If attempts to manage your stress are not working as effectively as you would like, you may need additional external support. Help-seeking behavior is healthy, and this may be the time to find a support group or perhaps a professional to work with one-on-one. Psychology Today can be a helpful place to start.
Remember, it is all about finding what works best for you and creating well-being practices that provide moments of balance to your day. Some days you will feel better than others in managing the many stressors of parenting and your life. While easier said than done, it is important to not put extra pressure on yourself to always "get it right." After all, superhuman moms are human too.