Burnout is back in the news this week with CNN Business declaring workplace "burnout is a big deal" and other outlets, including Vox, Refinery 29 and Forbes reporting on how to combat employee burnout.
We have said it before here at Motherly: Burnout is real. That's not news to us and it shouldn't be news to anyone that it is hurting parents and consequently, their children. While much of the conversation about burnout is around workplace stress, new research published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science explains the very real and serious repercussions of parental burnout at home.
This research is important because it is time society recognizes that you don't have to be engaged in paid work to be burnt out. The unpaid work of parenting can take just as much of a toll as workplace stress and ignoring this hurts children.
Earlier this year the World Health Organization recognized burnout as "a syndrome... resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed," and the new research suggests that parental burnout isn't being successfully managed either. It's good that so many articles are being written about recognizing and reducing workplace stress, but until better policies are written to support parents, the impact of burnout is going to trickle down to the next generation.
Parents need help, and we need to take back the definition of what makes a "good" parent.
According to the new study, which saw some 2,000 parents (mostly French-speaking adults in Belgium, and then a second group of English-speaking parents in the UK) complete online surveys, parental burnout can lead to parental neglect and violence, and escape ideation. Parental burnout and neglect seem to have a circular relationship in which burnout leads to neglect which leads to further burnout. This makes parents feel worse and even more burnt out and traps them in a horrible cycle.
The researchers noted the irony in that by trying to be perfect parents, parents become the opposite, and people who so desperately longed for motherhood end up daydreaming about running from it.
"In the current cultural context, there is a lot of pressure on parents," lead researcher Moïra Mikolajczak explains in a release. "But being a perfect parent is impossible and attempting to be one can lead to exhaustion. Our research suggests that whatever allows parents to recharge their batteries, to avoid exhaustion, is good for children." Mikolajczak says "parents need to know that self-care is good for the child and that when they feel severely exhausted, they should seek help."
Mikolajczak is right, but as Motherly's Digital Education Editor, Diana Spalding, previously wrote, "self-care is not enough" to fix parental burnout.
Today's parents are not burnt out because they aren't getting enough bubble baths.
They're burning out because no human can live up to the expectations we are putting on ourselves.
In the age of continuous parenting, when parents are spending more time with their children than previous generations did, parents are also expected to pretend as if they don't have children when they get to work in the morning and live up to an impossible standard of parenting in which life looks like a Pinterest board, every snack is organic and no one ever forgets their sunscreen.
If we want to address parental burnout we have to listen to a generation of mothers who are telling us, through Motherly's second annual State of Motherhood survey, that they don't think society understands or supports them. On a personal level, we need to give ourselves permission to pack a non-organic lunch box and give a fellow parent our sunscreen if they forgot theirs.
Society needs to take proactive steps to prevent parental burnout instead of expecting exhausted mothers to advocate for themselves and commit to self-care when they are already drowning in care work. And we need to let go of the myth of the multitasking super mom. No one can do it all, mama. Give yourself permission to stop trying.
We hope all the recent headlines about burnout lead to better support for parents, but until that day comes we support mothers in doing the following if they feel burnt out:
Make an appointment: If you are able to see a doctor or a therapist take the time to make an appointment for yourself and be honest with the professionals about how burnt out you are feeling.
Delegate: If you have a partner, let them know you are struggling and ask them to take something off your plate. If you have the option of securing childcare, find someone to relieve you of your responsibilities even for just a few hours a week. Use this time to do something that makes you happy or simply to sleep.
Drop some balls: It is simply not possible to do everything and if you are burning out it is time to stop doing something. Give yourself permission to bring store bought cupcakes to the school bake sale or to not raise your hand when someone asks for a few volunteers. Give yourself permission to say no to things that stress you out.
If you have been feeling burnt out, know this: You are a good mother. Feeling overwhelmed doesn't mean that you are necessarily going to neglect or be violent with your children. But the research does show a link between burnout and these outcomes. It is not too late to ask for help.
You might also like:
- Burnout is real, says the World Health Organization (and mothers everywhere)
- 'Self-care' is not enough to fix how much moms are burnt out
- To fix how much moms are burnt out, we need to embrace imperfection