A new survey finds that American parents are among the most exhausted in the world. That likely won't come as a shock to many moms and dads—but what researchers say is behind the high levels of exhaustion and burnout may be surprising.
More than 17,000 parents in 42 countries took part in the survey conducted by researchers in Belgium. That broke down into about 12,000 mothers and 5,000 fathers, and it's important to note that much of the research was done before the pandemic began and raised parental stress levels even further—data collection started in January 2018 and ended in March 2020.
Researchers asked the moms and dads to rank how strongly they agreed with statements about their parenting experience. Statements included:
- "I feel completely run down by my role as a parent."
- "I tell myself I'm no longer the parent I used to be."
- "I do not enjoy being with my children."
- "I am no longer able to show my children that I love them."
Researchers also assessed how many children each parent had, how much time they spent with their children, how many adults lived in their home and helped out with childcare, and how much time a parent spent working (including whether that work was paid or unpaid). Parents in the U.S., Poland, and Belgium reported the highest levels of burnout, and one thing jumped out as a key indicator of stress levels.
"Individualism plays a larger role in parental burnout than either economic inequalities across countries, or any other individual and family characteristic examined so far, including the number and age of children and the number of hours spent with them," their report said. Burnout was much more prevalent in countries that leaned into individualism, which it defined as "a loosely knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families (as opposed to Collectivism, which describes a preference for a tightly knit framework in society in which individuals are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups). In other words—parents just don't have enough support, and families are paying the price.
So often, stress and exhaustion are looked at as simply the price one must pay to be a parent. But this study helps show how some of that stress could be alleviated by simply offering more help (not to mention respect) to families. Burnout among American parents likely isn't going to improve much until our society as a whole commits to supporting them better—more paid leave for new parents and more help with exorbitant childcare costs are a starting point. Because burnout isn't just a nuisance or something that should be shrugged off—it can have serious effects on a parent's mental health and well-being, and in turn, their children's.
Until those changes come, we implore moms and dads to speak up when they feel burn out creeping in. If help is available to you (and we know that, for many families, it is not), there's no shame in asking for it. As one of the study's coordinators put it, parents need to "abandon the cult of the perfect parent... and choose what works for you." You don't have to push yourself to your limits to be a good parent, because you already are one.