Why modern-day mums are suffering parental burnout

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

As a former nurse, Erin Werley was used to 12-hour shifts sometimes stretching into 15, constantly being on her feet and feeling high levels of stress.

But nothing prepared her for the demands of motherhood.

Before kids, "I got to come home and relax every day ... and I had days off," said the mother of two. "I'd be burned out at work, but at least I'd know (the shift would end) ... and then I could go home.

"When you're a mum, you don't know when your next break is coming."

Werley said she has experienced periods of burnout in her time raising her two-year-old daughter and eight-month-old son. A few months after returning to work from maternity leave, she left her job as a nurse to become a stay-at-home mum, but she said the stress she feels now sometimes is greater than when she worked long shifts in a hospital.

Experts say that while parenthood has never been easy, the role is more pressure-driven in modern times, especially for whoever fills the role of primary parent - typically mums, but dads too - and it can take a psychological toll. This goes for working and stay-at-home parents alike, experts say, and can be magnified in single-parent households.

The World Health Association has recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon, defining it in part as "a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed" and that results in exhaustion and negative feelings toward one's job.

Budding research shows parental burnout is similar.

A pair of Belgium researchers last year published their findings in the Frontiers in Psychology journal after they spoke to five mothers and discovered common feelings of inadequacy as a mother and perfectionism, leading to exhaustion, distancing themselves from their children, guilt, shame and other negative feelings. They likened some of the feelings to postpartum depression, but with older children.

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While some occupational fields, like the medical field, consider burnout a serious problem and are trying to offer solutions for their employees, it's up to parents to manage their own stress.

Alexandra Solomon, a psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, said parents are seeking out therapy for burnout.

Today's anxiety-inducing societal issues from the maternal health crisis to climate change can make anyone feel out of control, especially those raising families, Solomon said.

"A big piece of burnout is feeling like none of this is manageable," she said. Added to that general feeling is a shift in parenting in recent decades that's added pressure for parents, she said.

Today's parents often feel a responsibility to make sure their kids not only excel in school, but also are involved in multiple activities, including athletics, Solomon said. And it all plays out on social media.

"It has ramped up in the last 20 years," she said. Parenthood has become "relating to your child as if they are an ongoing, unfolding 18-year project. And that takes away from the No. 1 thing kids want: to look at us and see our faces shining on them."

Instead, parents feel a sense of weakness and failure because the standards are impossible, and they feel as if everyone else is doing it right except them.

For Werley, the transition into motherhood was difficult, she said. Her oldest child, daughter Maddie, would scream, and only Werley could soothe her. In the time she worked when Maddie was a baby, Werley's husband would have to bring Maddie to the hospital during Werley's shift to eat because the baby wouldn't take a bottle from him.

"'What am I doing wrong?'" Werley would say to herself. "I thought everyone else had it figured out." She'd read parenting books on sleep training and would try the techniques. But her daughter would sob to the point of vomiting if they tried to leave her in her crib to sleep at night.

Then her son Leo was born, and although he wasn't as demanding, babies still need nearly constant attention, Werley said. "I was very, very frazzled."

Werley said things recently have started to improve, but only because she makes an effort to carve out time for herself and has let go of some of her expectations of being the perfect parent.

She now will let her daughter watch TV while her son naps, so she can shower. And she's good about finding even just a few minutes to scroll through her phone or do something else for herself, away from her kids.

Werley has also self-published a book she wrote before she had kids as a way to have something for herself. If she doesn't take moments for herself, Werley said, she feels her temper quicken, and that anger can affect her family.

"If I don't take care of me, there's nothing left in the tank," she said.

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based psychologist and author Susan Pollak said parents need to learn to manage burnout and stress. It helps build resilience and patience, she said.

"If you're burned out, you're going to have a very short fuse," she said. "Kids really pick up what you're feeling. If you're super stressed, your kids are going to feel stressed. It's almost contagious."

While some seek out therapy to manage their burnout symptoms, there are other methods, Pollak said. Exercise helps, as well as simple, mindful meditation exercises.

Some only take a few minutes, she said, and don't require closed eyes and a dark room. They involve breathing, feeling feet on the ground and other mechanisms designed to feel calm and in control.

"It can help you get out of that ruminating cycle of the 'I can't keep up' ... inner critic," she said. "Part of it is extending kindness to yourself."

Skokie therapist Lynn Zakeri, a licensed clinical social worker, said parents experiencing burnout should also make an effort not to overschedule the family.

"You have to learn your boundaries and not go by other families' boundaries," she said. "It's really a brave and self-caring family that can say: 'That's not in our best interest. That will harm our family if mum is going to a tournament out of state one weekend while dad is at dance recitals that same weekend.' You have to kind of look at the big picture to avoid that burnout."

Zakeri said parents can avoid burnout if they're doing things they enjoy and having quality time as a family, and that looks different for everyone.

Chicago Tribune