Burnout is not an unfamiliar concept for adults juggling a variety of different responsibilities and stressors. There are many forms of burnout which manifest differently per individual sufferer. I'll discuss overarching symptoms in order to help people identity whether or not they may be experiencing burnout.
I am no stranger to the concept of burnout, as a former mental health professional I struggled frequently but that type of burnout was quite different from what's plagued me during my short stint as a parent. Parents experience a unique type called caregiver burnout. Caring for a completely dependent individual (ill, elderly, or a child) can lead to high levels of stress and the decline of self-care. Caring for children, even your own, can serve as a breeding ground for caregiver burnout since children are energetic, unpredictable, and often challenging.
As a parent burnout can feel unnatural, unsettling, and provoke feelings of inadequacy or even failure. Burnout can seem pathological in nature since the symptoms mimic psychological disorders; however it's not a mental illness. In fact, burnout is quite normal. There is a wide spectrum re: severity ranging from mild (common & self-treatable) to severe (often coinciding with depression & requiring immediate professional care).
I frequently struggle with guilt and self-judgement when I experience parenting burnout. It feels abnormal and I often think "everyone else can handle this, why can't I?" There's a dangerous element of comparison. I reflect on how others who have less support and more children seem fine. Too bad I cannot see their lives behind closed doors. Comparison is dangerous to your mental health. There is nothing "abnormal" about experiencing burnout as a byproduct of being a parent.
People are more susceptible with additional environmental stressors (financial strain, illness, loss) or lack of social support. Keep in mind I have great support and experience burnout too. Here is a list of symptoms that may indicate burnout:
* This list is not exclusive to burnout & may indicate other psychological concerns
- Feeling overwhelmed & lethargic (tasks normally within the realm of capability become overburdening such as household chores, caring for your child, or self-care)
- Feelings of disconnect (by far the most troublesome for mom guilt, you may feel less attached or caring toward your child)
- Symptoms that mimic depression: tearfulness, sadness, feelings of helplessness, low self-worth (this manifests in harsh self-talk "I'm a bad mom" "I'm not cut out to be a parent" "I'm not a good enough caregiver" "I cannot handle anything")
- Symptoms of physical illness: fatigue, headaches, changes in sleep or appetite, getting sick more frequently (it's possible to feel physically ill as a result of psychological distress!)
- Severe cases of burnout can lead to hopelessness and suicidal/homicidal thoughts, in these cases there is a comorbid mental illness such as Major Depressive Disorder (requires immediate professional intervention)
What can you do to help mitigate burnout?
- First, deal with the issue of self-loathing. Often times burnout leads to troublesome feelings of failure or inadequacy. For example thinking I should be able to cope better. The lack of distinct trigger (burnout is related to cumulative factors without one specific cause) can lead sufferers to feel abnormal or guilty for the level of distress they endure without an identifiable trigger. STOP. It's perfectly normal to get burnout! These babies/children are tough cookies add the 24/7 job status and you're set up for burnout even with the best resources/support. Start positive self-talk. "It's understandable that I'm overwhelmed" "I'm not a bad parent for needing a break or feeling disinterested in parenting." "I will not be able to perform my normal workload and that's OK."
- Ask for help. Ugh. I know this one is effing hard especially if you're a perfectionist supermom (most of us are). Right now you need some help to get through this cycle of burnout. It can be small amounts of help, anything that's obtainable. For those with support systems: start using them!! I know I frequently keep my husband/the grandparents on-deck because I'm too awesome to delegate but we need to stop overextending ourselves and let others play ball. For me, help cleaning is a must and when I'm burnout I hand over the baby as soon as my husband gets home from work so I can take a bath or have a small break.
- Cut corners. This is especially important if you lack support and don't have help available but we all can benefit from cutting corners. Allow your kids extra TV time so you can drink a cup of coffee in peace or let them play independently in a safe place while you do something for yourself. Only do chores necessary for survival, everything else can wait until you're feeling less overwhelmed. Slack off on dinner, get some pre-made stuff temporarily so you're logging less time in the kitchen.
- Take care of yourself! In addition to asking for help, you need some TLC. Focus more on yourself than usual. Get rest whenever possible by going to bed early or napping during your kid's nap instead of folding laundry. Eat well. Stop eating junk food on-the-go because you're juggling kids, house, etc. As a caregiver you need to start taking care of yourself and forcing time to eat something healthy. Remember the rule: put your oxygen mask on first then the kid's. Even 10 minutes is enough time for a healthy snack. Plan at least 2 hours this week where you are out of the house without the kids. Dinner with a friend, shopping, or a long walk by yourself. Dedicate at least one hour a day to yourself. It may seem impossible on busy days (aka everyday) but the hour can be 20 minutes here, 20 there. Bonus points if you add journaling, meditation, deep-breathing, or yoga as these can help relax your body and mind.
- VENT! No one likes the full-time bitter, resentful, "I hate my kids," persona but there is nothing wrong with bitching sometimes!! Use your mom friends, husband, or other family members to discuss some of your frustrations. In order to maintain these relationships it can't always be about you bitching but often times others understand what you're going through and can help normalize your feelings. Other great resources are honest mom blogs that discuss the struggles and frustrations of parenting which will help you feel less alone.
Burnout can last anywhere from a day to 2 weeks. Anything persisting longer than 2 weeks may indicate another condition such as depression. I'm not saying if your stressed or frustrated with parenting for more than 2 weeks you're pathological. Then we'd all be screwed. I mean heavier issues such as not maintaining normal activity levels, feeling helpless/sad, or feeling disconnected.
Hope this brief discussion on burnout helps you through those inevitable rough patches in parenting! Feel free to share additional tips or experiences via comments.
This is the first post as part of a new category/series to Legumes & Layettes: Moms and Mental Health. While many of these posts will be geared specifically towards moms many are applicable to any parent. I'm introducing this series to capitalize on my extensive background in the field of mental health. I obtained a master's degree in social work from Columbia University and have worked in a variety of different settings as a mental health clinician providing assessment and counseling services. I felt my professional background was a unique qualification that will add value to my blog, where I strive to accompany parents (especially moms) through their parenting adventures and act as a support system along the way. Hope you enjoy the series!
Please note: my series on mental health is NOT a diagnosis or treatment tool for mental illness. Please seek professional help when needed. It's simply a forum to discuss common mental health issues that impact women & parents in order to help raise awareness and reduce stigma relating to psychological distress and it's relation to parenting.
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