Mom burnout is a thing. A real thing.
It happens to some parents — dads too — more than others. Perfectionists, for sure.
A study published this year in Frontiers of Psychology found that about 13 percent of mothers and 12 percent of fathers experienced “high burnout.” Researchers noted a correlation between this level of burnout and health problems, addiction and depression.
Keep in mind, this is a Belgian study of more than 2,000 parents in a country where they get 15 weeks of paid maternity leave and child care is subsidized.
Not that a study is needed to know there’s normal sleep deprivation and kid-crazy and next-level burnout.
At work, you can blame your burnout on a boss. A heavier than normal workload. The unfairness of the workplace culture. “But being a parent, it’s all on you,” O’Leary said.
“And at the end of the day, being a mom is the most important job you have. And when it goes off track, you fear making a big mistake and that impact that’s going to have is going to be something that messes up your kids for the rest of their life.”
Gah. No wonder burnout comes with a heaping side of guilt.
How to recognize burnout
O’Leary said the signs of burnout are:
- Fatigue. (Beyond the usual I-have-kids fatigue.)
- Irritability. Losing patience more often.
- Low productivity.
- Oversensitivity to light and sound. Your kids run up and down the stairs all day. But for some reason, now it seems particularly loud.
- Failure to follow through. Giving in or overcompensating because you have low energy.
- Withdrawing from family and friends. Not returning phone calls, for example.
What if you have all the signs?
First, O’Leary said, congratulate yourself on acknowledging where you are.
Second, stop judging yourself. You see that mom laughing it up on Facebook at the zoo with her kids and think she never faces parent burnout? Maybe. Maybe not. Stop comparing and despairing.
It’s impossible to say whether every parent faces burnout, she said. But some are more susceptible, especially parents who are perfectionist, lack a support system or won’t ask for help.
If you can drop everything — meaning drop the kids with Grandma or another relative and take a spa day, maybe two — then by all means. But most parents can’t.
5 ways to douse the burnout, keep it at bay
No spa day? No problem. Besides, O’Leary said, parenting is a 24/7 gig, so preventing burnout is really about taking small moments every day. Her top tips are:
1. Avoid engaging in social media.
It’s not self-care, O’Leary said. It’s a depleting distraction that feeds our need to feel valued and validated but does neither.
“It’s more valuable to sit across from someone or pick up the phone and talk to someone.”
2. Say no.
Cancel, delegate and leave it for later.
3. Say yes to feel-good moments.
When you’re in burnout, you may feel nothing less than a month with Tibetan monks will do. But O’Leary said choosing to say yes to small pleasurable moments can prevent mom and dad burnout. “Even if you tell the kids, ‘we’re going to sit in the driveway and listen to mommy’s favorite song before we get out of the car.’”
4. Schedule downtime or pick-me-up time.
Waiting for the perfect time to relax or fit in some me time? Never. Going. To. Happen.
You have to schedule it, O’Leary said. Even if scheduling it means texting hubby to say, “I’m going to Target BY MYSELF for 30 minutes.” Or it could mean scheduling a lunch date with a friend on Saturday or arranging a play-date swap with a friend while you run to the gym or the movies.
5. Lower your expectations.
Sometimes it’s OK to pop in a video, set the kids in front of it and “go and lay on the bathroom floor,” O’Leary said. Is it what we aspired to do when we clutched the first sonogram photo of our progeny and imagined what motherhood would be like? Heck to the no.
But sometimes, we need to press the pause button and take time to recharge wherever and however that may look in the moment. That won’t mess up our kids for the rest of their lives, which is what we fear.
When it’s more than burnout
Sometimes, what you’re feeling is anxiety or depression, which may require medical or professional intervention.
Burnout is often situational, brought on by a confluence of happenings. But while parents dealing with burnout can pretend everything is A-OK, people with more serious issues can’t.
“They are really struggling to function,” O’Leary said. “Their sleep is impacted, their appetite, their health, their ability to do the things they used to be able to do without difficulty.”
That’s when it’s time to see a doctor and get professional help, she said.