I am balancing on the brink of parental burnout
Parenting remains one of the most difficult and under valued jobs to ever exist
Geraldine Walsh with her children Allegra and Devin. Photograph: Donall Farmer/The Irish Times
I once described my children as two deliriously mixed up Rubik cubes. A puzzle I tackle every day, solving one side as quickly as I mix up another. The more I twist, rotate and try to win at this game, the faster I lose and fall into frustration, balancing on the brink of burnout. I’ve yet to fall over the edge but a little push is all that’s needed sometimes.
Show me a parent who has it all together, and I’ll ask you to look a little deeper. I can’t be the only one who has failed to figure out this parenting lark without wanting to peel off the Rubik cube stickers for at least one win. I count my blessings, because we all know, for every day that’s difficult, there’s another one which could be even harder if we don’t cheat a little.
For some, falling over the edge, which I grip on to with my fingernails on the hardest of days, is a common occurrence. Parental burnout is on the rise and not surprising. We are incessantly overwhelmed, oftentimes dissatisfied and certainly exacerbated. The World Health Organisation has recently classified burnout as an occupational syndrome and while we are paid in irreverent hugs, snotty kisses and sleepless nights, parenting is one of the hardest, most under-appreciated jobs to ever exist.
Parental burnout is not a cop out. It is real, but suffering mums and dads are sidelined because this is life and being a parent is exhausting. Get on with it. If they were suffering occupational burnout, we’d support them, tell them to take a time out, see their GP, encourage self-care and do what’s right for them if quitting their job is the way forward. As parents, we are expected to carry on, climb the wall of exhaustion, frustration, anxiety, bury the feelings of inadequacy and emotional detachment. There is no quitting parenting, not that we’d want to, but burnout is not something we need to simply accept as we trudge through the rough waters of parenting.
It has very little to do with how many children we have, although two is certainly more than enough for me. According to research, our class, income and prospects play only a small role in whether we can grip on to the ledge and pull ourselves back up.
Unlike depression, burnout creeps up gradually – meaning perhaps we can recognise when it is on the cards and protect ourselves. Or so we would think. Parenting is all encompassing and we are competing in a world of perfectionism. Striving for perfectionism creates a strong risk of developing burnout, as does not being aware of our stress levels. Combine the two and we are trying to live that perfect life as happy as can be, leading to a hard thump as our fingernails lose their grip.
“We’re living in an age where we’re told we can “have it all” and that we deserve to be happy, fulfilled and living out our purpose. We’re supposed to be meditating, doing yoga, eating vegan, buying eco-friendly and simultaneously Marie-Kondo-ing and Hinching our homes,” says Conscious Parenting and Family Coach Yvonne Smyth.
“We’re bombarded with images on Instagram of perfectly groomed, perfectly behaved children playing beautifully on the perfectly clean parquet floors of the perfectly styled homes of the perfectly turned out mothers who are arranging some beautiful flowers by the light of a Jo Malone candle. It’s no wonder we feel inadequate and exhausted when our own experience of parenting is often a feeling of being simultaneously overwhelmed, yet underwhelmed as some days it’s about all we can do to cover the basics of getting a square meal on the table, reasonably clean clothes on our children, homework done, baths taken and stories read.”
The expectation of parenthood is happy families and glowing love for our children. When negative feelings such as resentment creep in, we are left in a loop of shame, guilt and anxiety. Add to that the incessant isolation and loneliness which parenthood welcomes, the change in not only our appearance but our attitudes, and the exhaustion with feelings of being overwhelmed taking over, and we are left balancing so dangerously on that edge. Burnout conjures up dissatisfaction with parenthood as chronic parental stress floors us. It distances us from our children and we’re left feeling fed up and lost with a diminishing sense of purpose. We no longer have a want or need to solve the Rubik cube. Even peeling the stickers seems pointless.
If we took the job of parenting into the office, how would we manage burnout? We would talk, share our burden, find solutions and if possible, make the job more manageable. And yes, with burnout there is always the possibility of being on the verge of quitting with the hope of disappearing to the Bahamas to find ourselves. But again, there’s no quitting parenting but there are ways to make life with kids more reasonable, less pressurised and no we can’t guarantee more energy and sleep. But striking a balance with family life and identifying our stressors will see a more centred parent.
“Parenting has become something we do, as opposed to something we simply are,” says Smyth.
My advice for preventing parental burnout, as a mother of two deliriously mixed up Rubik cubes, is realising we don’t need to solve the puzzle. The more mixed up that cube, the more colourful it is. There is no way to cheat at parenting so do what works for you. Breathe. Share the hard days and the good days. Be kind to yourself and avoid comparison. Remember that good enough is enough.