Burnout Blues

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I lay this morning with my head jammed my pillow as I listened to my irritated husband negotiate with our 2 year old. ‘No you cannot mix cat food into your cereal!’ He repeated for the fourth time. A howl rang through the house. I burrowed deeper into my bed muttering. ‘No, no, no.’ The last few hours of sleep felt like half an hour. Was I a bad mother? Am I unusual? No, I’m so tired. The 2 year old found me and heaved herself at the mountain of bedding that was her mother, as her 4 year old sister followed. Sitting on the bed the 4 year old lifted a corner of the duvet.
‘What are we doing today?’ she asked.

Faced with a grumble she burst into tears and charged off down the passage. I could hear Cartoon Network blasting louder and louder as my 6 year old fiddled with the remote. Here we go again…
I eventually staggered, toddler in tow, in the direction of the percolator. I wonder if this is what burnout feels like. I’m not a high-powered executive, I don’t have an 8 to 5 job. I spooned liberal amounts of coffee into the machine and sighed as the blond angel attached to my foot bit the soft skin on the inside of my ankle. Yep, I may not have a high paying job but I am heading for burnout… I’m a parent!

Ask any parent if they are invigorated and full of energy in their role of ‘parent’ and they will stare at you uncomprehendingly. Parenting is rewarding, full of pleasure and love but, boy, is it draining! Take comfort that it is not only your little screaming toddler or whining 3 year old that is exceptionally trying. All children seem to be equally gifted in the area of completely exhausting their parents.

Authors of Parent Burnout (now sadly out of print) Dr Joseph Procaccini and Mark Kiefaber report that all humans have finite amount of energy. When the expenditure of that energy is more than the supply, burnout happens. A great deal of research has already been focussed on worker burnout – there is even a testing instrument to measure it. However, there is little research being done on parent burnout. Experts say it’s all the same thing and we should be giving it the same kind of attention as worker burnout, as the consequences for parent and child can be grave.

The irritability, helplessness, fatigue, depressed immune system, feeling of boredom and depression are all the same in any type of burnout. Counselling Psychologist, Nicholas Munro agrees. ‘The stressors differ but the end result is the same. Burnout is, after all, defined as an inability to give of oneself on a psychological level. Burnout happens among individuals, who work with others. Tending to children’s needs fits into the definition of work to me.’

Procaccini and Kiefaber describe the stages of parental burnout. Firstly the gung ho¬†phase of wanting to be the super parent. Ah yes… remember those days? When every additive in every food item was scrutinized? When a sneeze necessitated a paediatrician’s visit and a tantrum required a proactive response? This slowly gives way to the second phase when doubt surfaces. This parenting business isn’t so easy! Irritation, frustration and fatigue set in. The third phase is the transition phase, which is the phase where the process could be stopped. Here the parent should decide that things need to change. If they don’t, stages four and five can develop. (I snarl at my husband as we compare levels of tiredness as if it were a competition – winner gets to take the cup of coffee back to bed and the loser to sit through another episode of Barney. Is it too late for us?)

Stage four of parental burnout involves pulling away from the family, where the parent focuses on interests away from home. Lastly, chronic detachment which is characterised by confusion, apathy and depression. So if we are able to catch ourselves in the transition phase, what has to change?

First and foremost, more time for relaxation. Yes, your eyes are rolling at this. How many times do we read this in parenting books and magazines? So why don’t we do it? Many parents are caught in the trap of needing to be ‘the super parent’. We’re always trying to assuage the guilt that we’re busier than ever, many of us working full time. Some parents also believe that their children’s successes and failure are reflections of their ability as parents.
Other crazy beliefs we seem to hold are:

  • Our kids must always like us
  • Parenthood is never boring
  • Only we can care for our children’s psychological and physical needs effectively
  • Good parents show no weaknesses
  • We must spend every moment with our kids

It’s time to change our way of thinking, and regain our sanity. The reason this advice is so often imparted? It really is an age old wisdom: To take care of another’s needs properly one has to take care of one’s own needs first!
Just try closing the bedroom door and taking and afternoon nap one day. You’ll be a better parent in the hours following your rest. That is a promise.

Ways to care for you:

  • Believe that your role as parent is important
  • Take care of your health by being active and eating a healthy diet – just as you would ensure your child’s health and fitness
  • Form a support system of baby sitters, people that can be called on to help
  • Create a network of mothers you can speak to and lean on
  • Try and keep your life balanced. Make time everyday for rest. Even half an hour with a book, chatting to a friend or in a bath can help you relax
  • Stop rushing. Look at your week and cut down on activities that are not vital
  • Learn to say ‘No’ and prioritise
  • Don’t feel guilty

If your symptoms of burnout are severe seek help from a doctor or therapist.
By Kim Traicos
First published in YOUR BABY magazine, July 2009


Image courtesy of FrameAngel at FreeDigitalPhotos.net