Parental Burnout: What Is It, Exactly?

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Before you have children, your life seems pretty normal. You wake up in the morning, brush your teeth, put on your clothes for work and head out the door. It’s a pattern you repeat every day and, after a while, you become rather fond of it. 


However, once you have kids, everything changes. All of a sudden you’re responsible for more people’s lives than just your own – and it has a massive impact on your psychology. 


Going to work is no longer the quick efficient operation it used to be. Instead, you’ve got kids in the back of the car you need to take to school, not to mention the packed lunches to prepare and the shoe laces to tie before you get out of the door. 


For many parents, it can all get a bit too much. Every day feels like an uphill struggle, and there’s no time to relax and recover. Welcome to the land of parental burnout. 


What Is Parental Burnout?


Burnout is a term commonly used to describe a condition in which workers no longer feel motivated or enthusiastic about their jobs. Typically, it involves exhaustion combined with cynicism and general apathy. There’s no longer any motivation for the employee to continue trying so hard. In short, they’re done. 


Parental burnout is something similar. It’s where you can no longer muster the energy to meet the demands of your children and you slowly become more inefficient, distant and exhausted. Even simple things, like making the beds, feels like a chore. 


Parental burnout is becoming more common as our lives become filled with more and more time-consuming activities. Parents not only have to work in regular jobs, but they also need to prepare food, organize activities for their children and, critically, maintain a relationship with their partner.


Given these realities, it should come as little surprise that parental burnout is on the rise. Studies seem to suggest that it first emerged in the early 2000s in the form of emotional distancing and depersonalisation. Today it is more widespread, due to the intense pressures that many parents face. 


It’s Not Just Depression


Parental burnout isn’t just another term for depression, according to researchers. There is some overlap, they say, but they are keen to point out that it is actually a distinct phenomenon. Depression often involves distancing, but burnout has the added element of cynicism as well. 


Some researchers, however, are against pathologizing the condition. Parental burnout is something that is to be expected, they say. Bringing one or more children into the world is a full-time job and requires parents to make enormous sacrifices, many of which they will not like.


The problem, researchers claim, is that like everything else, the issue of parental burnout is getting amplified by the surrounding environment. The culture is becoming increasingly unhealthy in all areas, with signs of social breakdown cropping up all over the place. 


Parents, for instance, are more competitive than ever before. People don’t just look after their own families and enjoy them for what they are. Instead, they look at their neighbor’s “better” family and wonder what they are doing wrong. 


Guilt is another corrosive force that many parents experience while bringing up children. Parents want to feel like they are doing right by their children, but many believe that they are coming up short. 


Pale-faced parents are struggling all over the place. Rehab center staff say that they are seeing increasing numbers of moms and dads struggling to cope with the daily pressures that they face. 


Changing Parenting


Part of the blame comes down to the way parenting is changing. Go back fifty years, and the demands on parents were miniscule. Bringing up a child involved little more than providing them with shelter, feeding them and giving them the odd hug to let them know that things were going to be okay. 


Contrast that to today where society expects much more from parents. Moms and dads are becoming more like personal assistants for their kids, ramping up the pressure further. 


We’re also seeing substantial changes in working patterns. Historically, there was one member of the family who took care of all the odd chores around the home, including raising kids, and another who earned an income. But that’s all been changing in recent years, with more women entering the workforce. Trying to juggle a career and children at the same time is a massive challenge and one of the main drivers of the current burnout epidemic.