The burnout is real: Coping with pandemic parenting and redefining self-care

Amanda Collins Bernier
Baystateparent Magazine
Often it’s moms, who tend to shoulder much of the parenting and self-imposed expectations, who are plagued by exhaustion, self-doubt, and a general lack of self-love.

For most parents, mental exhaustion and burnout are nothing new. The emotional load of parenting can take a significant toll on our mental health and physical well-being. It can feel they’re constantly putting their needs last. Often it’s moms, who tend to shoulder much of the parenting and self-imposed expectations, who are plagued by exhaustion, self-doubt, and a general lack of self-love.

There’s an official term for this collapsed state: It’s “mommy burnout,” and it’s widely recognized as a real—and potentially serious—problem. It creates stress, anxiety, and feelings of emptiness.  

The burnout is real, and over the last ten months, it’s only gotten worse. While a recent AP poll suggests that Americans as a whole are the unhappiest they've been in decades, the pandemic has been especially hard-hitting for working parents. And while all parents have been struggling, the crisis has really taken a toll on moms. Amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic and the upheaval that’s come with it, moms right now are reporting stress and burnout at a whole new level.

According to Motherly’s 2020 State of the Motherhood survey, 74% of moms are feeling mentally worse since the COVID crisis began, with 63% reporting they are handling childcare and household responsibilities mostly on their own. It could be part of the reason why women, according to the Labor Department, have left the workforce at four times the rate of men over the course of the pandemic. 

How did we get to this tipping point, and how do we find our way out? We talked to Dr. Brian Skehan, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the UMass Medical School, and Gina Gardner, the pediatric nurse manager at UMass Memorial Hospital, about parenting through a pandemic. 

According to the CDC, two out of five Americans report feelings of depression or anxiety, but parents caring for children report significantly more stress than non-parents. How have you seen these struggles play out over the last nine months? 

Dr. Skehan: ​Families are struggling to balance financial needs and employment alongside meeting the needs of their children for physical support, emotional support, and school. Many families describe this as having three jobs. The changing demands at home and work are compounded by decreased opportunities to manage distress through typical social connections and activities. Youth also notice the stress that parents are under and have their own unique stressors with decreased physical connectedness to peers and fewer outlets.  

Gina Gardner: I have seen more children admitted with psychiatric issues. Children are feeling the stress from their parents. They have been isolated away from friends and have increased screen time. Parents are stressed, and that is understandable but need to be aware of what is happening with their kids.

A recent study found a majority of women – who are more likely to be prime caregivers –  are feeling “parental burnout.” What is burnout and how is it different from depression or anxiety?  

Dr. Skehan: ​Burnout is defined as physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that is a product of chronic and extreme stress. Symptoms can include feeling overwhelmed, irritable, or fatigued. It can also be challenging to feel empathy towards others when experiencing burnout. These symptoms may or may not overlap with symptoms of depression and anxiety which can include disruptions in sleep or appetite, sadness, excessive worry, or panic.

What’s contributing to “burnout” beyond our own homes? Social media, the news, etc… should we be avoiding or limiting these? 

Dr. Skehan: ​Individuals experience stress differently. While some may find news helpful to stay informed, others may be overwhelmed by the volume of negative news they experience each day.  Similarly, social media can help people stay connected with others, especially during a time when we need to stay physically distant during a pandemic. Like many habits, excessive time spent on social media or news that prevents people from doing normal activities of daily living can be problematic. If individuals feel like they are unable to limit their engagement in news or social media despite impairment, it would be a good idea to seek help. 

Are the expectations on mothers/parents unrealistic during this crisis? 

Dr. Skehan: ​These are certainly extraordinary times and expectations are difficult to meet. It is important to recognize the different types of expectations and where they are coming from. Partners, children, employers, and others will all have expectations from parents. Often, we also bring our own expectations that may be self-imposed. It is easy at times to confuse aspirations for expectations. During traumatic experiences, children benefit from knowing that they are safe and loved. Addressing physical and emotional needs like food, shelter, and connecting with your children is a good place to start.  

Gina Gardner: There are many parents trying to work from home and be the educator for their kids. Time management is almost impossible for parents who must work. 

What tips can you offer moms who are suffering from “mom guilt”: not being able to give their kids the kind of mom they want to be right now, not having the answers, not being able to “fix” things?  

Dr. Skehan: ​Children can often sense when their parents are struggling. It is ok to discuss your feelings with children in a developmentally appropriate way. Children learn from seeing how their parents respond to situations and being honest with them about not having all of the answers is ok. Modeling healthy ways of coping with distress can promote resiliency in children.  Talking with your kids about your feelings also lets them know it is ok for them to talk to you about similar worries, fears, or sadness. 

There’s been a lot of talk of raising our kids to be resilient. But when many parents are so depleted, how can we teach our kids to roll with the punches? 

Gina Gardner: I am not sure rolling with the punches is the right expression. We must have conversations as a family. Kids need to know that they are not alone and that their feelings matter. They need to feel included as part of a family. 

What would you say to parents who are worried about the long-term impact of the COVID-19 crisis on their children? Many parents feel like so much is out of their control. What can they control? 

Dr. Skehan: There is a lot we don’t know about the long term impact of COVID-19. Parents can always focus on communicating with their kids to see how they are feeling. Reaching out to their kids to ask their opinions about ways to maintain family traditions while being safe demonstrates that they value their ideas.

Gina Gardner: They can control how their families stand together to overcome this.  They can help the kids feel heard and loved.  In some ways this is an opportunity to have dinner together and talk.

In what ways is the way we parents handle this time impacting how children view the world? 

Dr. Skehan: Children reflect behaviors that they see in their parents and peers. Children cannot be expected to do better than their parents and modeling healthy coping strategies for difficult emotions can be helpful for both parents and youth. This can also include getting professional help if you are feeling overwhelmed and talking to your kids about seeking help in a developmentally appropriate way.

Gina Gardner: Children are watching how we are reacting. It is OK to seek medical help if you are overwhelmed and not coping. It is also OK to ask for help with your children. We can’t worry about what the neighbors are thinking.  We are not failures because we seek out psychiatric help for ourselves or for our children. We don’t have to do this alone.

What do we need to keep in mind about our kids right now?

Dr. Skehan: It is important to recognize that technology allows kids (and grownups) to stay connected with others during times when we must be physically distant. While parents may go to work still and leave the home on occasion, it is important to remember that some kids may not leave the home at all, even for school, and finding safe ways for them to stay connected with peers, even through devices, is important for their emotional well being. 

Gina Gardner: Children are struggling, and parents need to find a way to acknowledge what the children are going through. There has been a rapid increase with the number of suicide attempts and eating disorders among our pediatric population. Parents need to stay involved with what is happening with their family. 

Parents do need to fill their own cups; however, their children are looking to them for guidance and limits. Please ask the questions, have the conversations, and be aware of warning signs from your children.

COVID-19 Coping: Redefining “self-care” in a pandemic

As mental health concerns rise as we continue to endure the effects of this pandemic, we must find ways to make self-care a priority. Just like the proverbial oxygen mask on a plane, if you are not well, you can’t take care of others. 

Even when we’re not in the throes of a worldwide pandemic, self-care often slips to the bottom of the list for parents. Moms especially, who are more likely to shoulder parenting, household and other duties, can find it difficult to take time for themselves.

But self-care is not a selfish concept; it’s a necessary one. Taking care of yourself isn’t a luxury. It’s essential. And during this difficult time, enduring months of added stress, it’s more important than ever.

Leigh-Ann Larson, a mental health counselor and founder and CEO of Elevate Counseling Services in South Easton, Bellingham and Middleboro, has ideas to help parents avoid burnout and redefine self-care.

Her recommendations are threefold. You can get through the next months, she said, by taking it one day at a time, by living with authenticity, and with an eye toward creativity and connectedness to others.

Living ‘one day at time’ may sound like a cliché, but Larson said the concept is worth a serious second look during these times. 

“Science has shown us that when we stay in the moment and engage in ‘here and now activities,’ including meditation, yoga, tai chi, and prayer, for example, our brains begin to relax. The chemical response is to calm down our arousal center and experience decreased release of cortisol and adrenaline, two of the hormones that are at the root of stress,” she said. “So why not try a meditation phone app, roll out the yoga mat, and with those wonderful family members of yours, and build five or ten minutes into your day to regroup, reconnect and recharge, one day a time.”

Larson also touts “honesty is the best policy” as a form of caring for ourselves right now. 

“We can be authentic and not ‘stuff’ emotions that eventually catch up with us and cause inflammation and illness or injury in our bodies, not to mention damaging our relationships with the ensuing arguments when we stuff emotions instead of communicating,” she said. “If you are stressed, worried, tired, or simply need some fresh air, let your family know. Your children will benefit from seeing their caregiver take time out to take care of themselves. An added bonus will be the learning that comes from our front line teachers: parents at home, modeling the value of self care and communicating needs. Your doing this will also show them how to connect their emotions to their behaviors and identify and share their own needs in relationship to others.”

Finally, she said we should find outlets, where we can, for creativity.

“Positive Psychology talks about resiliency and flow state activities. Where do we find flow? We find it when we are moving, making music, creating art, writing creatively or working on that ‘passion project.’ We also find it when we are creative with the little things in life that we need to do: setting up a fun “in--home school space” for the kids, putting music on and having a dance break at lunch time, or finding new recipes and ideas for cooking. Finding new ways to do the “same old, same old” can help pass the time and you may discover new traditions that will last even when COVID is over.”