Lee-Ann* and her husband were over the moon when they welcomed their first child. She knew motherhood would be a new experience, but she was not prepared for the changes in stress levels she soon endured.
Within weeks, Lee-Ann was experiencing new mood, behavioral, and physical changes. She felt tired and extremely stressed in her role as a new mom, and she was scared that something bad would happen to her baby. At times Lee-Ann found herself crying for no reason—and she wasn’t sure why.
A former scuba diver, Lee-Ann had always thought of herself as someone who could handle pressure. “I was never a stressed person beforehand. I had never felt so much anxiety before,” she says.
Finally, Lee-Ann told her own mother how she was feeling. It was her mom who first suggested it might be parental burnout.
Burnout might be the last thing you think about when planning for a new baby. “I myself used to think burnout was a term only used in the workplace,” states Ashurina Ream, PsyD, PMH-C, a licensed clinical psychologist and perinatal mental health specialist. “I never imagined that it would be used to describe the parenting experience.”
Stress is normal for new parents, but parental burnout is something more. It’s a very real phenomenon that we’re just now beginning to understand.
Learn more about parental burnout in this video with Dr. Ream:
Read on to learn more about parental burnout, how to recognize the signs and symptoms, and how to get support.
Defining Parental Burnout
For many people, raising children is one of the most rewarding experiences life has to offer. At the same time, having a kid can be quite stressful—whether it’s your first or your fourth, whether you have a newborn or teenager.
An estimated 3.5 million U.S. parents are currently experiencing burnout, which goes beyond common levels of parental stress. A 2018 study defined parental burnout as “a specific syndrome resulting from enduring exposure to chronic parenting stress.” This experience can negatively impact your well-being and how you interact with your child or children.
How can this happen when new parenthood is supposed to be such a happy time? “When we have a baby, there’s a major disruption in our roles as people. We go from caring for ourselves to now caring for another human being’s existence,” Dr. Ream explains. “Parental burnout is typically a result of overwhelming demands and too few resources.”
Add to that sleep deprivation, new and daily challenges, strain on our relationships, changes in our physical bodies, little time for relaxation, and limited connection with others—and it’s easy to see how this could become a recipe for burnout.
Parental Burnout Signs and Symptoms
When you’re in the thick of it, it can be difficult to tell normal parenting stress from parental burnout. According to researchers, parental burnout has three overarching features: 1) overwhelming exhaustion related to parenting; 2) emotional distancing from your child; and 3) a sense that you are ineffective as a parent.
You might be experiencing parental burnout if:
- You’re tired most of the time and rest doesn’t restore you.
- You engage in an addictive behavior to cope with daily stress (such as drinking alcohol).
- Your health is declining.
- You have a shorter temper.
- You don’t feel like you’re doing a good job as a parent.
- You feel emotionally disconnected from your child.
- You feel “touched out” (caring for a baby or toddler is a contact sport!).
- It seems you’re always in a bad mood.
- You’re forgetting things more often than usual.
Lee-Ann knew there was a problem when she started dozing off in the middle of the day. “That was a big turnaround moment in my life,” she recalls. “I decided it was best for my family if I focused on my needs too.”
How To Cope with Parental Burnout
Sound or feel familiar? Dr. Ream and other experts recommend three ways to lower the stress of parenting.
In other words, treat yourself like you treat others. When those we love fall short, we often make allowances, show grace, and offer support. But as parents (or parents-to-be), we tend to magnify our shortcomings instead. “As parents we beat ourselves up, set the expectations far too high, and get caught in the spiral of negative thinking,” Dr. Ream elaborates. So if you only have the energy to serve cereal for dinner, let it go!
Also notice the way you speak to yourself. Does it sound like a supportive friend? If not, challenge that voice. “When you find yourself struggling with self-compassion, ask ‘How can I comfort myself right now?’ or ‘What do I need?’” says Dr. Ream. “This will be far more productive than putting yourself down.”
Make time for play.
Leisure time can sound like a far-fetched concept to exhausted parents, but it’s important to take breaks. It could be calling a friend, listening to music, going to bed early, watching an episode of your favorite show … whatever recharges you.
Dr. Ream reminds us that self-care is not just an act of doing. “Sometimes self-care is setting boundaries with people or our time,” she says. “Try saying ‘yes’ to things that interest you, and saying ‘no’ when you really want to.”
Although we live in a super-connected world, not all those connections are authentic. You might have hundreds of friends but feel there’s no one you can count on for favors or be brutally honest with. Lee-Ann reports feeling this way herself, as she was the first of her friend group to have a child.
To change this, Dr. Ream recommends nurturing your existing friendships while seeking out new interests or groups. And while nothing beats face-to-face, virtual connections totally count! Text messages, phone calls, or video chats can be just what you need when you’re feeling isolated. “This can feel hard at first, but building a support network with people you can truly rely on is extremely beneficial, especially during this time as a new parent,” attests Dr. Ream.
For Lee-Ann, the solution was a combination of all three. She turned to deep breathing and yoga to help de-stress. She also joined a support group so she could meet other moms who were going through the same thing. These new friends could be trusted to watch her child on occasion—something she had struggled with postpartum.
Finally, Lee-Ann learned to delegate what was on her plate, recognizing she had been trying to do too much for too long. “Parenting tasks don’t all need to be done perfectly, so don’t try doing them all yourself,” she shares. Most of all, delegating gave her more precious time to bond with her child.
Back to Good
These tips will not cure parental burnout, but they are a place to start. Remember to take things one step and one day at a time—and if you’re not feeling better, it’s a good idea to seek professional help.
“Maybe this week you choose one strategy to focus on. Then next week, you can try another,” Dr. Ream suggests. “Break it down into smaller pieces, and find what works best for you.”
*Lee-Ann’s name has been changed to protect her family’s privacy.
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