Parental burnout or when a mother’s happiness leads to exhaustion

Becoming a mother brings great happiness! However, most of the time, the reality is far from the hopes ((we) had) during pregnancy: a cute and always smiling baby, sweet babbles as well as adorable little pajamas that stay completely clean… We have an idealistic and garbled vision of motherhood, which is often very far from what we experience after giving birth: interrupted nights that last for months/years, unending and exhausting baby colic, explosive poop all over the place which keep you doing laundry all day and the incessant, inexplicable and inconsolable crying at times ….Sometimes we even feel that motherly love is not enough to get through all of it. When we are expecting twins or triplets, we condition ourselves to be ready to struggle for the first few months after giving birth. However, even here, the reality is way beyond what we could ever imagine. Unfortunately, the risk of parental exhaustion, no matter how many children are concerned, doesn’t limit itself to the first year after delivery.

How to prevent parental burnout?
In this article, I suggest we look at the weaknesses brought about by current social norms, then take note of the signs that should warn you and then finally the main risk factors. All of this is based on my experience as a consultant specialized in the parenting of twins, as well as my own experience as a mother of twins who flirted with professional burnout and parental burnout for many years.

How important is the social context when it comes to parental burnout?
Some studies point the finger at the current social context as the leading cause of increasing parental burnout risk compared to previous generations. Despite its benefits, it must be admitted that positive education is part of this negative context when it drives us to ignore our needs and emotions. We are not superheroes capable of keeping up with sleepless nights and jam packed days without ever breaking down… It is normal to need rest, and also to feel tired and discouraged, or to feel anger or even despair when we don’t find the help or the support we need.

Remember that for previous generations, it wasn’t any better in terms of suffering: parents might not have faced the same pressures of being a perfect parent, but children were frequently punished, isolated, locked up, humiliated, slapped, spanked, beaten… in other words, facing all sorts of small or significant acts of violence, without parents feeling (too) bad about it! For this reason, let’s not regret the ‘good old days’, but instead come to realize that parents nowadays, especially mothers, can be more vulnerable when facing a parental burnout risk. This relates as much to the social isolation that they can be experiencing as well as expectations when it comes to motherhood.

In a nutshell: the gap between our expectations and reality, the loneliness of young mothers, the social pressure of being a positive-minded mother in any circumstance, the mental load, double workdays, social media networks, cult of appearance, our obsession with performance and the “must have it all now” habit are all factors we should consider to put aside and this way, distance ourselves from the parental burnout spectrum.

Parental burnout warning signs
The first parental burnout symptom is physical, emotional, and/or mental exhaustion over a long period. In my opinion, the time element is essential because what young mother doesn’t feel exhausted after several interrupted nights? Fatigue is a warning sign that needs to be weighed fairly: how long have you been unable to sleep for…at least one night or for a minimum 4 hours in a row? If the answer to this is months, watch out! This type of exhaustion can indeed lead to a second burnout symptom: emotional distancing. At this stage, we don’t feel as close, affected, or concerned by our children as we used to be. We do the “bare minimum” in “autopilot” mode, and their pain, cries, or laughter come to us as choked noise, as if we were somehow stuck in cotton wool – or from an unusually far distance (mentally).

This distancing plays a protector role for the body of the person going through this. Don’t feel guilty if you feel like this, as it is not something under your control; however, it is beneficial to make yourself aware of it. Examining the feelings or thoughts you have when you are with your children (for example, by writing an emotional journal) will enable you to detect parental burnout warning signs and react accordingly.

Parental burnout risk factors: « the stressors »
Evidently, personal socio-economic status (financial status, environment and social support…) plays a role in the risk of parents falling into parental burnout. These are the “situational stressors,” which should be taken into consideration from a political standpoint. Realistically, it is tough to act on these stressors individually or directly.

While waiting for family and educational politics in regards to the needs of young families, we can act from a personal perspective, where we find three types of stressors which are all considered as parental burnout risk factors:

  1. Personal stressors: elements tied to our parental persona, especially perfectionism, sensitivity to stress, and difficulties in managing negative emotions.
  2. Stressors related to the relationship with our children: the child’s personality, as well as the way we behave with our child, can increase stress. Yelling, threats and severe punishments can lead children to misbehave even more. Inconsistent education (one day saying yes, one day saying no) can also disrupt their behavior, which will stress the parent out even more…it’s a vicious cycle which you can’t get out of on your own!
  3. Stressors in couples: disagreements about education, arguments, one spouse’s repeated absences. These are all stress factors which, over time, can lead to a parental exhaustion state of mind.

Conclusion: do your assessment when it comes to parental burnout risk
Constant exhaustion, emotional distancing, personal relationship, or marital stressors: if these burnout ingredients are known, then the amount is up to each of us. Every situation is unique, and we don’t all have the same resources and support to face it. Nevertheless, it’s beneficial to monitor yourself to find out where you stand and avoid sinking further. I recommend assessing your situation regularly and noting where you stand for each of the above elements on a scale of 1 (minimum) to 5 (maximum). It will enable you to assess your situation and find out if you need additional support – the same way you would check what is in your fridge before going grocery shopping!

Isabelle Gattlen
Consultante spécialisée en parentalité gémellaire