If you’re feeling burnt out, exhausted and overwhelmed you’re not alone! Parent or caregiver burnout is a real thing that many parents experience, but it’s not always talked about or addressed properly.
However, the line between burnout and postpartum depression can be gray, so if you are experiencing these symptoms, check in with your primary care provider.
The information in this post came from the conversation I had with Wendy McCallum, Professional Coach & Corporate Wellness Expert on my podcast Bringing Up Baby. Wendy is also the host of Bite-Sized Balance Podcast, so check her out there!
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is a phenomenon that happens when we have stress over a long period of time that isn’t effectively managed. The World Health Organization focuses on the occupational or workplace component of burnout, however burnout can happen without any workplace stress.
Burnout happens to parents and caregivers because they are so often overwhelmed with tasks, anticipating everyone else’s needs and not getting enough sleep. You may feel preoccupied with caregiving when you're not caregiving, making it hard to work and participate in other life activities.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, wiped out, disconnected and disenchanted, you may be experiencing burnout.
You may feel like your life looks great on paper. You have worked hard to create this life, you have a great partner, career, the family you always wanted, financial stability and a lovely home, but you still feel like something is missing. You feel a general undercurrent of dissatisfaction, or a hole that needs to be filled.
Here are a few signs to help you recognize if you are experiencing burnout.
The first major sign of burnout is exhaustion. It’s usually a combination of physical exhaustion and mental exhaustion.
If you are usually a glass half full, positive and optimistic person, and now you are feeling more glass half empty, cynical and pessimistic, you may be experiencing burnout.
Decreased work performance if working, or a decrease in productivity as well as a decreased ability to focus, generally comes along with burnout.
Unable To Relax
You are unable to shut off the source of stress while you are away from the stress, like constantly thinking about work while at home or vice versa.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
Increased reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms is really common in burnout. They can come in different forms, but for a lot of parents it’s reliance on food, alcohol, social media and/or shopping.
Wendy McCallum has a free burnout checklist on her website that you can download
Recovering From Burnout
Unchecked burnout will eventually lead to physical problems, which might come in the form of obesity, depression, or high blood pressure. It’s incredibly important to recover from burnout, not just for our mental health, but also for our long term physical health.
To truly recover from burnout, you’re going to have to consciously choose to make some changes.
The first thing you need to do is figure out how to not be chronically busy, which is easier said than done! Start putting a structure in place in your day that allows you to actually get what you need, which frankly is different for everybody.
To figure out what you need, take a hard look at how your day is filled and how many of those activities actually bring you energy and joy, and how many of them drain you of energy and joy.
Then you can start pulling in some new activities that will actually support you, make you feel better, and keep you resilient and healthy mentally and physically.
Preventing Burnout As A Parent
Set Realistic Expectations
We need to set realistic expectations for ourselves. Comparison culture around parenting causes huge problems, because we see so many parents on social media who look like their lives are perfect, and that is just not the case.
We need to ask ourselves “what really matters to me?” Think about the things that are non-negotiable for you, as opposed to doing things because other people are doing them or because someone else is telling you to.
Discover What Makes You Feel Good
This is something you probably need to spend some time reflecting on, or a little experimenting in your own life.
Understand that this will change over time as your child(ren) gets older, and that’s totally normal!
Learn How To Say No
Learning how to say no can be one of the hardest things to do as women and parents. It’s not just saying no to our kids, but to everybody.
You need to learn how to not automatically agree to do everything that everybody asks of you, and start setting some boundaries around that.
It can be helpful to have a script in your mind, so that when you’re put on the spot, you don’t automatically agree to what someone is asking of you. It needs to be truthful and about you and not feel judgemental or rude in any way.
If you're the mom of young kids, it might be as simple as, “you know what, I tried to do all this other stuff for a while, and it just wasn't working for me. So I'm gonna have to say no.”
The real solution to burnout is not rocket science, we need to figure out how to slow down and do a little less. I know you're gonna be busy as a parent, but cutting out the things that make you feel like you can’t wait for the day to be over is a great start.
Self Care As A Parent
Self care doesn’t need to be fancy like a day at the spa. Self care is what you actually need, and it’s likely different for everybody. If you are someone with small children, you might need some quiet time where you aren’t tending to other people’s needs.
It can be difficult to figure out how to make that happen. If you have a partner, or a support system, ask them to handle the kids for a period of time so you can go for a walk, read a book alone, or do whatever makes you feel joy. Asking for help is really key in order to carve out time for yourself. It can really make the difference between getting burnt out, or preventing it from happening.
Pillars of Self Care
Wendy McCallum looks at 4 pillars when it comes to self care:
Sometimes it’s really hard to keep all of your pillars intact, sleep suffers most often as parents with young kids, but if you can keep other pillars strong, you will have less chance of experiencing burnout.
Often as parents we are looking forward to the next thing - eating solids, potty training, going down from three naps to two, starting to crawl then walk. This spills over into other areas of our lives like looking forward to promotions, our next vacation, or when you might get a house. All of these thoughts take us out of the present moment.
When we spend a lot of time thinking about the next thing, we may feel anxious, and a gratitude practice is a way to help manage some of the anxiety - although you may need additional support like therapy, or medications, and that’s okay.
When you are just trying to get through the day, practicing gratitude can help you focus on the present, and those little moments that bring you joy.
Gratitude is a practice that trains your brain to be in the present moment more often. You don’t need to have a fancy journal, in fact you don’t even have to write it down if you don’t want to.
It’s about noticing the small moments in time that you need to be present for to really experience. Something like your child saying “Good morning Mama” or being able to spend time in the sun with your book.
It can take just a few minutes a day to practice, and if you do it consistently, eventually your brain will get better at recognizing those moments.
If you’re reading through this post and realizing that you are feeling exhausted, and ready for the day to be over, it’s a really common place for parents to get to, and you are not alone. But it is important to recognize that you are feeling that way and make some changes.
The important steps are:
Lastly, realize that nobody is nailing parenthood. Not one person. And the majority of those people that you see out there on Facebook or Instagram who look like they're nailing it, are probably in the same boat as you.
Ashley Cooley is a birth, baby and sleep specialist living in Dartmouth, NS with her husband and their three girls.