Parents are often cast as real-life superheroes. At its bare roots, a parent’s job is quite literally to keep their children alive, which (if you ask me) makes it undoubtedly one of the most stressful jobs on the planet. Parenting is a notoriously thankless job from which you are expected never to “clock out” (or at least not for eighteen years). In any other field, parents would be touted “workaholics” or told they are “working themselves to death” for such an unsustainable work ethic. In academia such workers would have built-in sabbatical to offer reprieve from the extended periods of stress and expectation. But not in parenting. Parents are superhuman and they’re expected to take everything in stride and be thankful for the opportunity to rear children. And while calling parents “Superheroes” for the grace and ease at which they go about their parental duties, could this accolade be creating a stigma around being open and honest about the struggle of feeling burnt-out?
Burn-out is a mental health phenomenon that has been gaining a lot of notoriety recently. While it’s typically associated with stressful jobs where deadlines are tight, and expectations are high, we can experience burnout from any number of areas in our lives. Global lockdowns over the past two years seemed to be the catalyst for widespread burnout (or at least the ball that got the conversation rolling) and employers were forced to react before their entire workforce decided to choose their mental health over a job. Major corporations have made steps to combat the spread of job burnout by implementing 4-day workweeks, compensated access to therapists, and encouraging teamwork or shared accountability to off-load personal stress, but it’s typically our own responsibility to source these outlets in the other areas of our life like home life and interpersonal relationships.
It's no surprise that parents were among the demographics reporting burnout at the highest rates throughout lockdown (Healthline). With Work From Home protocols and school closures, parents were suddenly pushed into the world of full-time caregiving and home school teaching, on top of their regular employment responsibilities with no real division to separate one role from the next. And while it was suddenly celebrated (and even encouraged) for workers to be open and honest about their struggles with burnout, parents are still being guilted into keeping quiet about their feelings of exhaustion, hopelessness, and irritability. In parenting, there are no built-in vacation days, no granted personal time, and no social encouragement to “jet-sail away” for some much-needed R&R that are afforded to other professions. Instead parents are shamed for admitting if they sometimes want to run away and never look back - a running joke made in almost every other field.
Experiencing burnout is extremely common, and while parenting, like many jobs, can be exceptionally difficult and tiring, it does not need to get to the point of total and hopeless exhaustion. Burnout can manifest in a number of different ways ranging from feeling helpless and totally unmotivated, to physical ailments like neck pain and muscle aches. It can often be difficult for parents to recognize or accept that they need a break from time to time- heaven forbid they lose their Superhero title, but routinely stepping away from parental responsibilities and partaking in self-care activities are likely what will end up making you a better parent. This is because burnt out parents are often prone to irritability, detachment, and exhibit lower levels of patience with their own children (Healthline). So, it seems to me, that creating a healthy balance between parent roles and personal agenda, the way we are encouraged to create work-life balance, is the real Superhero move.
Self-care for parents doesn’t have to mean running away from it all and never looking back, as tempting as that may be. It can be as simple as checking in with your mental health from time to time. Take your in-laws up on their offer to take your kids to the park in the afternoon, ask your partner to undertake full parenting duties while you take a bubble bath (with noise cancelling headphones), and be open and honest if you are struggling. If can be tempting to want to be present for every moment of your child’s life so that you never miss a important moment or a landmark “first”, but if you and your children deserve the authentic, Superhero parent you are for those moments, and as Snickers would say, “You’re not you when you’re burnt out”.