| Parental burnout

Many symp­toms and ex­pe­ri­ences of post­par­tum de­pres­sion don’t get re­ported or are closely guarded and there­fore, slip through the cracks.

Living Now - - Contents - by Kim­ber­ley Lip­schus

Her hus­band has valiantly taken her two-year-old to the park to have some time out. The baby, still breast-feed­ing, has re­mained be­hind but has other ideas. She has shrieked and arched her back for the en­tire two pro­tracted hours since the other two de­parted. Now mum feels noth­ing but sheer cliffs of ex­haus­tion and when fi­nally, ut­terly fa­tigued, her baby falls into a sound­less sleep, she can’t get down the stairs fast enough. Toss­ing her two-hour old, ice-cold cup of tea down the sink, her nerves are shat­tered. No rest, no break, and her hus­band is due back with their tod­dler any minute. Her win­dow of ‘rest’ squan­dered by the in­fant, she stares down the coal­face of eight more hours be­fore she can sleep. It is in this mo­ment of de­spair that the voice starts, bel­liger­ent and pu­ri­tan­i­cal, in­form­ing her that she’s a fail­ure, use­less. A bad mother. She flees from the voice out to the deck. It’s there she looks up, and sees them. The strong beams that hold up the roof, just miss­ing some rope, which she knows is coiled on the shelf in the garage. Sling it over, make a noose. It would be that easy. And then they’d all be free from the ter­ri­ble mother who lives with them. The joy­less wreck.


‘Post­par­tum de­pres­sion’ (PPD) and ‘anx­i­ety’ are buzz­words and well, they should be. The im­pacts of a mother strug­gling with de­pres­sion or anx­i­ety are far reach­ing and the im­pacts can be in­ter­gen­er­a­tional: moth­ers pass­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences on to their chil­dren. De­pressed moth­ers’ at­tach­ment to their ba­bies changes the course of how a baby and mother bond. Not only are spousal re­la­tion­ships deeply al­tered, but there is of­ten a spillover of the symp­toms oc­cur­ring in other fam­ily mem­bers. Part­ners of women suf­fer­ing PPD have a much higher chance of a sim­i­lar di­ag­no­sis. What should be the most sig­nif­i­cant time in a new par­ent’s life is in­stead bleached of joy and white­washed with trauma.

There’s an­other side of the coin called ‘parental burnout’, or ‘parental de­ple­tion’. This is the un­pop­u­lar cousin of post­par­tum de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. Dr. Os­car Ser­ral­lach (2017, unp.) is an in­te­gra­tive med­i­cal doc­tor who has ad­dressed the broader health is­sues re­lated to moth­ers (par­tic­u­larly those who have chil­dren later in life). He claims that these moth­ers are more likely to strug­gle “hor­mon­ally, nu­tri­tion­ally and emo­tion­ally”. Poor en­ergy lev­els and mood dis­tur­bance could point to PPD but they can also be what he calls ‘post­na­tal de­ple­tion’. Ser­ral­lach poses that post­na­tal de­ple­tion looks like PPD but the two are in fact dif­fer­ent. From a ther­a­peu­tic per­spec­tive he notes that re­cov­ery de­pends upon “holis­ti­cally ad­dress­ing and at­tend­ing to a mother’s bi­ol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy and life-pur­pose”.

Ob­tain­ing a di­ag­no­sis or la­bel is vi­tal how­ever, be­cause with­out it, there is no name for what moth­ers (and their part­ners) en­dure, and it des­per­ately needs treat­ment. This ig­nored cousin may ac­tu­ally be a pre­cur­sor to PPD and if de­tected in par­ents at the post­na­tal de­ple­tion stage, we may be able to pre­vent it from es­ca­lat­ing fur­ther.


• Feel­ings of de­tach­ment and dis­con­nect to­wards loved ones or your child • Ex­haus­tion • Feel­ing like you’re not good enough – oth­ers can do this moth­er­hood thing, so why can’t you? • Hy­per vig­i­lance – a sense of not be­ing

able to fin­ish the never-end­ing to-do list • Yearn­ing to be alone and away from

your child or part­ner • Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a lack of feel­ing

ac­com­plished • Liv­ing with a sense of per­vad­ing

ap­a­thy or pes­simism Put sim­ply, if you feel, ‘your child is a bur­den and your rep­ri­mand out­weighs your nur­tur­ing’, you can prob­a­bly as­sume you have in­creased ir­ri­tabil­ity, which can be a key pre­dic­tor for parental burnout, ac­cord­ing to Dr Alan Kazdin, Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­ogy at Yale Univer­sity.

What can you do if you sus­pect you may have parental burnout? • Seek sup­port. Sup­port is the an­ti­dote. Find a good ther­a­pist, talk to friends, fam­ily. • Try to have time out and away from

your baby, even short bursts. • Com­mit to reg­u­lar, light ex­er­cise –

out­doors prefer­ably. • Find an in­te­gra­tive doc­tor and have your hor­monal lev­els, a full blood count, and pyrroles checked. • Don’t fear the neg­a­tive voice but be­gin to dis­tance your­self from it. In­stead of be­rat­ing your­self for be­ing a bad mother, say, “I’m notic­ing I’m feel­ing like I’m a bad mother.” • Ad­mit you’re de­pleted, be­cause guess

what? You’re hu­man. • Be gen­tle with your­self. You’re not

alone. Ev­ery par­ent strug­gles. Of­ten. • When you hold your baby, don’t hold your breath. Stress causes us to hold our breath and your baby will read these sig­nals like a mas­ter. Ex­hale, and baby will re­lax.


If you’re in the midst of this it may sound far reach­ing, but life can re­veal shades of colours deeper and wider than is imag­in­able. Of course life throws curve balls – grief and loss hap­pens. Who hasn’t lost it with their kids or felt mother guilt? Some­times we fight with our part­ners. But these mo­ments can be our great­est gift. They are key in­di­ca­tors that we need a break. Mums aren’t su­per­hu­man; there aren’t tribes like there used to be, nor any per­fect par­ent­ing man­ual (and frankly, for new par­ents Google is a quag­mire of con­fu­sion). Par­ents need sup­port and lots of it. When we learn to put that pu­ri­tan­i­cal voice back in her box where she be­longs, she’ll sim­ply come to un­der­stand that she no longer runs the show. You do.

The day will come when your baby will even­tu­ally teeter out into the world, and so will you, trail­ing af­ter your child. You’ll both make your way slowly to the park, mar­veling at the dew on a leaf or the squeals of de­light as baby's out­reached chubby hand feels flow­ers while glid­ing past in the pram. You may then re­alise that by ex­pe­ri­enc­ing mo­ments of dark­ness, the light you see now is that much brighter. ■ NOTE: Kim­ber­ley does not ad­vo­cate ceas­ing any med­i­ca­tion or ig­nor­ing pro­fes­sional di­ag­noses. Any pre­scrip­tions should be used in con­junc­tion with pro­fes­sional sup­port, not in place of it. Ref­er­ences can be found on the on­line ver­sion at www.liv­ing­now.com.au Con­nect with other read­ers & com­ment on this ar­ti­cle at www.liv­ing­now.com.au Kim­ber­ley is a women’s psy­chother­a­pist, spe­cial­is­ing in re­pro­duc­tive and ma­ter­nal men­tal health. She has a long­stand­ing fas­ci­na­tion with the hu­man con­di­tion and story and prac­tices in Byron Bay and via Skype. Her book, ‘ The Space Be­tween’, is due out in 2017.

The im­pacts of a mother strug­gling with de­pres­sion or anx­i­ety are far reach­ing and the im­pacts can be in­ter­gen­er­a­tional: moth­ers pass­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences on to their chil­dren.

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