Understanding parental burnout
‘Parental burnout’ is a scientifically researched syndrome. What compounds the pressure on families?
Much more to do and less time to do it in – a formula for stress at best and, at worst, complete, paralysing exhaustion. It’s a scenario that characterises modern parenting – adults working full-time outside the home, maybe with long commutes, then trying to pack lots of enriching activities, along with home-cooked food, into their children’s lives – all while maintaining a family home worthy of Pinterest. Maybe parenting alone or having a child with special needs is adding an extra layer to the burden, while homelessness must make the load near intolerable.
So no wonder “parental burnout” has become a scientifically researched syndrome all of its own – as distinct but not dissimilar to professional burnout. The three legs of the collapsing stool are: exhaustion, a given for most parents at some stage; inefficacy, defined as lacking the capacity to produce the desired effect – another familiar feeling when dealing with children; and “depersonalisation”, or “emotional distancing”.
A Belgian study, the results of which were published earlier this year in the journal
Frontiers in Psychology, set out to explore the concept of “parental burnout” that had emerged in the 2000s. Could it be precisely defined and measured, and would those affected meet clinical criteria?
Although the survey of 2,000 parents found similarities with professional burnout and depression, there wasn’t total overlap – “ie parental burnout is not just burnout and it is not just depression”, it said.
Researchers from the Université Catholique de Louvain concluded that 12.7 per cent of the parents surveyed (12.9 per cent of the mothers, 11.6 per cent of the fathers) belonged to the “high burnout” category, and 8.8 per cent (almost equal numbers of mothers and fathers) were deemed to being experiencing burnout at the time.
To be expected
To talk of parental burnout is “pathologising something that is to be expected”, suggests child and adolescent psychoanalytical psychotherapist Colman Noctor, of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in Dublin. “As a concept, I think parental burnout is fairly inevitable” – whether you have one or 10 children, and whether they are babies, toddlers or teenagers, there are going to be times of stress and anxiety.
“I think like everything else, it has been amplified in the last five to 10 years because the culture we live in is a psychologically unhealthy environment,” he says.
Ours is a socially comparative culture like never before, so the parental burden can come from trying to keep up with neighbours, friends and all the people you follow on Facebook. We’re bombarded with advice on parenting, while providers of children’s activities are falling over themselves to convince you to add to the household’s timetabling headaches.
“Guilt is one of the most corrosive emotions,” points out Noctor. For instance, if you walk in and find your three-year-old writing on the walls with a crayon and you let a roar at them, that’s instinctual and understandable. “But the book says you shouldn’t raise your voice, so you spend two hours giving yourself a hard time. I think that ruminative aspect adds to the whole position of ‘am I failing?’.”
It’s hard enough raising typically developing children, but in Noctor’s line of work he is seeing parents of children with autism or behavioural problems who are completely overwhelmed. Pale-faced parents with bags under their eyes, “who are just wiped out and feel they have failed”. So he acknowledges the “very real pain”, but he is still doubtful about labelling it.
In the 1980s, the essentials of parenting amounted to little more than feeding children, keeping them warm and giving them the odd hug, he says, whereas now the expectation of is so different.
“The fallout from that is, I think, people becoming emotionally distressed and exhausted. And not just mothers” – a belief borne out by the Belgian research.
“Maybe dads don’t have as much hands-on experience as the mums and are just involved majorly in the weekend bits. That gets more stressful because it is so intense over two days” – and he speaks from experience as a father of three.
Indeed, the authors of the study remark that while many workers who suffer burnout may see family life as a safe haven, “for many parents incurring burnout, work seems to be a safe place”. It’s the lack of such a bolt-hole that surely compounds the pressure for stay-at-home parents.
The perfect recipe for guilt is to “reduce your access and increase your expectation”, says Noctor. He is not immune himself.
His son plays on the local under-sevens Gaelic football team and some of his team-mates are much stronger than he is. So Noctor has stood on the sidelines thinking “that’s because their dads are out playing football with them every night – it’s my fault”.
Unrealistic parental expectations can only end in disappointment, which rubs off on children too.
“If my lad is coming off the GAA pitch and I’ve got a sad face, thinking ‘I wish you were better’, I might not be wishing he was better for him but for me as a Dad,” he says. Whereas the healthy response is to give the boy a hug and ask him did he enjoy it, rather than forensically assessing your own ability as a parent.
Changed expectations around parenting is what Prof Jane Gray of the sociology department at Maynooth University also singles out as one of the most important factors in the phenomenon of parental burnout.
“There has, certainly in sociology, been substantial literature on his idea of ‘concerted cultivation’ – that middle-class parents feel responsible to invest a lot of time and energy in preparing their children for success in their future lives by bringing them to classes and teaching them languages,” she explains. “This seems to be the main source of additional stress – for both parents and children actually.”
People often think we have less time to spend with our children but research shows that in the era of the more traditional breadwinner and stay-at-home parent, “they didn’t spend much more ‘quality’ time with their children than dual-earning parents do today because these parents try to preserve time and are more committed to this idea. That is a counter-intuitive finding.”
Any kind of social mobility seems to require huge investment on the part of parents as the structure of society changes, she says. And there are two narratives.
“One, that we need to allow children to spend more traditional time in nature and hanging out with their friends and that those are the things that make for a good childhood.”
Against that there is some research evidence showing that parents are right, that there is linkage between taking your children to classes and structured activities and doing well in school and later in life.
“There is a trade-off there,” she adds, “but it is really about our values and what we think is important for our families and our children.”
“Burnout” is not a term callers to Parentline use. Rather, they talk of being “overwhelmed – it’s just all too much”, reports its chief executive, Rita O’Reilly. The volunteers who operate the listening service have noticed certain trends over the years that increase pressure on families – most obviously the fact that it is a lot more common to have both parents working outside the home full-time.
On top of that there is constant connectivity – “everyone contacts everybody at every time of the day”, she points out, be that your boss, your customers, your friends or your extended family. It all eats into family time.
Also, “there’s a huge amount of keeping up with the Joneses, by both the kids and the parents,” she says. Mothers feel they have to look good at the school gate – a recent poster on Rollercoaster asked for advice on “school-run style” because she felt her gym gear no longer cut it – and the house has to be perfect.
There is a trade-off there, but it is really about our values and what we think is important for our families and our children
Is parental burnout inevitable or just an urban and rural myth?