Un­der­stand­ing parental burnout

‘Parental burnout’ is a sci­en­tif­i­cally re­searched syn­drome. What com­pounds the pres­sure on fam­i­lies?

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health | Parental Burnout - Sheila Way­man

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?’.”

Be­havioural prob­lems

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.”

Dual-earn­ing par­ents

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.

Con­stant con­nec­tiv­ity

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?

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