Parental burnout: how juggling kids and work in a global pandemic brought us to the brink

·10-min read

“I’m tired of how blurred the lines are between home and work,” Julia Thomas tells me as her two boys repeatedly ask for snacks in the background. Thomas lives in London with her husband, twin 11-year-old boys and a daughter, seven. She is a civil servant, but says she is feeling so burned out by childcare that she’s considering quitting her job completely. She isn’t sleeping properly, her back and hips ache from sitting at a desk all day and her constant to-do list makes life feel chaotic.

“Quitting my job feels like a big deal. I feel guilty, as if I’m letting the sisterhood down – but this situation is untenable,” she says. “The children are downstairs, while my husband and I are upstairs on Zoom meetings. We can still hear the sibling fights, even when we’re working, and when it gets bad they bring the problem to you.”

Thomas is not alone. On social media it’s hard to miss how the usual stresses and strains of parenting have been intensified by the pandemic. Parents write about the difficulties of home schooling while trying to work, of self-isolating with young children or looking after a new baby with no outside help. There’s also the delicate task of managing children’s anxieties throughout the pandemic, and coping with any financial pressures brought about by such a turbulent time.

With all of this going on, it’s no wonder the kind of constant stress usually associated with overly demanding, high-pressure careers has suddenly blossomed at home. Most mornings, I’m forced out of bed by a child’s scream – either a demand for food, or a shriek of pain after a fight with a sibling. Like the walking dead, I drag myself out of bed. As a working mother of three small boys, I am perpetually exhausted and feel as if I am stuck on a pendulum that swings between overwhelming love and maternal rage.

“I think I have parental burnout,” I say to my husband. “Do you have it, too?” He looks at me as if I’m mad. “Of course!” he says. A poll carried out by Savanta ComRes earlier this year found that 45% of parents feel burned out, while a study by Oxford university found levels of stress, anxiety and depression rose in parents and carers during the pandemic lockdowns.

Parental burnout was first identified in the early 1980s by the Belgian psychology researchers Isabelle Roskam and Moïra Mikolajczak. It has been described as “an exhaustion syndrome, characterised by feeling physically and mentally overwhelmed” by being a parent.

Sarah Naish of The Centre of Excellence in Child Trauma says while caring for children can be physically tiring at the best of times, in parental burnout, this exhaustion becomes so severe parents begin to feel the need to distance themselves from their child. “Our brains are good at protecting us and when there is relentless stress there is a physiological change in the brain to try to relieve that stress,” she says. “This is why a common way we can identify compassion fatigue is when a parent describes the feelings of dread they experience when they see or hear the child approaching.”

The family therapist Michelle Qureshi says she has seen more and more parental burnout. “What I hear in my sessions are parents constantly trying to give the best to their children, working intense and long hours, looking after the home, maintaining a healthy partnership and fitting in a social life. There is immense societal and peer pressure to be the best parent, and if you are a single parent this can be even more overwhelming.”

Financial problems caused by the pandemic have added to parents’ stress, a situation Sabeena Akhtar has experienced.

The 35-year-old from Watford lives with her husband, Ismail, and their four children, who are 14, nine, eight and one. The youngest was born during lockdown just as hospital services were being closed, meaning Sabeena had to go through a 24-hour labour alone before being sent home with a newborn.

Usually, her mother would come to her aid, looking after her for 40 days after the birth; a tradition in some south Asian cultures. “I was looking forward to having my mum help, and do the cooking, but because of lockdown that didn’t happen,” she says.

Then Sabeena, who is a freelance festival organiser and author, found the contract she was relying on to cover her maternity pay was cut due to Covid, and she had to return to work just days after giving birth. “I was working constantly and breastfeeding during Zoom calls. It has been non-stop.”

A year and a half on, she feels more, not less, exhausted. “I feel as if I mother through muscle memory, and zone out while making breakfasts, brushing hair, cutting toenails. I used to be incredibly calm, but I’m now short-tempered, I swear a lot in my head, I feel perpetually guilty and the mental load is becoming unbearable.”

For parents of children with special needs, the same problems can apply – but many found themselves with less support thanks to cuts in government funding. Suzy Camp, 47, lives near Woking, with her husband and their two sons. Her eldest was diagnosed with cerebellar atrophy at 18 months. Now 13, he’s non-verbal, and still in nappies. Camp worked in recruitment and property for 20 years, but quit when the work-parent balance became unmanageable.

“At this point it feels like we are done in, and there’s little hope on the horizon. There’s no wraparound childcare for kids with special needs,” she says, adding that the paperwork needed to apply for any help is complicated. Worryingly, the Disabled Children’s Partnership says that nearly three-quarters of disabled children have seen the progress managing their conditions and their overall development regress due to the pandemic. According to its research, more than 70% of disabled children are still unable to access pre-pandemic levels of therapies and health services, while a staggering 90% of disabled children and 60% of their parents feel socially isolated.

Camp and her family are entitled to four hours’ respite a week, but the council can’t recruit for it – leaving them without a break. Unsurprisingly, when we speak, Camp sounds exhausted and says the unrelenting demands have taken their toll. “I’m just so tired and find it difficult to be positive. Simple things like emptying the dishwasher feel like a mountain to climb. I’m a pretty resilient person, but all this impacts on my mental health.” According to the Disabled Children’s Partnership #LeftinLockdown campaign, despite the prevalence of relationship breakdown and social isolation in parents of children with disabilities, 40% of local authorities have cut respite care for families.

To try to maintain her sense of wellbeing, Camp listens to the radio and writes. Sarah Naish says a “brain break” like this is the simplest way to ease burnout. “It can range from a whole, vacant, stare-y eyed week, to zoning out for a minute when a child is talking nonsense at you. In between that is mindfulness, meditation and more formal approaches, but a short brain break can consist of playing a game on your phone or focusing on something in the distance in order to take your mind away.”

The psychotherapist and author Philippa Perry advises parents worried about reaching burnout to set boundaries long before limits are reached. “It is important to respect our own tiredness limits while we’ve still got the patience to do it.”

And, she says, it is helpful to communicate properly why you are doing this. “When you set a boundary, don’t pretend it’s for the children. They can see through that. It’ll drive them crazy. So it’s, ‘We are leaving the park in five minutes because I’m cold and hungry’ and not ‘You need your lunch now so we’re going home’. We have to put ourselves first sometimes and we should not pretend we don’t.”

This is something Gary Cole, 47, a father of two from Sussex, has learned the hard way.

“The foundation of my burnout came when I was worried about the future of my company, and my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer,” he says. “I didn’t have work for a while over lockdown, and when it lifted all this work came in and I said yes to it.

“Men often deal with parental guilt by working, feeling they need to provide for their family. I threw myself into it and worked continuously. It began to feel like Groundhog Day. Monday to Friday was one shift, and then the weekends and evenings just felt like another. Managing moaning children before work isn’t good, and then you finish work, and you’re back to it again. I started to become quite irritable. I’m very optimistic, usually, but I felt like a horrible bag of negative emotions. I don’t think I was depressed. I was tired and grumpy, and lost hope. I tried self-care but it didn’t help, and it felt like a landslide.”

Things changed when a couple of members of his team took him aside and asked if he was OK. “They gave me some tough feedback but in a very caring way, and that was a wake-up call.”

Gary is a business consultant and coach. He says he’s seen many people in similar situations to him in the last few months. “I recently re-interviewed members of a company I’d spoken to before the pandemic. They’d been fun, creative types before lockdown, but when I spoke to them again, their personalities had been greyed and deadened. They just seemed to have less hope.”

Gary pulled himself back from the brink by making small changes to his life. He started swimming, and when restrictions lifted, he took a holiday, locking his phone in the hotel safe for two weeks. Unfortunately, not everyone has this luxury.

Brindha McDonald, 43, is a single parent from London and has a grownup daughter and two boys, nine and eight. She is a civil servant, and her job can be unpredictable with long hours and travel. Although her ex-husband has the boys at weekends, parenting alone during the week is hard work.

“I put myself under a lot of pressure to be seen as an equal to my male peers, so I probably shield work from a lot of the pressures that I have in my life, because I want to demonstrate I can do it all.”

“The mental load of things I have to do, from buying sink unblocker, to signing them up for clubs is always in my head. It can leave me absent-minded.”

Brindha tells me she has always been optimistic, but she is so burned out she finds herself crying in private. “Once I’ve had that release, I get back on the treadmill. I think parental burnout is probably par for the course.”

Qureshi thinks simplifying our lives and trusting ourselves more could help with these strains. “Parents are cramming in after-school activities which also run into the weekend, and missing out on what used to be relaxing family weekends. If we don’t, we feel guilty. We are trusting our instincts less, and being influenced by others.” Trying to bring humour and laughter into parenting can help ease the stress.

All three of my children start school or playgroup this year. This has made me feel more hopeful. But so have the words of Sarah Naish: “Take heart! You have not turned into a monster parent, your brain is just doing its job. Once you have identified the fact that you have reached compassion fatigue and take action to remedy that, balance will be restored.” I look forward to it.

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