We all know about job burnout. We talk about it and device strategies to deal with it. Most employers will give you an annual leave, sick leaves and in some cases, paid vacations. But who talks about parenting burnout?
For centuries, parenting has been perceived as a duty every human being should discharge gracefully without ever complaining. Parents rarely get a break and if they try to take one, they are judged. Then comes the guilt.
“How can I be out here having a good time with my friends while my children are at home?” “Have they eaten?”, “Maybe I should snap out of this and go back home”. It’s a whirlwind of endless thoughts and harsh judgements on how you should be a better parent.
But parental burnout is real and studies show that it can have devastating consequences if unchecked. From violence towards children, to neglect which opens children to other risks such as emotional instability that can seep right into their adulthood.
Self-care and healthy “me-times” are crucial in preserving your well-being and that of your children. Today, we will hear more on how to stifle the guilt and enjoy some quality alone time.
When Lucy Njeri, began her career as a counselling psychologist, her work revolved around supporting parents whose children had various disabilities. Most of them were stressed and concerned about discrimination and stigma often meted on differently abled children. She later moved departments to child protection where she handled parents whose children had been abused. To her surprise, she noticed similar issues in her new station, the parents were stressed and a tad frustrated. She noticed, as with the previous job, that the challenges facing these parents and how they handled issues trickle down to how they took care of their vulnerable children.
In 2015, Njeri decided to take a parent coaching course at Parent Coaching International so as to help more parents cope with stress so as to take better care of their families.
“Parent coaching entails helping parents think about what they want, their ultimate dream and helping them work through it. I help with information but mostly I support them achieve their goals and dreams for their children as good parents”
What stands in the way of “me-time”?
Through her work around parents, Njeri says many obstacles stand in the way of self-care. Lack of time is one of the biggest obstacles, especially for working parents because they have to balance multiple roles which leave them with very little time for themselves. Those living in cities are especially pressed for time. They need to commute to work, manage house chores when they are not working and take care of their children.
“There is also guilt that accompanies self-care and women are more prone to this. They are raised to be nurturers and caregivers who put everyone else first. Many parents also battle with unrealistic expectations from themselves and the society. With social media now, parents are exposed to unattainable self-care goals such as holidays in far-off destinations, staycations and massages in high end spars” says Njeri.
Pressure from societal expectations
There is also pressure offline, in the form of what your friends, neighbours and relatives expect of you as a parent. There are ways that the older generation raised children and younger parents are expected to follow suit. If fathers worked tirelessly to provide for their children, the society expects nothing less and being spotted hanging out with friends of sunbathing to recharge your energy may be frowned upon. Offline pressure from self is also equally toxic. Njeri explains that many working parents are expected to take their children to certain school, live in specific neighbourhoods, dress their children a certain way and pay for extra-curricular activities just to prove they are doing well. The pressure is especially severe if one has purposed to give their children more than what they were given by their parents. In the end, they dedicate all their time and energy on achieving these goals for their children and to please the society. Njeri says, this kind of pressure is misguided because a lot of us do not even know what “better” looks like.
Sometimes we focus more on the hardships we went through without focusing on the positives. We give so much to our children that they never learn to be independent, ambitious or to work hard for their dreams. And as these children transition into adulthood, parents have to keep correcting their mistakes because their children are not equipped to be functional adults. When will you ever wind down and catch your breath, if you never stop parenting?
Lastly, time spent on social media apps is becoming a distraction. Instead of indulging in activities that re-energise and heal your mind and body, many parents scroll through social media for hours when they are free. “I like challenging people to check their digital well-being icon and check the time they spent on social media. If you have a new born and you are addicted to social media, whenever they sleep, you go to social media instead of caring for yourself. Eventually, you will experience burnout”
Who is prone to burnout?
In a study published in 2021 by Springer Link, a publishing platform for peer-reviewed journals and other works , researchers sampled 17,409 parents, with 71% being mothers and 29% father. The study was spread across 42 countries from five continents including Africa and it was conducted between January, 2018 and November, 2019. The results revealed that culture and traditions increased or decreased the prevalence of parental burnout.
African countries had surprisingly lower cases of parental burnout while North American and Asian countries had higher prevalence with North America on the lead. One cultural aspect that seemed to contribute to burnout was individualism. Countries where parents were expected to shoulder their parenting burdens as individuals had more cases of burnout compared to countries where the community offered social support. Thankfully, African countries sampled reported lower cases of individualism.
Though the study is just a window to how we are doing as a continent, there is a lot more that needs to be explored. For instance, Njeri says in African culture, parents are trained to operate without breaks. “Self-care is not recognized in many African cultures” she says. Though our communal way of life has cushioned us for centuries as captured in the saying “it takes a village to raise a child”, this is slowly fading as we move to an urbanized way of living. Njeri adds, parents who do not have a strong social support system such as single parents, parents who live in towns or orphaned parents and also vulnerable to burnout. And not to leave out, working parents with demanding careers who have limited time to decompress.
There is also the question of whether mothers experience burnout more often than fathers. There is no simple answer because family dynamics differ. However, mothers have their vulnerabilities just as fathers do. When children are new-borns, mothers are more challenged because biologically, the child depends on them for survival through breastfeeding.
Njeri explains, that while fathers can easily sleep through the night even with shared responsibility, mothers have to wake up multiple times to breastfeed. There is also a higher responsibility placed on mothers as they are looked at as ultimate caregivers who should know everything about children. Fathers, however, face different issues that are equally weighty.
They are naturally seen as providers who do not deserve to rest until everyone’s financial needs are taken care of. Employers give them a shorter paternity leave that lasts two weeks while mothers get three months- yet both may have equal diaper duties and night nursing responsibilities that put them at risk of burnout.
Finally, Njeri notes that parents with ailing children especially those with disability are extremely vulnerable to severe burnout. “Many of these parents may not realise immediately after their children are born unless they have a physical disability. Many disabilities and disorders are uncovered as time goes by. Sometimes it takes years to identify the exact problem. Parents may, however, notice that their children are not progressing at the same pace as other children and this in itself makes the parenting journey more stressful”
And even when the right diagnosis is done, children with disability require more support and their parents are supposed to spend more time with them. With therapy and treatments mothers and fathers do not have time for themselves. Therapy will take the whole day of commuting and waiting in line at the hospital. Some children need therapy several days a week.
The parents will also need time to work, thus leaving fewer opportunities for “me-time”. Also, the reality that a child has a disability can take an emotional toll on the parent. “In African culture, disability is associated with curses and witchcraft and these notions lead to stress”
Existing in a society that does not understand disability could also lead isolation. The society adds negative feelings to people who are already struggling to be good parents. Sometimes people will make you believe that you’re not doing enough. The judgmental voices are overwhelming which makes self-care impossible. Often, they end up feeling as if they need to do more for their child even when they are doing their best. Sometimes they feel guilty for neglecting their other children due to time spent on the one with special needs.
Creating time for self
If you are a parent feeling overwhelmed, there is a lot you can do to decompress. And “me-time” does not have to be an expensive getaway in the Maldives. Njeri says it first takes self-awareness to cultivate a healthy self-care routine while striking a balance.
“A lot of parents lose themselves along the way. They forget what they like. When you have a new-born all your time is dedicated to them. Every other hour you are thinking about them and their well-being. In that process you forget who you are and the things that make you tick”
Self-awareness starts with understanding, accepting your situation and re-defining “me-time”. Once upon a time you could have taken a two-week break, travelled, gone for sleepovers and enjoyed road trips. But when you have a new-born for instance, breaks do not have to be lengthy. As a mother to a new-born, Njeri says simple things such as taking long showers, resting, reading a book or watching a movie can help you re-charge your body and mind. Opportunities for me-time are only when the baby is sleeping and when there’s some else to take care of them.
“I didn’t imagine it was as hard as it is. Recently my partner asked me to buy meat but when I went outside, I came back without it because I couldn’t stand waiting to be served,” she narrates noting that lately, she has learned to prioritise self-care and be intentional.
I am learning that if I wake up earlier, I get extra time for myself to do things that I enjoy. In the past I could exercise anytime but now I have to wake up early and create time. I used to journal way back and I did it when I had time. But now as I journal my motherhood journey, I have to plan for it to take place at a set time. If I don’t plan, it slips away. With social media, I have been more intentional on limiting time spent on apps.
I use the digital well-being app to limit my time to 30 minutes on social media. I have also blocked notifications on WhatsApp to avoid distractions and the urge to keep checking my phone. There are times when I take moments to just breathe and myself in the midst of anxiety.
It may be tough but I am at peace because before I became a parent I travelled and had road trips a lot. I did that even when I was pregnant. Right now, I just want to live in the present moment because there is beauty in that. It helps to live in the moment because there is a season for everything”
Though parents with older children may have more time on their hands, the highlight is to reflect upon every period and understand the new demands and responsibilities. For instance, if your child is a new-born, you can’t afford a full day of me-time but when they are three or four years old you can leave them with their grandmother and spend time recharging. As your children grow older, try to be less controlling and allow them to cultivate their “me-time” as well. Teach them to respect your me-time and recognize when you need a break. Your children form part of your support system and you have to train them to be givers rather than just takers.
Njrei advises parents to keep adjusting their “me-time” as often as they need to and even when they have challenges, they need to realise that challenges don’t last forever. Children don’t stay little forever.
But most importantly, don’t forget to ask for support when you are feeling overwhelmed because you reduce the risk of burn out when you build a good support system. Help can come from family, friends, or a counsellor. Just talk to someone positive.