“Treading water.” That’s how 37-year-old Toronto-based mom Margot Witz describes pandemic parenting with an almost 2-year-old. She jumps on Zoom calls and television appearances between changing diapers and picking up toys. As the vice president of an international beauty brand and an on-air spokesperson, she couldn’t stop working for a pandemic nor could she just stop parenting. She was drained: “Physically, emotionally, mentally and internally.”
In spite of having a supportive partner, Witz says that roles and responsibilities are still landing primarily on moms. Her burnout started when she tried to navigate her son’s COVID risk—while attempting to maintain some sort of normal childhood— alongside full-time work from home while dealing with judgment from others about each decision. “We kept him in a bubble. The burnout and the guilt and mom-shaming from other moms…is an insane thing.”
A recent study released by The Ohio State University determined that more parents are burnt out than we may have thought. In fact, a whopping 66% of parents are feeling it. The study also determined that trying to parent through that exhaustion impacts our parenting styles, and that they are more likely to scream, criticize, insult, and spank children during that state. But the last thing parents need is another reason to worry they are “messing up” their children. They need support.
One of the study’s lead researchers, Kate Gawlik, associate professor of clinical nursing at The Ohio State University, thinks back to the beginning of the pandemic while parenting four children under age 10: At first she didn’t know that she was experiencing parenting burnout. “I would sit there and feel not depressed, not anxious, but I’d have these feelings and they were very specific to my parenting role. I just needed a break,” she says.
For her, burnout was intertwined with some resentment about not being able to continue working at the same rate as before and feeling emotional detachment from her children. That feeling was a red flag. Being a teacher, a schedule keeper, emotional support system, childcare provider, development coordinator, and more, was too much for her. Schools opening and closing compounded her lack of a sense of control, making it really hard to plan anything. And since mask regulations have eased, her kids are getting sick way more often so the work/family life imbalance continues.
Gawlik says that parents face so much shame around needing a break and it’s made worse by social media. “We get it every day. You’re looking on Instagram [at] parents doing everything and you think ‘My kids are watching TV and eating mac and cheese every night,’” she says. But simply identifying that you are experiencing parental burnout can help, so she created an easy cheat sheet (see the working parent burnout scale) that even the most exhausted parents can navigate. Some of the indicators include feeling like you are in survival mode, easily losing your temper, or waking up exhausted at the thought of parenting another day. Basically, if you feel like running straight into the woods alone or the need to “rose-all-day” it might be time to check in with yourself.
There are specific factors that can increase the likelihood of parental burnout, including one or more of the following: If you are a woman, have two to three children, or six or more children, have a history of anxiety, have a child with ADHD, anxiety, or a perceived undiagnosed medical condition. Here’s what the study found for each of these subgroups.
Gawlik’s study found 68% of females had parental burnout versus 42% of males. Witz isn’t surprised. “It’s like these unwritten rules that the mom does everything—the mom cooks and cleans and does it all. And it’s the joke of whether it is self-imposed…and the barriers. Where is the time from your partner to be able to give you the opportunity [to]? Where is the time from your employer? The system is so broken in so many ways.”
Gawlik says the “historical role that mothers play” continues, and women were more likely to be forced from their positions in the pandemic than men. She, and many others, have also had to slow or stop working. “I kept to the essential duties of my job but much of my scholarship work was put on hold. At the same time, I didn’t feel like I was getting to spend quality time with any of my children because my time, energy, and effort were spread so thin,” she says. “There were many times where I thought to myself ‘I can’t keep doing this.’”
It might seem like more children would lead to higher burnout rates, but researchers saw a different trend. Burnout levels rose in parents with two to three children, decreased in those with four to five, and plateaued during the jump from four to five kids. It started rising again with six or more. Gawlik says she thinks this might have to do with parents who have more kids may have older ones to help a bit more. She’s also found from personal experience that having four kids means that two can play together, and then they can switch, which can minimize the bickering.
Of the parents in the study who had previously been diagnosed with anxiety, 77% reported parental burnout. The results also show the stress parents have gone through worrying about children with mental health concerns, including potential undiagnosed ones, with reported numbers in the seventies for each of those categories.
It also found burnout to be strongly associated with depression, anxiety, and increased alcohol consumption, and overall harsher parenting practices. Witz says her lifelong struggles with mental health helped her to understand that what she was feeling impacted her physical, mental, and emotional self, and helped her to realize that she wouldn’t be able to “carry it” by herself. “I have a chemical imbalance…I’m not broken. There’s not something wrong with me. It’s just that I need to find tools to help me.” For her, therapy is amazing, but not a fix-all, and she worries about the coverage barriers other parents might face too in accessing it.
Gawlik also felt “rushes of anxiety” when her home was in chaos. “I take deep breaths and remind myself that the feeling is temporary and will not last forever. I try to remind myself that they are little and they need me. Sometimes just trying to see things through their eyes can help me reset and be more patient,” she says. “If I do need to step away, I ask my husband to take over if he is available and go on a walk or just go outside.” This short-term fix would help Gawlik reset.
Witz is working now on both grace and gratitude, the only antidotes she’s found helpful for burnout. “It’s OK if the dishes pile up,” she gives as an example. She also says, “It’s really important to remember her blessings,” including her supportive partner and the “forms of community” the pandemic has revealed. “At dinner, our family often goes around the table and says what we are thankful for that day. A gratitude journal can also help to keep perspective,” she says. You can also try gratitude mapping, jars, morning meditation or even prayer. All of these practices have been proven to boost the immune system and improve mental health, relationships and increase optimism.
We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village” but establishing that village can be harder than it sounds. For Witz, this has involved rethinking the community she does have—even if it isn’t perfect. She points to her mother-in-law as an example, a person who does many things quite differently than she would, but someone who “lives for her grandkids.” Witz says she’s excellent at letting her child lead when it comes to which activities they want to do, and together they go for walks.
But things aren’t perfect—she describes a recent incident where she was trying to cook for the family when her husband came in and asked if she’d fed the dog. Then her mother-in-law told her “your son just pooped.” Witz wishes her mother-in-law would have just stepped in and changed the baby but she chooses to instead focus on her mother-in-law’s relationship with her son as a key aspect of her pandemic “village.”
“She might not parent how I parent, but that’s still a relationship,” she says, adding that expressing appreciation matters. “They’re going to do things the way they do it.” So when her mother-in-law comes to help, she is grateful and tries to ensure she feels welcome, considering it a win even if it’s not exactly how she’d parent.
Gawlik adds that even those without many resources shouldn’t underestimate how a small change could make a big difference, such as alternating carpooling with another parent to regain 20 minutes per morning to yourself. If you don’t have others to team up with and can’t hire anyone, she recommends turning to schools, healthcare entities, and other parents to learn more about free and low-cost resources.
Gawlik says to keep an eye on yourself, but also your children to see if they are showing signs that might indicate you are burnt out. These include attention-getting behaviors like being unable to sit still, internalizing behaviors such as sadness, and externalizing behaviors like fighting, teasing, or not listening.
Both parents and children might need to work with mental health professionals for support. In the meantime, at-home strategies can help too. Gawlik recommends spending time with friends who are going through similar circumstances for better connection and help. Parents can also designate intentional time with children; think: a board game night where everyone unplugs, or a popcorn and movie tradition to encourage more positive experiences.
So what can you do to tame the burnout? Gawlik recommends finding a personal balance that involves decreasing stressors and increasing any available resources, even if they are unconventional. For example, working at night when kids are in bed may allow you to concentrate better, the study suggests. And though it’s gotten a bad rap in a sea of struggle, basic self care such as physical activity, drinking a warm beverage, or a five-minute meditation does matter, Gawlik suggests.
And take the time to simply connect with a friend; talking about how hard it is can be validating and a good reminder that you’re not alone. “Help one another—reach out if you feel like somebody’s not doing well, and see what you can do,” says Gawlik. “In turn, don’t be afraid to ask for help yourself.” Trading off playdates with another work-from-home parent in a similar position can give each of you a break to work, rest, or parent without distraction.
For Witz, part of getting help was hiring a part time nanny to alleviate some of the stress. The nanny takes her toddler on walks during important calls, for example, so she isn’t in a panic balancing home and work during crucial times. If hiring a nanny isn’t in the budget, consider other options, such as a young teen who could serve as a mother’s helper for a few hours each day or a couple of times a week.
Witz says that in spite of having a supportive partner, their needs come in conflict when he arrives home from work and wants a break, while she’s balanced parenting and working all day.
“He comes back and the worst is when he says ‘Can I just have five minutes?’” She wishes he would ask instead, “Do you want five minutes, because you’ve been with our son, who is a little ball of love but a Tasmanian devil?”
She says it’s a “continuous, ongoing conversation” trying to negotiate and speak up about those needs, to prevent burnout or to improve it if it’s already there. It can be as easy as: “I need help” or “I need a minute” or “I need to go shower.” For her it helps to just do something that “isn’t momming” like going for a walk with her dog, working out, sitting upstairs or outside, or other relaxing activities. This also helps her to reconnect with the part of herself that isn’t a parent, to remember that just as work doesn’t define her, neither does having a child.