This is my life, right now: My children, ages 4 and 5, won’t eat anything but plain bow-tie noodles. My 5-year-old won’t go outside because a goose chased her at the park last spring, and now she has a paralyzing fear of the outdoors. My 4-year-old still routinely climbs into my bed every night, in the middle of the night, and sandwiches himself between me and my husband, insisting on sharing my pillow and breathing into my face as he sleeps. I’m sleep-deprived. I’m strung out. Between shuffling one kid off to physical therapy multiple times per week and coaxing the other to get on the bus every morning (there are geese in our neighborhood), I frequently feel like I’m at the end of my rope.
Parenting is stressful. I don’t need a study to tell me that. But sometimes, it feels more than stressful — it feels like total exhaustion. It feels like burnout.
And it’s not just me. In a survey of more than 2,000 parents recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium confirmed what I definitely already knew: Much like working professionals can burn out on their jobs, so too can moms and dads experience “parental burnout.”
For anyone who’s spent five minutes alone with any child (particularly my children), these conclusions aren’t exactly mind-blowing. The concept of parental burnout, in fact, was introduced into scientific research more than 30 years ago in the early 1980s; today, a cursory google of “mommy burnout” yields nearly half a million hits. But the Belgian study, headed by psychology researcher Isabelle Roskam, aimed to delve deeper than earlier research: Rather than simply stating that parental burnout exists, Roskam’s team wanted to paint a more detailed picture of what it looked like: whether men or women were more susceptible, how it differs from professional burnout and regular parenting stress, and — most importantly for future studies on the subject — how it could be measured.
Interestingly, it turns out there are a lot of similarities between parental and professional burnout, and not just in the sense that parents face the same overwhelming despair as overworked interns. Since the mid-20th century, researchers have been documenting the many social and cultural changes that have contributed to the rise in professional burnout. Jobs that were once simply considered trades, for example, are now often idealized as “callings.” People are working longer hours than they used to, and many feel less supported by company resources (such as personnel and equipment). Over the past several decades, this combination of factors has created a perfect storm for a wave of frustration and, eventually, burnout, often defined in academic literature as a combination of exhaustion, inefficacy (feeling less productive and competent), and depersonalization (feeling emotional withdrawal from your work and the people around you).
By the 1990s, the study authors wrote, “the same factors were at play in the parenting domain” in Europe: Parenting values became increasingly non-violent, sensitive, and supportive (read: idealized). Parents were expected to do more for their children in terms of education and attention — and all while an unprecedented amount of women were leaving home and entering the workforce, effectively giving parents more to do with much less time. So it’s not surprising that the study found that around 12 percent of parents surveyed were suffering from a “high level” of parental burnout — that is, experiencing all three criteria (exhaustion, inefficacy, and detachment) more than once a week. The researchers noted that more mothers than fathers took part in the survey, but parents of both genders were equally susceptible.
While the study focused on Belgian parents, parental burnout is no less real on the other side of the ocean; here in the United States, researchers are seeing a lot of the same patterns play out. Parents now work longer hours than previous generations, with less pay, in an environment that is notoriously incompatible with family life: In a 2013 analysis of world labor policies, researchers noted that the United States is one of only eight countries worldwide that doesn’t mandate paid leave to parents of newborns.
The result, for many parents, is something more serious than the burnout they’d feel at a normal job. “Parental burnout is not just burnout, stress, or depression,” Roksam and her colleagues wrote — it’s highly correlated with depression, addiction, and other health problems. The emotional detachment parents experience when they reach the end of their rope can be a particularly harrowing experience, and the study authors also noted that any parent who experiences high levels of stress for a prolonged period of time is at particular risk. It occurs to me that my sleepless nights and the many arguments about eating plain noodles could have contributed not only to parental burnout, but to my chronic anxiety and depression as well. After reading this latest research, I wouldn’t be surprised.