Society

Parental Burnout Is Real — And Taking Leave Is Not An Option

Burnout doesn't just occur in the workplace. Pressured by unrealistic perfectionism and a cult of performance, parents are also increasingly affected by a similar weight at home that becomes too much to bear. Here's how to recognize the symptoms and act before before it's too late.

Parental Burnout Is Real — And Taking Leave Is Not An Option

Parental burnout was identified in the 1980s, but no one had really addressed it

Jessica Berthereau

PARIS — “My story is long," Esther says in a soft voice, as if to apologize in advance. But every detail counts as she speaks: the difficult delivery, which ended in a large hemorrhage; the complicated beginnings of her breastfeeding; a baby who cried continuously; chaotic nights…

"One day, when she was about a year-and-a-half old, things calmed down a bit and, most importantly, we let go. I think I was already in burnout, but nobody was aware of it. I wanted to succeed so much; I wanted it to last so much," recalls the dance teacher, whose job forces her to practice at night. "And then we decided to have a second one. We said to ourselves that each child is different... And then again, it was a baby who cried all the time. Except that this time, I also had the first one to deal with all day because she wasn't going to school yet."


Despite a very disengaged spouse, Esther held on for a few more months with their second daughter. Then one day, she collapsed. "It was a week when he was on vacation. I thought I could rest a little and my body abandoned me. It was very violent. I felt like I'd been run over by a car."

The young woman spent a week in bed and then a "long month-and-a-half," during which she describes herself as being "physically there but mentally absent." She then experienced two of the three symptoms of parental burnout as defined by researchers Isabelle Roskam and Moïra Mikolajczak: physical and emotional exhaustion and loss of efficiency and parental fulfillment.

Roskam, a professor at the University of Louvain, says, "Like in the professional sphere, parental burnout is a three-faceted syndrome, but if the symptoms are severe enough, two of the three are enough to qualify it.”

On automatic pilot

The third symptom is emotional distancing from one's children. Floriane, 31, has experienced it strongly since November 2020. Exhausted by successive lockdowns, the stress of closing her Pilates studio and her second daughter's eczema, she came to dread every moment spent with her children.

“It became unpleasant to be with them; I could no longer enter their world,” she says. “I wanted to do everything but spend time with them. I was taking care of them on automatic pilot because it had to be done, but I no longer had the emotional side, except for maybe 30 seconds when I said good night to them.”

Floriane told herself every night that she would do better the next day, but the next day, nothing would change. One of the characteristics of parental burnout is the contrast between the parent of the past and the parent of the present.

Our hypothesis is that it has always existed.

"We cannot apply this term to someone who has always been detached from parenthood," says Roskam, who holds a doctorate in psychology. She began looking into this area in 2014, when she noticed a change in requests for consultation. Parents began to come for themselves and not for their children.

After reviewing the scientific literature, Roskam and her colleague realized that parental burnout was identified in the 1980s, but no one had really addressed it, except in a study of parents of seriously ill children. "Our hypothesis is that it has always existed, but that it wasn’t a widespread phenomenon at the time."

This is no longer the case today. The prevalence is estimated to be between 1% and 30% of parents, depending on the country, and 6% in France. Why the sharp increase? Roskam says it’s due to a certain number of changes in the second half of the 20th century, including the increasing use of contraceptives, thanks to which children are mostly "chosen," and the entry of women into the labor market, which has changed parental roles.

More fundamentally, the conception of the child has changed a lot over the last century, leading to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, says Roskam. She explains that “the parent no longer imposes but becomes a sort of resilience tutor, responsible for supporting the child in their development."

All of this means that 21st-century parents are more aware of their responsibilities than ever. This pressure, coupled with the cult of performance, leads to a parental perfectionism that can be harmful.

Striving for perfection

“I tried to be too perfect," admits Esther, the mother of two and dance teacher. “I wanted to give as much love and time as possible to my baby, to be at the top of my game all the time. It seemed like a good thing because it was the opposite of what my mother had done. But once I burned out, I realized that I had gone too far."

She also became aware that she was awkwardly following the principles of caring parenting, all the while forgetting to be kind to herself.

Roskam says there are sometimes misunderstandings about positive parenting among the general public. “If we look at the scientific literature, it is based on two main pillars: indulgence and firmness. But this second aspect is often omitted. Being kind to your children does not mean that you should not set a framework.”

Mom, you're scaring me.

Laurence, a 35-year-old entrepreneur, has also suffered from this quest for perfection. She said that things became complicated when she went back to work after the birth of her second child.

“On social media, I saw families who seemed absolutely perfect and who seemed to manage everything at once,” she says. “And I felt like I wasn't coping, like I was a bad mother, without really recognizing the state I was in.”

It was her first son who made her realize this. "One day, when I was at my wits' end and screaming, he looked me in the eye and said, 'Mom, you're scaring me.’ I collapsed and realized that I had to do something. At the time, I was a special educator, and I had more patience for the children I was assisting than for my own!"

Healing from parental burnout requires taking a certain distance from societal expectations

GraceFamily

Tips for prevention

One of the most serious consequences of parental burnout is that the father or mother neglects and violates, verbally and/or physically, their children.

Roskam says, "Parents who distance themselves emotionally are no longer capable of empathy, which lifts inhibitions and means that they can go too far in moments of crisis.”

She says it is often this kind of action that leads to the request for consultation. She describes parental burnout as “a shameful evil that generates so much guilt that parents wait until they are in extreme situations before seeking help.”

However, it is possible to intervene earlier on. "I have quite a few patients who are on the verge of burnout and with whom we can work with ahead of time," says Natacha Butzbach, a psychologist specializing in parenting support. With these patients, they work on risk factors such as perfectionism, high demands and difficulties in naming one's emotions.

An emotional reservoir

The main treatment tool developed by Roskam and Mikolajczak is also useful in preventing parental burnout as well as avoiding relapse. It is about "seeing parenthood as a small balance with stressors on one side and resources on the other," explains Roskam.

As long as the balance between the two is good or tilts toward the resources, there is no risk of falling into burnout. On the other hand, if the balance is chronically unbalanced on the side of stressors, the risk of parental burnout is very present. These stresses can include difficulty in reconciling personal and professional lives, challenges in expressing emotions, feeling not up to the task, being overwhelmed, and emotional isolation. The way out of this situation is to identify the stressors that can be reduced or even eliminated and, if possible, to increase the resources available.

For Laurence, "having very little support" from her extended family was clearly a trigger.

You can't stop being a parent.

"At the time, I was managing everything because things just fell into place. We talked about it a lot with my partner and we were able to come up with much more shared responsibilities," she says. “At one point, we also hired a babysitter to free up our time.”

For her part, Floriane also understood that she had to "fill [her] own emotional reservoir before supplying that of others." In the midst of a burnout, she decided to temporarily interrupt all her professional projects: "I absolutely had to stop something and you can't stop being a parent... Not to mention that I wanted to get back to the role of mother that I loved. Little by little, I relearned how to spend time with my daughters and enjoy it, but it took me almost a year."

Avoid striving for superhero status

Healing from parental burnout also requires taking a certain distance from societal expectations that are disproportionate to a role that has become very solitary.

"It is important not to have unrealistic expectations in a situation where families in the broadest sense are often composed of only one or two adults, and where the social and intergenerational network is no longer strong enough," says Butzbach.

"It is often said that it takes a whole village to raise a child – not to decide on their education, but to support the parents!" says Laurence, who would like to see much better support for fathers and mothers at the societal level.

Give yourself permission to be a 'good-enough' parent.

In short, "you have to give yourself permission to be a 'good-enough' parent and not a superhero," says Roskam. The psychologist says it is very important to "lift the taboo" around parental burnout to remove guilt, but also for preventative reasons since this pathology leads to an increase in the risk of suicide "much more significantly than with depression or professional burnout."

Butzbach adds, "When you don't feel good in your role as a parent, it's better to turn to trained professionals than to go looking for the latest tips and tricks on Facebook groups.”

Esther and Laurence chose the first path, which helped them get back on track. Esther says she was very skeptical and yet, from the first session, the psychologist revealed to her that she was hypersensitive. “She told me that my emotions were legitimate, and that I didn't need to fight them all the time. It was a revelation that allowed me to move forward.”

Floriane, on the other hand, got through it without consulting a doctor. But she says that “since it has gotten better, I talk about it a lot around me so that those who are in a similar situation feel less alone.”

She feels she has grown from this very difficult year: "It was hard but also very formative because now I know my limits. Whenever I get too stressed and my head is elsewhere when I'm with my girls, I know that a break is needed," she says.

Roskam says it's important to remember we don't all have the same stressors or the ability to use the same resources: “It's up to each of us to find our own way to maintain our balance.”

The key is to always keep an eye on your own inner sense of balance.

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