For more than a year, life has been upended. That’s been felt acutely by parents who have weathered school shutdowns, activity cancelations and mental health concerns for their kids while balancing work and school in an unprecedented way. While life as a parent is often busy, it’s taken on a whole new sense during the pandemic.
As a result, parents have been strained to their limits.
This is parent burnout and it’s impacting many, many, many families.
Expert Liz Dempsey Lee, who teaches a course called Parenting Resilience at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said that parent burnout is characterized by exhaustion, inability to get on top of work, irritability and missing deadlines.
“You wake up and it’s like you didn’t even sleep,” Dempsey Lee said.
Sound familiar? These are sensations that many people have been describing in social media posts, messages to friends and in essays, though they might not have characterized them as burnout per se.
And worse, many parents are struggling with a feeling of not being able to do enough, said Celeste Orr, a personal development coach based in Mount Desert.
“As if parenting weren’t hard enough … now we have this whole pandemic on top of that,” Orr said. “When a stressor comes, anything that we were managing or ignoring [such as anxiety or depression], it will surface or it will manifest.”
Now is a time for parents to make sure they are taking care of themselves, as well as their children. This comes in many forms including eating a healthy diet, managing mental health and ensuring that physical health needs are cared for.
So, what is a parent to do? Dempsey Lee said that it starts with letting go of expectations. Marketing might make us think that kids need tutoring, sports enrichment and other luxuries, but really, they will be OK without it.
“Stop and think. That thing you have to have — is that something that your kid actually needs or is it something that everyone else says they need? Try to see the difference,” Dempsey Lee said.
While students may not be experiencing science labs, field trips and school activities that families have come to expect, they are — as people — learning other skills during this time.
“This offers opportunity for new ways to grow and learn. We’ll go back to those other things, but right now, there are other things to focus on and it’s okay to acknowledge that,” Dempsey Lee said.
That also means changing how you operate as a family. The old rules — like eating dinner at a table every night — may not make sense while everyone is home all the time.
“Be open to doing things differently,” Orr said.
Likewise, it’s important to stop and get fresh air, Orr said.
“No matter the season or the weather, as long as a family has access to the right outdoor gear (even something as simple as coats and hats for the winter), getting outside and doing something fun can do wonders for parent burnout,” Orr said.
Spending time outdoors serves a dual purpose of helping to clear your mind and reset things and also taking care of physical health.
“Especially in Maine, we have this amazing [landscape],” Orr said. “For me, when I get outside, it’s easier to forget about my phone or to forget about the emails that are waiting for me. It’s not just the emotional thing, it’s the mental thing.”
In addition to benefiting the parents themselves, practicing self-care demonstrates its importance to their kids. Dempsey Lee says that this balanced approach to life “allows the mind time to settle.”
And kids will notice.
“Kids are keen observers — they will notice if you tell them to take breaks but don’t do it yourself,” Dempsey Lee said.
Many parents are feeling the crunch of a weird and different year due to the pandemic. Even parents like Dempsey Lee, who are experts in parenting, are feeling the stress of pandemic parenting. But, she said, it’s important to know that the kids are going to be OK.
“I do this for a living and I still struggle with this,” Dempsey Lee said. “The thing that I think helps people feel better about this is that kids are truly resilient. We know that kids bounce back from truly adverse experiences.”
Resilience is a term that refers to the ability to overcome hardship. Considered a skill, children build resilience through having strong relationships with adults, including at least one parent, and by developing good coping skills, according to the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child.
“This combination of supportive relationships, adaptive skill-building, and positive experiences is the foundation of resilience,” according to a fact sheet about resilience from Harvard.
For parents, this means your kids will be OK even if the situation is not.
“We’re stuck in a really terrible, really difficult situation, but it’s not one that kids cannot recover from. … Your kids are going to be OK. It’s OK if they miss a year of consistent school,” Dempsey Lee said.
And ultimately, any parent feeling burnout should know they are not alone. Talk to others. Share experiences. Let it be something that we help each other through.
“We are all burnt out. You are not alone. We’ve all hit a wall,” Dempsey Lee said. “You don’t have to keep tap dancing. Figure out which pieces of the dance have to get done, and then sit out the rest.”