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Torched: 2020, Parenthood, and Burnout

2020 burnout mental health Jan 14, 2021

How are you? "Fried. Toast. Torched." This is a refrain heard from time to time at the end of the day in my home. Really what I mean is that I am BURNING OUT, experiencing what I have coined as a "micro-burnout."

Micro-burnouts are short acute phases of depletion and exhaustion that self remedy with rest. Micro-burnouts happen when the pace is too relentless, when I have given of myself physically, mentally, and emotionally to the point of complete depletion and resignation. During a micro-burnout, I usually haven't prioritized a single foundational habit for myself, and by foundational I mean basic stuff like nutrition, movement, or creating small margin between tasks. These are "pin-ball days" where I am literally being punted from one task to another franticly, impulsively, and reactively. I have lost control of my day(s). My boat is filling with water faster than my little bucket can shovel it back out and I am stressed past the max.

These days will happen.  As a parent of very small children they usually happen weekly, and sometimes back to back, but generally I believe and know they will end that there is relief in sight. On these days, I call it as early as I can, drop the to-do list, and hit the hay - waking up in the next morning with renewed hope and energy for the day.

But what happens when micro-burnouts begin to accumulate? When micro-burnouts become the rule and not the exception... that bad week turns into a bad month into a bad season...and so on it goes until you are living in a constant state of stress and disorder? This chronic state of stress is full blown parental burnout and it leaves you feeling numb, unmotivated, and detached or "emotionally constipated" as a friend of mine calls it. Big B Burnout is not a state you can get yourself out by simply waving the white flag for the day and starting fresh the next. The "fresh" just isn't there anymore.

Parental Burnout is mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion caused by long-term, overwhelming, and unresolved parental stress.

Modern parents have been on the brink of burnout for decades now, which is well articulated in the NYT article How Burnout Became the Norm for American Parents. We have put unrealistic expectations and pressure on ourselves to meet an impossible ideal of parenthood that has resulted in more days of micro-burnout, putting us at high risk of full parental burnout.

So there we were in 2019, at the brink, and 2020 pushed us right over the edge.

Last year we didn't have time to worry about  pursuing the ideal because we have been frantically trying to keep the basics together. Let's not even go into the acute stress of simply trying to stock your home with toilet paper in March and April.

2020 brought major stress and upheaval in the home of young families at every level, from the mundane (like toilet paper) to the critically important (like keeping a job + educating our children).  

Burnout is not something to be taken lightly, it is a stress disorder. Stress, particularly chronic stress, recks havoc in our bodies, and severely impacts our quality of life and makes us very susceptible to depression. 

So here is THE question - "How do we buffer ourselves against burnout, when we can't currently see the light at the end of the tunnel?"

Answer: Grace + Permission (+ Surrender) 

Grace, or courteous goodwill to ourselves. It's okay to admit that this moment in time sucks, that it is insurmountably hard and that it isn't the normal. We are doing the best we can. Let the "plastic balls drop," let the kids watch the extra show, order the takeout and be okay with it. Know that this too shall pass. Even though it seems relentless, this season of disorder WILL end. 

Permission to take care of yourself. This is critical and in my experience the path out of burnout. In 2019, I finally got myself out of a significant season of burnout (two years). I had become so numb and detached I hardly recognized myself. I began consistently doing the things that the mentally healthy version of myself did, even though I didn't want to. I started;

  • moderate exercise (yoga or walking)
  • taking my vitamins daily
  • drinking water
  • feeding myself 3 real meals a day
  • taking a bath at the end of the day
  • practicing a 5-10 minute meditation (Jillian Woods, Expectful, Calm)
  • going to bed 30 minutes earlier
  • waking up before the kids

These are BASIC maintenance habits for mind and body. The things that make up my "oxygen mask." It took about 60 days of doing these things consistently before I started to feel more like myself again. This is my personal experience,  you might need less or more to define your oxygen mask. I have to be conscious of sticking to these habits in order to keep my micro-burnouts manageable and from slipping back into a state of chronic parental burnout.

2020 was undoubtedly one of the hardest mental health years of my life, but it hasn't been the worst.  When I start feeling like I'm going off the rails again, I can immediately see that I'm not doing these things and I course correct more quickly.

Finally,

Surrender. If you are unable to get yourself out of a burnout state and find yourself sliding into depression, please seek help. Therapy is gold and sometimes we just need a little extra help in the way of coaching from a therapist or even medication to pull us back out and into ourselves. If you need someone to talk to, our experts Jaime Weiner and Anna Levy-Warren have founded Dwellness, an In-home therapy practice. We encourage you to reach out. 


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