Yes, Parents Are Burnt Out. But We Also Need to Stop Calling It “Burnout”￼
Among the many buzzwords that dominated the headlines throughout the pandemic (Contact tracing! Social distance! Mask mandates!), there was one phrase in particular that really hit a nerve among those of us with kids: parental burnout. The parental burnout crisis has reached a tipping point, Vox proclaimed in December of 2020 and Parental burnout: how juggling kids and work in a global pandemic brought us to the brink, The Guardian wrote in 2021, and so on and so on.
Indeed, the exasperation and exhaustion that many parents felt was widely reported. But ask any mom and they’ll tell you—we were running on empty long before Covid knocked on our doors. This didn’t just happen overnight and—spoiler alert—it’s not our fault.
“I’ve always felt a level of parental burnout, both pre and post pandemic,” says Diana, a Texas mom-of-three. “How can a mother, who is needed 24/7 not feel this at some point? I actually felt a sense of relief in my parental burnout load during the height of the pandemic because my spouse, who typically works long hours at an office, was able to be home with me to help co-parent.
It’s true that the pandemic added multiple stressors to family life (dear God, please let us never return to homeschooling!), but the flipside was that it gave others—from work colleagues on Zoom to secondary caregivers—a glimpse into just how challenging raising tiny humans can be. “Oh wow,” the world seemed to say collectively. “Y’all have a lot to deal with.”
“A lot to deal with” isn’t an official clinical diagnosis, but parental burnout is real, say experts.
“[Parental burnout] happens when parenting stressors outweigh the pleasures or rewards of raising your child,” explains parenting expert, educational psychologist and author of Winnie & Her Worries, Reena B. Patel. “It can manifest with emotional distancing from your child or irritability, i.e., being easily angered,” Dr. Puja Aggarwal, a board certified neurologist and a certified life coach, told Healthline. “Some with parental burnout may experience forgetfulness and/or increased feelings of anxiety or depression, and many question their ability to be a parent in the first place. Feelings of inadequacy, confusion and isolation are common.”
And we’re willing to bet that if you’re reading this, you’re all too familiar with some (all?) of these feelings. For me, snapping at my spouse and doomscrolling late into the night were clear signs that I was suffering from burnout, but for you it might be exhaustion, anxious thoughts or a limited tolerance for your kid’s shenanigans.
The New York Times even released a handy quiz recently to determine what level of parental burnout you’re currently suffering from—apparently mine is a mild case, which I suppose is reassuring.
“Parents always talk about burnout as though it’s a rite of passage, and in sad reality, it kind of is,” Rachel, a mom-of-one from New York, admits. “As a first-time mom, I constantly feel burnt out because there’s a societal expectation that you’re supposed to operate at the same pace post-baby as you did pre-baby. News flash: It’s impossible. Everyone needs to stop glamorizing the idea of a mom who ‘does it all’ because that person doesn’t exist without help or the specific means to actually do it all.”
Ok, so if burnout is a thing, why stop calling attention to it?
Here’s where I take issue with highlighting parental burnout: Chalking up symptoms like stress and lack of sleep to “parental burnout” places the onus on the individual—as if putting reminders in your calendar or going to bed an hour earlier is going to magically solve the issue.
“I definitely feel like if I had more time, if I had more money, if I had more patience… then this wouldn’t all be so hard,” Anna, a mom-of-two from Pennsylvania agrees. “I can’t get up any earlier!” she adds. “You read these articles [about burnout] and you keep reading, thinking that there's going to be an answer in there, right? But you get to the end and, nope, I’m still burnt out!”
But this isn’t about personal failure. How can it be when so many of us feel this way? Instead, I think we need to start seeing burnout as systemic failure—with a dose of societal pressure thrown in. Put bluntly, the systems and cultures in place have set parents up to burn out, again and again.
Think about it: From the moment your child enters this world, parents are already at a disadvantage with just 21 percent of workers offered parental leave. Then moms are told to breastfeed for two years, yet are faced with multiple barriers to do so. Next, add in the increasing costs of quality childcare, a situation that by the Department of Treasury’s own admission is an “unworkable” system that is failing families.
Even worse is the fact that due to the reversal of Roe v. Wade, women can now be forced to give birth without having the social supports in place to do so, like paid family leave, expanded Medicaid, minimum wage above $7.25 and universal pre-k. And as is so often the case, women of color are disproportionately affected.
Is it any wonder that many parents—mostly moms—leave the workplace in order to take care of their young children? Pay equity in America still has a long way to go (the pay gap is currently at 83 percent, meaning that women earn 83 cents to every dollar earned by men) so for many families, it makes more sense financially for mom to stay at home.
Of course, whether mothers work or stay home, they will be judged either way—those who work are negligent, those who stay home are failures…and all of us are bad, bad moms if we don’t make our own baby food/master cry-it-out/get on the floor with our kids for 20 minutes of quality play time each day.
So yeah, there’s a lot working against parents. Including poor access to mental health resources to help us make sense of all the above.
“In the United States, the void of government support has sprouted two parallel but separate worlds of early-childhood parenting where no family wins,” writes Kendra Hurley, a journalist and researcher experienced in public policy and issues impacting families, in The Atlantic.
“In one, middle- and upper-class parents are expected to go it alone. For the former group especially, this can be stressful if not financially untenable…Then there is the world for low-income families. When certain lawmakers tacitly believe that only irresponsible caregivers require help, American parents who need help are viewed with suspicion. Even during the crucial, vulnerable early years of family life, the limited assistance available to them comes with demands to prioritize paid work over parenting, no matter how erratic the hours or dismal the pay. This does not benefit children, parents, or society at large.”
But we do need help. And the issue here is really the difference between rhetoric and action; Calling attention to parental burnout isn’t the same as coming up with solutions to parental burnout. And those fixes will require us to take a long and hard look at the systems that got us here in the first place. Anything less than that is doing parents a huge disservice. (“The tips that they give in those articles are like a big f*ck you,” Anna says, emphasizing that she doesn’t need someone to tell her to prioritize sleep or learn how to meditate.)
What we need is actual change—on a governmental, workplace and societal level. And we need to recognize that rather than chalking up burnout to personal failure, parents need tools so it doesn’t remain the norm.
Clearly, this starts with policy and infrastructure, but I also think that words matter. So instead of saying you’re “burned out,” I implore you to call a spade a spade: “I’ve been let down by the system,” you might say. “America’s shitty parental and child policies have burned us all.”