Putting Parent Burnout to Bed
When parents are burned out and exhausted, the day to day feels like a real slog.
Imagine a job with no holidays or vacations, and lots of overtime… sound like fun? This is parenting, and a lot of the time it is fun. But here’s the thing: it’s fun until it isn’t. When parents are burned out and exhausted, the day to day feels like a real slog.
Parent burnout is normal, and it’s not permanent. It happens when parenting stressors outweigh the pleasures or rewards of child-rearing. The question of “how to get over burnout” is about looking at both of these pieces. While every family is different, let’s start with cutting down on parenting stressors:
Drop some balls. Don’t worry about keeping the house super neat or making sure your child’s outfit always matches. Let your toddler mix plaid and florals. Let the toys take over. Make it an easy dinner night with a quick mac-n-cheese. Give yourself a little grace.
Focus on what’s wrong and see what it’s telling you. My friend’s son absolutely hates taking a bath. But every night, she was committed to giving him a bath because she just assumed that that was what she was supposed to do, despite the screaming and tantrums. Until she stopped. One day, she decided that her son, who played inside most of the day, probably wasn’t that dirty and could survive a bath-free day. She let him (with a little help) wash his hands and face instead, and they had a relaxing bedtime routine. Now they do baths three days a week, which is easier for him—and her—to tolerate. Moral of the story: It’s okay to loosen up some of your own internal “rules” if they’re not working.
Share the load. Get help with the smaller stuff—ask a friend or family member to pick up milk for you while they’re at the market. Look for help with ongoing issues, like carving out some time to yourself by setting up a babysitting swap with a nearby family. Or ask for help with bigger stuff, like dealing with a child behavior you don’t understand, by reaching out to your child’s health care provider or local early intervention program. And if you need support yourself? Ask your health provider for a counselor referral. It takes courage to reach out and ask for help. But the truth is, every parent needs help at some point. Every. Single. One. Of. Us.
Increasing the pleasure and fun in parenting is the other half of putting burnout to bed. Here are some tips:
Do something for yourself (don’t laugh!). I know this is the tip that might launch a thousand eye-rolls—like, the reason I’m tired is not because I haven’t learned how to bake bread, it’s because my two-year-old has been waking up at night for, ummm, two years. But hear me out: It’s tough to offer your child a sense of calm and peace if you’re not feeling it too. So, even if it’s just a few minutes, find time to do something that feeds you as an individual. Take your time enjoying a ginormous mug of coffee, stick to a workout routine, binge a great show, and just be. Whatever feels good to you. Let this time, even if it’s just a few moments, fill up your tank.
Be present. If you ask most parents if they spend time with their kids, they say yes and they’re right. But when we’re multitasking—texting, watching a quick video, supervising our child’s play, and mentally planning all the things we have to do that afternoon—we’re there, but not really connected. One way of getting more pleasure out of parenting is by choosing to really be present for a little while. Silence the phone and really, truly pay attention. Listen to your toddler talk (they’ll never pronounce pillow as pill-yo ever again, I promise you), and notice the way they move, the curve of their cheek, the smell of their skin. Presence often brings pleasure.
Let silly in sometimes. Put the baby’s diaper (clean) on your head. Do a big, fake ahchoo and then shower your toddler with kisses. Talk in goofy voices, pretend to be a dog, you name it. Silly moments when the two of you are enjoying each other are magic.
Give yourself and your child an A. On days when we are totally burned out, we see all the stuff that’s going wrong. But making a habit of noticing what’s going right helps us find more pleasure in parenting. Your baby just pulled up on the changing table and knocked all the clean diapers onto the floor? He can stand and grab stuff now! Or, while you’re sharing a story, your two-year-old says the words you’re about to read. Wow, she’s learning about books! Or, you stop and notice that as soon as you pick up your baby, he curls into you and takes a deep breath because he knows he’s home.
You are home to your child. And, over time, you are building a home for your little people—one that’s loving and patient, where each of you is getting what you need to be healthy and strong.
About Baby Steps
This article was featured in Baby Steps, a ZERO TO THREE newsletter for parents and caregivers. Each issue offers science-based information on a topic of interest to parents and caregivers of young children—from sleep to challenging behaviors, and everything in between.
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