A report by researchers from Ohio State University has uncovered some phenomenal new information: Parents are extremely tired, and most working parents feel they have nothing left to give. But wait—seriously—there is some interesting insight to be gleaned here, and it may help determine whether parents rebound from dangerous levels of burnout or just keep slogging it out.
The online survey of 1,285 working parents was conducted between January 2021 and April 2021. As you might recall, those were the dark days of the pandemic. Kids were being schooled virtually from home, work for adults was grinding but organized in a new way, stress was high and there appeared to be no end in sight. For parents, this was particularly harrowing. During this time period, the American Psychological Association reported that “nearly half of parents (48%) said the level of stress in their life had increased compared with before the pandemic and more than 3 in 5 parents with children who were still home for remote learning (62%) said the same.”
Ok. We get it. The pandemic sucked, and it was particularly hard on parents—especially working parents—who were suddenly balancing it all with absolutely zero help. Babysitters, childcare, schools, grandparents… all the typical resources parents have (if they can afford them) were suddenly M.I.A. Enter: the slog. Parents suddenly had to figure a way to gut it out, and that often included extending our time spent in front of the computer to offset the remote schooling facilitation we were doing for our kids, less time for exercise, more alcohol as a coping mechanism at the end of the day, less sleep and more worry. And this happened for years. No wonder it’s hard to dig our way out of the emotional and physical cave many of us have found ourselves in.
“When chronic stress and exhaustion occur that overwhelm a parent’s ability to cope and function, it is called parental burnout,” according to the OSU study. It results in feelings of detachment from your children, and it’s worsened by the pandemic’s greatest gift to all people: a lack of certainty. Moms reported greater rates of parental burnout (68%) compared to dads (42%), which makes sense when you consider that more women were forced out of the workforce during the pandemic, often to care for their children.
The study continues, “There are clear and strong relationships among working parent burnout and potential adverse effects on both parents and children.” It found that 66% of parents reported being burned out and included quotes from parents who participated in the survey, which are hauntingly familiar. “I am expected to be a superhuman that can be a full-time employee, parent, elementary school teacher, pre-school teacher, cook, cleaner, playmate and emotional support system. But I can’t do it any longer,” and “I am just so tired.” Some of the unfortunate ways that parental burnout surfaces and negatively impacts kids include insults, screaming, criticism and spanking.
Now for the good news: The medical field is recognizing the long-term signs of parental burnout in a way it never has before. There is now a scale for measuring parental burnout and resources for parents who feel as though they’ve reached a place where they’re having trouble rebounding alone. The pandemic is evolving, and while we’re still experiencing some of the uncertainty of the past two years, parents are also in a place where making plans and reaching out for support isn’t as impossible as it once was.
Margaret Kerr, an assistant professor at UW Madison who studies parents’ emotions and experiences, said during a briefing on the pandemic’s impact, that parents were never really considered a “hot topic in the media or science” in the before times. “We need to continue thinking about how can we support parents. What are the things that we can do to make it easier to be a parent in this country?” she said.
“It’s 1 out of every 2 working-age individuals who’s dealing with this work-and-family kind of balance,” said Dr. Alicia Modestino during the same briefing. “And it’s a million women missing from the labor market still, two years later. And I think if we could put a finer point on the magnitude of this problem, then maybe we could get some action at the federal level.”