What is parental burnout?
Parental burnout is a condition that can affect parents who face chronic stressors in the parenting domain in the absence of enough resources to compensate for their effects. The core symptoms of parental burnout are the following:
Exhaustion from one's parental role
This is most commonly the first symptom to appear. The parent feels exhausted, worn out, and at the end of their rope. This exhaustion can manifest on an emotional level (feeling like you can’t cope any more), on a cognitive level (feeling unable to think properly) and/or on a physical level (fatigue).
‘I was exhausted, I just couldn’t deal with the requests and demands of my elder child. I was crying because I was so tired, I was just exhausted, exhausted, exhausted, exhausted. [...] I would wake up with zero energy and find even the smallest everyday task really difficult. Even just planning what we would eat for dinner was like climbing a mountain... The slightest exertion would require too much energy of me because I had none left. None at all. I was just in survival mode.
Elisabeth, mother of two children
A feeling of not being able to cope, of no longer being in control of my own life because of my children; feeling like I can’t go on
Thomas, father of two children
Overload and loss of pleasure from parenting
The parent is unable to handle being a parent any more, is overwhelmed, and no longer derives any pleasure from parenting
I can’t take any more. They squabble and cry endlessly: “Mum, mum, mum I'm hungry, mum I'm thirsty, mum I have to go to the toilet, I have to do this, I have to do that.” They’re only young and they have every right to ask for the things they do… but I just can’t stand hearing the word “mum” any more. The first time your baby says “mum” is the happiest day of your life. At this point, it’s no longer a word that I’m happy to hear. “Mum” has become a word of torture to my ears
Violette, mother of two children
I used to love playing football with my son at the weekend. Then, the pleasure was gone. Physically I was there with him, but mentally, I was elsewhere. I wanted only one thing, to be somewhere else. I felt awful, like I was unworthy of being a father
Pierre, one child
Emotional distancing from one's children
Parents become exhausted, and have no energy left for their relationship with their children, or at least not as much as usual. They pay less attention to what their children tell them, or only half listen, they stop caring as much about their children’s experiences and feelings, they don’t engage as much in parenting, and their ability to show their children how much they love them is diminished. They do what they have to do – take them to school, feed them, wash them, and put them to bed – but no more.
When I left my wife to enter a relationship with Sophie, I went overnight from having two children to having four. Stepfamilies aren’t at all easy. I became exhausted. At one point, I felt that aside from the usual cycle of taking them to school, feeding them, and putting them to bed, I could no longer handle getting involved with the children. My relationship with my kids had essentially become nothing more than a routine. It was terrible
Fred, father of four children
I felt as if I had drawn back from my children. I watched the other parents at the school fete, and I felt like an insensitive monster
Aïda, mother of three children
The parent realises that they are no longer the parent they were, let alone the one they wanted to be. They can’t recognise themself any more, and are ashamed of the parent they have become. There is a contrast between the parent they were and the parent they are today.
I was a shadow of myself. I couldn’t recognise myself any more. I wasn’t the same person as before. I was so exhausted that I felt detached from myself; it’s hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it – I just really wasn’t myself. Even when I looked in the mirror, it was as though I couldn’t see myself any longer
Violette, mother of two children
To know more about the experience of burned out parents, check this paper