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Working Parents - Why we burn out before we reach out and why it’s getting even tougher out there.

Written by Kate Richardson May 2020
"As a concept, I think parental burnout is fairly inevitable” Colman Noctor, of St Patrick’s     Mental Health Services in Dublin.

I agree with Noctor on this one. At least on face value, but I would go one more step to finish his sentence and clarify that it is ‘inevitable’ in our modern world because things are vastly different.  We are the same humans (with the same primal brain), only we exist in a far more pressurised and complex environment. The problem is that the 'human' hasn’t changed.

In the 1980’s when I grew up, there was no talk of burn out or stress really at all. Stress existed for sure, but the times were different. The mental, emotional, social, physical and environmental pressures and landscape were simply not the same back then. So why is parental burnout now ‘inevitable’ compared to even 20 years ago?

This list is obviously not exhaustive, but it highlights a couple of key areas that have shifted dramatically for modern working parents and the reason things are so much well...tougher:

1) More work for less pay - KPIs are increased in line with corporate goals, year on year. Jobs are merged and squeezed and responsibilities are increased for the same pay bracket. With a shift to doing more ‘meaningful’ work, individuals often take a pay cut to do more, regardless of the impact on their finances (9 Out of 10 People Are Willing to Earn Less Money to Do More-Meaningful Work) HBR November 2018.  Simply put, there is more 'output'.

2) Expectation of 24 hour accessibility (which equates to longer working hours). With online and mobile access, the 9-5 day no longer exists. The office can contact you at any time and you will be expected (or feel compelled) to answer. Even on weekends.

3) Schools curriculum expectations increasing year on year. Children facing burnout themselves with current expectations in their schooling.

4) Increased percentage of children with behaviour problems and spectrum diagnoses.  Along with this goes the pressure to assess, diagnose and compartmentalise children, so we can teach them improved social behaviour.

5) Pressure to be better parents. We have set the standards high for ourselves to avoid making the mistakes our parents did and be the ‘modern parent’. The modern parents expectations are far higher than that of an 80’s working parent. Social norms have shifted. The days of latch key kids and children playing all day and evening in the street are behind us, now we occupy the domain of the ‘helicopter parent’ equipped with mobile phones, smart watches and GPS trackers. We have to be more available for every meltdown or challenge our kids experience so that we can strive to be the perfect child psychologist or fit the role in the happy parenting managzine. We are mini chef’s, accountants, coaches, fitness experts, meditation guru’s and business planners - more recently teachers too. We have moved away from processed, quick and easy meals, to a healthier approach to food which is freshly made and delicately balanced across all macro’s. All this has added pressure and hours of commitment to our plates. At parties, the kids don’t stay up till 11pm anymore and crash on the neighbours couch, they either have a babysitter or you leave early to put them to bed at home because the research shows that’s better for them. 

6) Communication overload - people are more accessible by phone - including parents and children. When I was 9 years old, my best friend and I would meet after school every night and head over the the woods across the street and into the playground beyond. We would hang out there for hours, out of reach by any form of communication by anyone. Because of our general accessibility, the pressure to constantly communicate on devices inside and out of work, with friends and family have increased exponentially. Between being constantly stressed about where children are, what they are doing and if they are ok and being bombarded by friends, family and Joe down the street, our heads are full. We are in an ‘over-communication’ era. 
For the reasons above, and so many more, we can no longer practice living the way we used to, because that time is firmly in the past. And despite our awareness of needing to recover and change something to make things better in whatever form that takes: more money, more time, better health, more support, more validation, we are still burnt out!

So why do we burn out before we reach out?

“The cognitive dissonance affect”:

We burn out before we reach out because we are still comparing ourselves to our parents. Our parents managed to somehow successfully complete all of their tasks, raise a healthy child, work a full or part time job and still keep entertaining a priority on weekends - even with the kids involved. And because we have a fairly rose tinted view of our childhood (we turned out OK right?) We assume it was all plain sailing for mum or dad or both. They somehow made it all look easy. By proxy, our parenting has to look at least as good as theirs, or ideally better. We have an innate desire to upgrade the parenting styles of our parents.  We would rather reach 'burnout' than admit that we aren't coping.

We don’t reach out, because our parents didn’t reach out. They succeeded and so should we. That mindset needs to change. We need to validate the real truth here. It is tougher out there. When we acknowledge and accept that things are just tougher than they were, that there IS more pressure, there ARE more challenges, life IS more stressful, we DO have less time and our environment really IS different, then we go some way to understanding that reaching out is not something to wait for. We have to find a new way to operate to reflect our every changing and demanding environment. We need to be different humans than we were in the past and we need to find a way to be ok with that.

Kate Richardson


Kate is a master Energy Health Coach and expert on managing energy using Brain Science and Sports Science combined, to find sustainable solutions to working parent stress and Burnout
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