This is embarrassing to have to post, but when I set my schedule to post I accidentally set the time for 8 pm. This post should have gone live this morning, while I’m trying out my Tuesday-Thursday schedule. My apologies!
A few days ago, I broke down into tears after a long conversation with my husband. After a year-long deployment and readjusting to a new work schedule, my husband was burnt out. Usually this is where I step in and shine. I’m pretty good at taking care of people, and I take joy and a bit of pride in taking good care of my family.
The problem is, I was also burnt crispy. Extra crispy. I was so charred you could brush it off me like the blackened remains of a piece of bread left in the toaster too long.
The vast majority of the time, I can hold the fire at bay. I hold it in my hand, examine it, and then forget about it, even as it travels up my arms and across my torso. “I don’t have time for you right now,” I say, “but I will take a break to deal with you soon.”
I had often been complemented as a superhero, juggling a job, my children, and my husband’s deployment. Since his return home, I left my job. When I tell people how many children I have, or if my to-do list comes up, the response is still similar.
I definitely don’t feel like a superhero. More like… a super zero.
Caregiver burnout is characterized as physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion resulting from the excessive and prolonged stress of caring for another person, associated with caring for elderly family members. Similarly we have compassion fatigue, which can be referred to as secondary trauma. It’s when someone takes on the suffering of another person suffering from trauma or extreme stress, leading to diminished ability to empathize with or show compassion to someone, and it can have physical or emotional manifestations.
But what about parental burnout? Why is it that we don’t ever talk about that? Parental burnout has a definition nearly identical to caregiver burnout, but refers specifically to the stressors surrounding child-rearing.
I felt something inside me dislodge when we were talking. Suddenly an avalanche was pouring out of my mouth – needs and stressors I had shoved viciously to the back of my brain, in haste to forget they were there. Over a year’s worth of thoughts cascaded from my mind unchecked to bombard my husband.
As I recounted how heavily that year weighed on me, I was reminded that it wasn’t easy for Aaron, stuck on the other side of the world. Being away from everyone you know and love for a year is soul crushing in a very different way. He wouldn’t say it now, while I was melting down, but he admitted it before and I thought about it often.
Still, a dark, loathsome thought clung perseverantly to the back of my brain, and it saw it’s way out on the backs of all the ignored needs and internalized stressors that flooded out of me.
“How hard could it be to only have to worry about taking care of yourself?” I found myself asking. “Do you know what I would give to have even 48 hours where I didn’t have to meet anyone else’s needs, let alone a year?” We will touch on how awful that was again later. I did mention “dark” and “loathsome”, right?
The crux of the problem, my problem at least, is I never got any relief from being responsible for our entire family. Anytime I did have a few moments, I avoided spending them on myself. I felt overwhelming guilt if I did something for me when there was so much more left undone for my family.
A lot of people experience this throughout parenting, but I don’t often see articles on the subject. I’ve seen the articles and the mom-blogs or social media accounts where they write about “the mental load” and other topics like parental struggles or marital struggles, and I know I’ve written about at least some of it as well. The articles and social media posts are meant to be relatable, and it is to a degree. Sometimes just knowing you’re not alone in your daily grind is enough to get some people through.
Frequently, though, it’s not enough. People look for solutions. They ask questions, make fervent wishes. My parent-friends have all mentioned feeling drained at one point or another, often yearning for “a spa day” or “a night out”. In comments on articles and social media posts I see pleas for some extra help, understanding, or other ways to destress. I’ve seen suggestions that include gems like taking a few hours to myself, or waking up before the kids.
I don’t mean to laugh, but that isn’t going to fix the problem. Not even close.
Trying to put pressure on the hemorrhage of my own problem, I was at a loss. I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling, but I know it isn’t Aaron’s fault. I had a lot of strong emotions about my day-to-day life. Guilt. Self-loathing. Pity. Sympathy. Sorrow. Horror. Neglect. Desperate, mind-numbing need.
Parenting is something I’ve always wanted to do, but I never envisioned doing the majority of it alone. In my situation, it also isn’t something I can really change. Marrying Aaron meant choosing a life knowing he wouldn’t be around much – his job hours on their own were unaccommodating, let alone the amount of work he puts into his job at home. Instead, I had to adjust my expectations, and overall I’d always thought I was dealing well.
My outburst proved otherwise. I was obviously not dealing with my feelings or problems, but boxing them up and compartmentalizing them. This was an uncomfortable wake-up call.
Once I voiced all the thoughts, Aaron asked for a solution. It was a fair request; I’d presented him with a lot of problems. I didn’t have a good solution. I realized I was experiencing burnout – I had tried to use “band-aids” like letting go of certain things (folded laundry, cooking every meal, constantly picking up clutter instead of weekly, and more). None of those had worked. I didn’t know how to fix it.
I decided to start researching what I could do to solve the problem, and I found that most of the resources for caregiver burnout are specifically geared toward caring for elderly family members, and not kids. Most of what I found geared toward parents was focused on those of children with special needs. I did find a good article on Parents.com that describes burnout, but not really how to deal with it. The best description was on Psychology Today, and broke down the symptoms and potential fixes well, but didn’t give a ton of solutions. There was a good article by Zero to Three that gave tips on how to beat burnout.
In my Part 2 article, I will discuss some of the solutions I find as well as the things I’ve done to help over the years that keep me from being consumed by the burnout.
“Just because you take breaks doesn’t mean you’re broken.” Curtis Tyrone Jones