As a nurse, Erin Werley was used to 12-hour shifts sometimes stretching into 15, constantly being on her feet and feeling high levels of stress.
But nothing prepared her for the demands of motherhood.
Before kids, “I got to come home and relax every day, and I had days off,” said the resident of Munster, Ind., who is the mother of a 2½-year-old daughter and 8-month-old son. “I’d be burned out at work, but at least I’d know [the shift would end], and then I could go home.
“When you’re a mom, you don’t know when your next break is coming.”
A few months after returning to work from her first maternity leave, she left her job as a nurse to become a stay-at-home mom, but she said the stress she feels now sometimes is greater than when she worked long shifts in a hospital.
The World Health Association describes occupational burnout in part as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and that results in exhaustion and negative feelings toward one’s job.
Experts say that parental burnout is on par with occupational burnout — with one major exception: While many workplaces have programs and resources available to help those who are battling the problem, parents are on their own in dealing with it.
Counselors report that while parenthood has never been easy, the role is more pressure-driven in modern times, especially for whoever fills the role of primary parent — typically moms, but dads, too — and it can take a psychological toll. This goes for working and stay-at-home parents alike, and can be magnified in single-parent households.
Alexandra Solomon, a psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, said parents are seeking therapy for burnout, many of them reporting that they feel overwhelmed.
“A big piece of burnout is feeling like none of this is manageable,” she said.
Pressure is mounting
Added to that general feeling is a shift in parenting in recent decades that has added pressure for parents, she said. Today’s parents often feel a responsibility to make sure their kids not only excel in school, but also are involved in multiple activities, including athletics. And it all plays out on social media, where people compare their struggles with the smiling faces they see posted in pictures and end up feeling inadequate.
“It has ramped up in the last 20 years,” Solomon said. Parenthood has become “relating to your child as if they are an ongoing, unfolding 18-year project. And that takes away from the No. 1 thing kids want: to look at us and see our faces shining on them.”
For Werley, the transition into motherhood was difficult, she said. Daughter Maddie would scream, and only Werley could soothe her. In addition, her husband would have to bring Maddie to the hospital during Werley’s shift to eat because the baby wouldn’t take a bottle from him.
“ ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ” Werley would say to herself. “I thought everyone else had it figured out.”
Then her son, Leo, was born, and although he wasn’t as demanding, babies still need nearly constant attention, Werley said. “I was very, very frazzled.”
Werley said things have started to improve recently, but only because she makes an effort to carve out time for herself and has let go of some of her expectations of being the perfect parent.
“If I don’t take care of me, there’s nothing left in the tank,” she said.
Susan Pollak, a psychologist and author based in Cambridge, Mass., said parents need to learn to manage burnout and stress. It helps build resilience and patience, she said.
“If you’re burned out, you’re going to have a very short fuse,” she said. “Kids really pick up what you’re feeling. If you’re super-stressed, your kids are going to feel stressed. It’s almost contagious.”
While some seek therapy to manage their burnout symptoms, there are other methods, Pollak said. Exercise helps, as do simple, mindful meditation exercises. Some only take a few minutes, she said, and don’t require closed eyes and a dark room. They involve breathing, feeling feet on the ground and other mechanisms designed to feel calm and in control.
“It can help you get out of that ruminating cycle of the ‘I can’t keep up’ inner critic,” she said. “Part of it is extending kindness to yourself.”
Lynn Zakeri, a licensed clinical social worker in Skokie, Ill., said parents experiencing burnout also should make an effort not to overschedule the family.
“You have to learn your boundaries and not go by other families’ boundaries,” she said. “It’s really a brave and self-caring family that can say: ‘That’s not in our best interest. That will harm our family if Mom is going to a tournament out of state one weekend while Dad is at dance recitals that same weekend.’ You have to kind of look at the big picture to avoid that burnout.”
Zakeri said parents can avoid burnout if they’re doing things they enjoy and having quality time as a family, and that looks different for everyone.
For Chicago resident Lindsay Pinchuk, 40, that involves thinking of work as her “outlet” from her responsibilities as the mother of two daughters.
“If I can’t do something self-care-related, I have an hour on the train to decompress and not talk to anyone,” Pinchuk said.
“The pressures of being a parent are greater than ever,” she added. “You have to find time for yourself. You just have to.”