Dr Nisha Khot, a Melbourne-based OB-GYN and the mother of two children, ages 12 and 18, says it crept up on her. When the pandemic first arrived on Australian shores in March, she thought to herself, “Our kids are older, we’ll be okay.”
Then it slowly dawned on her that everything wasn’t going to be okay.
As an essential worker, she struggled to keep up with the demands of her job, especially as many of her colleagues fell victim to the virus or they, likewise, struggled to meet the demands of work and caring for children. Many had younger children, and Dr Khot felt that their need for flexibility was greater than hers.
When Melbourne went back into lockdown, this time with even more stringent “Stage 4” restrictions, something had to give. “I have always been the one who does more of the parenting,” she tells Women’s Agenda. “This time around, it’s just too difficult; I find that I’m just not interested.”
“Essentially, I’ve just given up,” says Dr Khot.
Ashleigh Rodgers, a lawyer based on the Mornington Peninsula and the mum of a two-year-old daughter, has also struggled. She tells Women’s Agenda that the stress started at the start of the very first lockdown, when she was faced with the “difficult” decision to pull her daughter out of childcare.
Rodgers was then presented with the new pandemic “juggle” of trying to get her own work done while caring for her daughter – her partner, who works in commercial construction as a site operator, still had to leave the family home for work.
“Juggling work and care, providing my daughter with activities, trying to do my job and make sure she was having relatively the same activities she would have at day-care, it’s been really hard,” she says.
“I’ve experienced a heightened sense of anxiety, and physically I’ll have moments when I’m overwhelmed by it all,” adds Rodgers. ‘It’s that uncertainty. I’m a very structured person. I struggle with the fact that not only is it an uncertain time for me and my husband, but it’s uncertain for my daughter as well.”
In news that will surprise absolutely no one — especially parents in Melbourne, who were met with the unhappy news earlier this week that they face an additional two weeks of strict Stage 4 restrictions and many of their children are unlikely to go back to face-to-face learning this year– pandemic “parental burnout” is most definitely “a thing”.
So, what is pandemic “parental burnout”, and what can we, individually and collectively, do to ameliorate some of its impacts?
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Parental burnout, pandemic style
Over the last few years, the concept of “parental burnout” has gained traction. It’s been covered by The New York Times, the BBC , and others. There’s a growing body of peer reviewed research on the issue, principally led by Professor Isabelle Roskam, a Professor of Psychology in Belgium, and her team.
Parental burnout is defined as a distinct psychological phenomenon to workplace burnout — with similar symptoms. The clinical criteria include: exhaustion, detachment and inefficacy.
According to an article in Psychology today, based on Professor Roskam’s research: “Burned out parents are exhausted by the unceasing demands of parenting. Although they might have rest periods, they never fully recharge. They’re always in survival mode, which, of course, leads to more exhaustion and stress. In addition, parental burnout is associated with disordered sleep in several ways.”
Sound like precisely the situation many parents find themselves in as a result of the pandemic, especially those in Melbourne facing the prolonged closure of early years education and schools? Why yes, it certainly does.
“Parental burnout results from an imbalance of stress and resources that parents have to cope with that stress,” Dr. Roskam tells Women’s Agenda via video-link from Belgium. “As a result of the pandemic, parents are indeed experiencing an increase in stress, such as an increased workload, while they also have fewer resources with the closure of childcare and schools, or a lack of access to mental health services in many places to help them cope.”
There is already data emerging in both Australia and abroad indicating that women are, by and large, taking on the lion’s share of the additional domestic and caring burden associated with lockdown, which is adding to their already disproportionate burden of the so-called “mental” load. And there is associated data in Australia and abroad that this is impacting parent’s, particularly mother’s, mental health.
New research from the University of Melbourne found that while those in the general population are reporting higher levels of mental distress, doubling since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, for the sub-group of parents with primary school-aged kids, it’s particularly bad.
The researchers estimate that more than one quarter of the almost 1.5 million working parents with kids aged between five and 11 have experienced “high” levels of mental distress, and employed parents with primary school-aged children are almost four times as likely to experience “high” mental distress.
Sadly, those figures are Australia-wide, not just in Victoria. And they pre-date Victoria’s current lockdown. It would be safe to assume that the situation for parents in Victoria is now particularly acute.
It’s a bit more complex than “burnout”
“When I look at the faces of parents on my video conference every day, I can tell you, everyone’s struggling,” says Anne Hollonds, the Director of the Australian Institute for Family Studies. “This second lock down, parents have just hit the wall on so many levels.”
“We’re seeing a whole range of parents who are struggling in the current situation,” says Professor Louise Newman, a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne and the Director of the Centre for Women’s Mental Health.
“I don’t know if I would use the term ‘burn-out’, because in a simple way that implies you’ve just got ‘too much’ to do and you’re tired, ‘burned out’”, adds Professor Newman. “I think it’s a bit more complex, because parents are feeling a whole range of really complex emotions at the moment about parenting during a pandemic.”
Professor Newman says that she sees parents in her practice who are trying as best they can to meet these really unusual circumstances of parenting at the moment, often with very little in the way of support or resources. And because it’s a “scary time”, those pandemic specific worries can include guilt, and even “apocalyptic” fears.
“Attempting to parent and give children a sense of hope and joy about the future, which is what many parents try to do, is very difficult for people who are themselves feeling overwhelmed by what they’re facing,” says Professor Newman. “It’s not just about them as parents, but about their capacity to cope with their fears in really bizarre and unusual circumstances.”
Lower the bar, and then lower it again
Some have pointed out that even at the best of times, we reach out to our network of family and friends to compare notes and help normalise our experiences as a parent. But one of the challenges about the current situation is that none of us has ever experienced anything quite like this before, so there isn’t really a road map or a set of norms about what it means to be a “good parent”, or a “good mother”, in a pandemic.
At the same time, we are a generation of parents who have raised the bar ever higher with a tendency towards so-called “intensive parenting” at precisely a time when women have entered the workplace in larger and larger numbers.
“Attempting to parent and give children a sense of hope and joy about the future, which is what many parents try to do, is very difficult for people who are themselves feeling overwhelmed by what they’re facingProfessor Louise Newman
What’s more, the politics of the pandemic — should I send my kids to childcare, should I let them see their grandparents, should I join a “learning pod”, should I spend more time supporting home-schooling or doing craft — has given rise to a particularly virulent strain of pandemic mother shaming.
“Some weeks are better than others,” says Mornington Peninsula lawyer Rodgers. “The goal posts just keep changing. Just having to keep up with that has been quite draining.”
One of the first things parents can do to help themselves, says every mental health expert Women’s Agenda spoke to, is lower the bar. And then lower the bar even further.
Good enough, or even slightly crap and that’s okay, should be the new pandemic parenting mantra.
“It’s about being more accepting of our vulnerabilities and frailties at the moment,” says Professor Newman. “The pressure on mothers, in particular, is huge to maintain the ‘usual’ things, the house, the career, plus manage home education and keep children active and healthy in the current circumstances — and it’s virtually impossible.”
Remember Rodgers comment that she felt pressure to provide her daughter with “the same” activities she would have had in child-care? Dr. Knot says she feels an intense guilt about the amount of screen time her children have, compared to “normal” circumstances, and she feels a lot of pressure to “keep up”.
“We’re getting to the point in this pandemic where we are trying to establish a ‘COVID normal’ and that should also apply to parenting, where we accept that we will be living in this situation for some time, with that uncertainty and fear about the future, and that what we can actually do needs to be more realistically thought through,” says Professor Newman
If the priority is to maintain healthy, functioning relationships, and to be able to care for children as best we can under the circumstances, then that should be acknowledged as “the” priority. But other things will have to go, say both Hollands and Professor Newman.
In short: step away from the craft or plop your kids down in front of the telly, if that contributes to your, and your family’s, overall net wellbeing.
“Objective” circumstances less a driver than “subjective” view
Dr. Roskam’s research into “pandemic parental burnout” would seem to support a lowering of standards and the merits of giving yourself a break.
Dr. Roskam conducted a survey of 1300 parents to gauge whether their experience of parental burnout increased during the pandemic. About 8 percent of parents reported experiences that meet the clinical definition of parental burnout, which aligned with the percentage of parents who report burnout in non-pandemic times.
Interestingly, though, for about 30 percent of parents the pandemic was an opportunity. They reported less stress because there were fewer outings, fewer friends, fewer things to juggle and manage. “It was, for them, a chance to spend more quality time with their children and run around less,” says Dr. Roskam.
But for 20 percent of parents, the symptoms of parental burnout increased. Dr. Roskam found that there was no correlation with these parents’ “objective” circumstances — i.e. the number of children they have, the ages of their children, whether they are single or in a relationship, or the extent to which the pandemic financially impacted them – and the likelihood that they would experience pandemic parental burnout.
There was, however, a strong correlation, with their “subjective” experience, to what extent they believed the pandemic had a positive or negative impact on their parenting.
Parents who set too high a standard, who have a tendency towards perfectionism, says Dr. Roskam, have always had an increased risk of parental burnout, all the more in a pandemic.
“We recommend parents try and be flexible,” she says. “If you are a perfectionist, the risk of burnout is very high.”
There could be long term consequences, unless we act now
“This is going to play out for a long time to come,” says Hollonds. “I think we’re going to see relationship breakdown, maybe not immediately, but further down the track.”
“And we’re even going to see PTSD issues later,” adds Hollonds. “Often these things don’t happen immediately, because people power on as best they can in the moment, but it’s later that they take a toll.”
“The scary thing is that this will have potential long-term effects on the relationship the parent has with their children, their self-confidence and their feeling that they can actually be a good enough parent in this strange situation,” agrees Professor Newman. “Some people are having anxiety. Some are becoming quite depressed. So, really, it’s quite significant from a mental health point of view.”
Hollonds says that the whole “parental wellbeing” piece is, unfortunately, not something Australia has particularly excelled at, and the current crisis should prompt a rethink, particularly around how to promote “help seeking” amongst parents for whom services are available, who don’t necessarily think they are “for them”, but for people with more “serious” mental health challenges.
“Greg Hunt, the Health Minister, is out there every week giving some money to Headspace or Beyond Blue or somebody,” says Hollonds. “It would be nice for parents to see themselves in that.”
“Primary health and GP’s need to be aware that feelings of depression, anxiety or whatever people are calling it (parental burnout), and the guilt about sub-optimal parenting in this context, of people judging themselves too harshly, can be a major problem in terms of daily functioning,” says Professor Newman.
“If any good comes out of this, it is that we focus more of our attention and mental health services on the importance on parenting,” she adds. “Particularly women’s role, both in the home and in the workplace.”
If you or someone you know needs assistance, contact Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.
Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica
This is part five of a series of pieces Kristine Ziwica is producing on how COVID-19 is impacting women in Australia. The series is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.