“I feel like I am failing my kids.”
That’s how a conversation began with a friend of mine who needed to vent from one mom to another. Even before she uttered the words, I could hear the exhaustion and worry in her voice. But at the time, I wasn’t ready to admit that I felt the same way as she did.
The very next week, to the same friend, I said almost the exact same thing, “My kids are going to fail kindergarten because of me. I can’t do this all.” The pandemic made me say words I would have never said before: “I can’t do this.” Because before the pandemic, I did it all. I can’t say I did it all well, but I damn sure would never admit that I needed help; if I got “it” done, then I could in fact do it. Writer Anne Helen Peterson shares in the New York Times, “This is parenting burnout, pandemic style: You’re still managing the mental load of the household, while also making sure the masks are laundered, the Zoom schedules are followed, and trying to figure out how much kid screen time is too much and how much screen time is necessary to just get through your day.”
But why did I, and so many other parents, feel like we must do it all? Because society tells us we must. From the shiny living room floors and spotless kitchens on Instagram photo after Instagram photo, other women are “doing it” — so we should be able to as well, right?
Maybe or maybe not. Let’s be real — they just aren’t capturing all the photos of their piled up laundry, and they probably even loaded the dishwasher so their sinks would be empty. My point is that our ability to “do it all” is an illusion, and we must talk about how unrealistic it is. Because it’s causing burnout, and the struggle is real, and it’s okay to say it out loud. Try it, listen to yourself, repeat after me: I am burned out.
We are burned out because of all of the shit we have to do. We are burned out because we think we can never take a vacation day. We are burned out because we are hellbent on giving our kids as much normalcy (even during a pandemic) as we can. Peterson shares in her article, “How Burnout Became the Norm for American Parents” that “The metaphor of the second shift isn’t a metaphor at all — they are doing two full-time jobs. And in order to make time for both of those jobs, they are sleeping less, and spending far, far less time on themselves or their own leisure.”
We are burned out because we want our house to be clean and our yards to look good. We are burned out because we are simply afraid to ask for help or can’t afford to hire a cleaning lady or a nanny or a babysitter, even for a few hours.
It’s the normal we’ve created for ourselves and there’s only one way to get out of it: To admit we are tired, we can’t do it all, and that we shouldn’t be expected to. We are afraid to just stop. We are afraid we will be fired, our partners will love us less because the house isn’t clean or dinner isn’t made, our kids’ teachers might think we don’t care about their education. The negative self talk is real; turn it off. It’s up to us, as parents, to choose to do life differently. Sure, it’ll take more work to advocate for ourselves in the workplace, at home, and with our kids’ schools, but our mental health is on the line.
What can help us even more, as a New York Times article by Jessica Grose notes, “[G]oing outside, or even simulating the outdoors, may help when you’re feeling mentally dull. Studies have shown that spending time in nature, and even looking at pictures of nature, can improve cognitive functioning. Though it may be difficult to find the time, a 50-minute outdoor walk has been shown to improve memory and decrease anxiety, no matter what the weather is (though you will probably enjoy it a lot less if it’s 25 degrees out).”
Once you recognize how burned out you are, pause and take a hard look at your kids — maybe they could use a break too? If so, lead by example. Let them see you sitting down, feet up, coffee mug in hand, dirty dishes all around, unanswered emails in your inbox, and your favorite show on the television, or your favorite book in hand. They need to know that you can, and deserve to, take a break too … and that giving yourself a breather is something we should aspire to do, without shame or judgment.
If we don’t do what we need — let the laundry pile up, order takeout when we don’t feel like cooking, not sign our kids up for another activity, complete one task at a time instead of frantically multitasking — we are setting our kids up for the same kind of life we’ve made for ourselves. One in which we are perpetually exhausted, don’t ask for help, and feel like failures.
It doesn’t have to be this way; let’s not teach the next generation that this is normal. Take a goddamn break. You might be doing yourself a favor, but your kids will benefit in the long run too.