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How Burnout Became the Norm for American Parents

Burnout occurs when the distance between the ideal and the possible lived reality becomes too much to bear. That’s true of the workplace, and that’s true of parenting. The common denominator among millennials, then, is that we’ve been inculcated with the idea that failure — like our failure to find secure employment, or save enough money to buy a house, or stave off an avalanche of medical debt — can be chalked up to simply not trying hard enough.

Sure, “perfect parenting” doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t mean we don’t feel all the more compelled to achieve it, even as we burn ourselves — and our marriages, and our personal lives, and our mental health — into the ground.

We often think of parenting “failures” as a personal problem — or, more specifically, as a mother’s problem — even as the pandemic makes it clear just how common, how systemic, these failures have become. But women have long been freighted with the task of reconciling or soothing the anxieties that accompany societal change, and contemporary mothers are no different. When women began to move into the professional workplace, the resultant anxiety over “motherless” children and unkempt homes and feminized stay-at-home fathers had to be quelled in some way, lest a backlash erase whatever small progress had been made.

The tacit agreement: Women could enter the workplace, but only if they fulfilled every other societal expectation. They could be ambitious, but still had to be nice; powerful, but still hot; hardworking, but still a good cook; multitasking, but still a conscientious housekeeper; a leader, but still feminine; a workaholic, but still a devoted parent. Men participate in and reinforce these ideals, but the primary arbitrators of success or failure are other women.

That’s one of the most noxious elements of this unworkable system: It turns the very women it subjugates into its primary enforcers. And it manifests most vividly in what many women described, in various forms of disgust, as competitive martyrdom. “White/WASPy women seem addicted to martyrdom as a parenting philosophy,” Kaili, a white woman from Chicago, told me. “From ‘buying all the things’ to the tyranny of breastfeeding to the baby gaining weight, there are endless ways to feel guilty. I think we are quick to make it as hard as possible for ourselves instead of just living.”

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Updated 2020-09-23T21:29:16.087Z

The labor compounds in a way that makes you so exhausted you don’t have energy to resist it, even when you know it’s ridiculous. Celia, who identifies as Latina and disabled, lives in an urban Midwest city with her husband and their child. “So many of the demands seem like housewife busy work to me,” she said. “‘Never let your child see a screen’ just means you can never empty a dishwasher or wash your hair without an ordeal. Or the idea that if you sleep-train your child it’ll damage your relationship with them forever, or that you should do ‘baby-led weaning’ because if you feed your child purées, they will never have a developed palate and become fat eating from pouches, even though you don’t have time to make tiny diced food.” Celia can articulate all of this clearly, yet still admits to feeling terrified, every day, that she’s messing up her child in some way.

Operating in this way is psychologically exhausting. Even more so when all that unprocessed frustration has nowhere to go but toward competition with other moms. “Instead of offering a legitimate show of community or problem solving, moms almost universally will try to one-up your source of parenting frustration with their own similar but clearly much worse struggles,” Lauren, who calls herself a “broke white college student” in the Pacific Northwest, told me pre-pandemic. “We could easily offer each other an exchange of hosting play dates while one takes a few hours of alone time, but then we’d be admitting that we need help, and are clearly not up to the task of parenting. Better to cling to the torch of martyrdom with a white-knuckled death grip.”

Many women can list, in detail, the bevy of tasks, attitudes and habits that accompany “good” motherhood — and then, in the same sentence, admit there are simply not enough hours in the day to even come close to doing them all.

And yet, women who can, try. It’s the millennial way: If the system is rigged against you, just try harder. Which helps explain one of the most curious stats of the last thirty 40 years: Women with jobs spend just as much time parenting as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s. 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.

“Time studies find that a mother, especially one who works outside of the home for pay, is among the most time-poor humans on the planet,” Brigid Schulte writes in “Overwhelmed,” “especially single mothers, weighed down not only by role overload but also what sociologists call ‘task density’ — the intense responsibility she bears and the multitude of jobs she performs in each of these those roles.”

Whatever leisure time remains is increasingly spent with, or constantly interrupted by, children. Mothers exercise — with their children. Mothers cook — with their children. In quarantine, more than ever, mothers do everything — with their children. “I’m so desperate for alone time that I stay up far later than I should, just in an attempt to have moments to myself,” Katie, who lives outside of Atlanta, explained. “I wind up making myself more exhausted by trying to take time for myself.”

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. And instead of giving ourselves some slack, whether it comes to productivity levels or parenting standards, many of us feel like we’re failing at, well, everything — even though every article we read, every friend we talk to, tells us otherwise.

Part of the solution is realizing the extent to which those exacting standards are perpetuated — and enforced — by ourselves. And while everyone’s pandemic parenting struggles are different, core commonalities remain. You are not failing. Society is. And any attempt to rectify that failure on your own — without other parents, including fathers, and without concerted, structural reform — will only lead to even deeper burnout.

The parents who’ve told me they’ve found a way to survive? They’re rebuilding support systems as safely as they can with their neighbors and their peers, including those who don’t have kids. The process is imperfect, often stressful, but ultimately rewarding. It’s hard to cure burnout on our own. But we can begin to help it with other people.


Anne Helen Petersen is a culture writer based in Missoula, Montana. Her previous books include “Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud” and “Scandals of Classic Hollywood,” and her new book is “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.”

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