How tired are you on a scale of 1 to 10?

1 being, “I have had a blissful night of 10 hours sleep on a fluffy cloud and I am filled with vibrant energy brighter than the sun”, and 10 being “I just got hired as an extra for The Walking Dead because they said I’d be a really convincing zombie without needing any make-up but I don’t remember doing any of it because I was SO. FREAKING. TIRED.”

Most parents would probably say anything around a 5 is a good day. Most of us are probably averaging around a 7. And we hit a 9 or a 10 maybe once or twice a month, especially during teething or growth spurts.

But sometimes the 10 days become more frequent. And it’s not just that you’re tired, or at least, not just physically tired. Your very soul is tired. You’re tired from the inside out. You’re feeling drained and having trouble functioning.

If this sounds familiar, you might be experiencing parenting burnout.

How can you be burned out from parenting?

We talk about burn out at work a lot. Instagram is filled with people talking about how they worked themselves so hard that one day they couldn’t get out of bed and then they learned to meditate and do yoga and say no to things and now their lives are carefree and joyful.

But what if you can’t say no to the things that are working you so hard? What if you can’t take time off and go meditate for an hour a day? What if the job that’s draining you is caring for small people whose lives depend on you?

Parenting is a really tough job. And, seriously, imagine if your boss wanted you to work 24 hours a day for no money, with no breaks and no holidays, while they yelled at you for no reason and occasionally threw bodily fluids all over you. Never mind taking a week off for a yoga retreat, you’d quit immediately and take them to a tribunal. Actually, you’d probably call the police.

And yet. Sure, we do it for love. We do, desperately, intensely, fiercely love these little blighters. You’d have to. Of course we want to care for them. But that doesn’t make it any less exhausting.

Plus, for the last two years you’ve been putting in all this work – back-breaking, non-stop, often entirely thankless work – during a global pandemic, and now with the possibility of World War III looming. You probably had childcare suddenly taken away, and then made unreliable at best. All of the normal support groups and activities that would normally help fill and structure your days were taken away and now they’re unpredictable. You might have been juggling home schooling with work on top of parenting. Now you’re faced with media reports of terrible things happening to mothers and children, and maybe your kids are asking questions that you don’t know how to answer. It is a time of intense international anxiety, and that anxiety is only exacerbated by worrying about the future for the little snack gremlins that are rampaging around your home.

So of course you’re run down. Of course you feel like you have little left to give. The tank is running empty. This is burn out, and it’s not at all surprising.

Here are some signs that you could be experiencing parenting burnout:

  • You’re exhausted – not just the “the baby woke up every hour so now I need 8 coffees before I start the day” kind of normal tired, but utterly drained, can barely lift your head, have no energy to do much of anything kind of exhausted. You feel exhausted in your very soul.
  • You’re struggling to find joy in your kids – this can be a hard one to admit to. It doesn’t mean you don’t love them, you love them with every fibre of your being and you’d do anything for them. But lately you’ve started to feel like you’re going through the motions, that you’re on autopilot a lot of the time and your emotions have become a little flat. You still play and engage with your children, but you don’t find those bursts of joy in it that you used to. Maybe it all feels like harder work than it used to.
  • You’re rarely in the moment – you’re worrying about what’s happening in Europe, you’re worrying about what your energy bills will be next month, you’re worrying where the economy will be later this year, you’re worrying about whether the pandemic has scarred your children for life, and ten million other things that have happened in the past or might happen in the future. You’re finding it hard to engage with the present moment and just let yourself go in the here and now.
  • You’re questioning everything – burnout brings us pretty low and decimates our self belief. You start questioning yourself as a parent, whether you’re any good at your job, your purpose in life, your relationships, pretty much everything.
  • You can’t see the next step – when we’re faced with challenges in life, the way to deal with them is to formulate a plan. What outcome do we want and how are we going to get there. But when you’re burnt out, you don’t have the energy or the headspace to make a plan. You feel like you’re on a hamster wheel running round and round, but with less agency that the hamster. More like you’re in a washing machine just being flung round and round through your routine. You can’t see a way off and it feels as though things will never change.

It’s not a fun feeling. But the good news is, it can change. Burnout is harder to deal with as a parent – you often can’t take a long holiday and spend loads of time on self care until you feel better. People are depending on you. But there are things you can do, and you should do, because this can’t go on.

  1. Take a break if you can

Ok there’s probably not going to be a two-week break to Mauritius to lie on a beach any time soon. But if you can get someone – a partner, a friend, a relative, a childminder – to take the kids for a day or a weekend, or a even a few hours, preferably on a regular basis, that will give you some valuable time to yourself to rest and just be.

2. Do things that bring you joy

We focus so much on what we can do for the kids, the activities we can set up for them, the groups or the classes we can take them to, that we forget about ourselves. What do you enjoy? What are your hobbies? Or what were they before the kids took up all your free time? Try to introduce them back into your life, even just in small ways. Back in my youth, I trained as a dancer. Those days are long gone, but I still put on my favourite songs and dance around the living room with the kids. I have to alternate my song choices with my three-year-olds so she doesn’t complain about my music selection, but thank goodness for on-demand streaming services!

3. Find ways to express yourself

A big factor in burnout is the fact that we feel consumed in serving other peoples’ needs and aims without addressing our own. Our personalities, our sense of self, gets squashed down. Creativity is a powerful tool for self-expression – drawing, colouring, writing, painting… you don’t have to be good at any of it to splash some of your feelings down on paper. Take photos, make videos. You could take up collaging, and just stick other people’s pictures to channel your feelings. Pick some wild flowers and press them, glue some glitter on leaves and twigs. All these things are great activities to keep the kids busy whilst you get to have a go, so it’s a two-for-one deal!

4. Let something go

You’re doing too much. I’m willing to guarantee it. Some of the balls you’re juggling are vital and there’s nothing you can do about them. But some of them are less important and you can afford to let them fall without the world ending. Sit down, maybe when the kids are in bed, and list everything that you’re currently doing. What’s on your to do list right now? I bet it’s pretty long. Don’t worry, make that long huge list. Then go through it carefully and identify everything that you could do without. Cross it off your list. Then find everything that you can delegate to someone else – tell them that that’s now their responsibility, do not feel guilty or worry that you’re imposing, especially if it’s your co-parent because this is their job too, not just yours. Then cross that off the list too. By now, your list should be looking just that little bit less intimidating.

5. Set some goals

Rather than the days just feeling like an endless treadmill, set yourself some goals to give you a sense of progress and something to look forward to. Start small. At first your goal might be something simple that will give you a little buzz of achievement. Your goal for this week might be to get through that mounting pile of laundry. But make sure you have some goals that are just for you as well. You might have a goal to finish reading a book before the end of the month, creating a bit of you-time in the evenings to sit and read. You might have a goal to get a bath by yourself when the kids are in bed! Then you might get more adventurous. Maybe you’ll set a goal to go on a family holiday to Tenerife in the next 12 months. Or maybe you’ll set a goal to eat at 10 nice restaurants in your area with your other half, without the kids, over the next two years. Make a planner with your goals and the steps you need to take to reach them, and then tick each one off as you achieve it.

6. Look for the joy

While it’s not coming naturally, try to exercise your joy muscle. Each evening while we’re having dinner, I get everyone round the table to say what the best thing was that happened to them that day. I also get them to say one thing they’re grateful for. The point is for the adults and the kids to learn to look for, and focus on, the positive. Some people have happiness jars, and every time something good happens they write it on a piece of paper and put in the jar. Then once a week or once a month they read back all the good memories. Some people journal and have a section they use to reflect on positive events. Whatever works for you, find a way to seek out moments of joy, and after a while they’ll start to come more easily.

Above all else, remember that this is normal. Don’t beat yourself up, just focus on looking after yourself. And if you need more support, you can always get in touch to see if coaching might benefit you.

Hang on in there, mama, you’re doing great.