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Back to school burnout

Back to school burnout

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Parents struggle with exhaustion as uncertainty around fall return continues

By Rebecca Tien

With the continued uncertainty of how—and even if—students will go back to school this fall, it’s easy for parents to feel they are living in some kind of Groundhog’s Day purgatory or Lord of the Flies reality. 

For those who remain employed, there are endless days of juggling work and home—for those who have lost their jobs, the stress of caring for their family is overwhelming. In either case, parents find themselves trying to fulfill multiple roles while maintaining sanity and making sure the wine rack holds enough bottles until the next shipment arrives. 

Even in non-COVID times, most parents are limping to the finish line by August and counting the nanoseconds until they can pack their kids back off to school. But with this year’s constant roller coaster ride of “will they, won’t they, should they” looming in the background, parents are feeling weighed down with decisions about the best way to keep their kids safe and happy. 

As single mother Jennifer Belemu expressed, “The hardest part is keeping my child busy and guarded and safe. There is so much scary news and I want to keep my child aware, but not terrified.”

Not surprisingly, media outlets like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are citing a sharp increase in parent burn-out, and, in the worst scenarios, child maltreatment.  

According to OSU Chief Psychologist, Dr. Kristen Carpenter, there are three components to the parent burnout many Moms and Dads are experiencing right now: emotional exhaustion, feeling disconnected, and a sense of low accomplishment.

“For parents and kids, there is just so much repetition in our days because we are constrained in so many ways,” said Carpenter. All the uncertainty, monotony, and sense of isolation can lead to increased anxiety.

“For parents, many interactions with adults come from the parents of their children’s peers and many of these relationships are relatively new,” points out Carpenter.

As each individual family assesses their new normal and tries to define what social distancing means for them, “people find themselves walking on eggshells. Negotiating social relationships in the context of those varying thresholds for feeling safe is something the majority of us have never had to contend with before.” This leaves many parents feeling isolated, she said.

Belemu lamented on that isolation. “What I long for is physical touch, whether it is a hug from a friend or a hand shake from a colleague. I am trying to get used to a new norm of no touch and I am very saddened by it.”

Kavitha Kotha, mom of two, had very similar feelings. “I long for being able to be together and gather. I love gathering and entertaining and feeding my friends and family and I miss the ability to do this.”

While many parents find themselves missing their support system of family and friends, for introverts, the sudden 24/7 of parenting leaves them craving the opposite—time to be alone with their own thoughts to go for a walk or drive, listen to music, exercise, be creative. Minna Choi, a musician in Providence, R.I., when asked what she longs for said, “I wish I just had time to practice.” This simple act she took for granted just a few months ago now seems like a long-lost treasure. 

Carpenter, who is not just a psychologist, but also a working mother of three, was surprised to find that what she misses most is her commute to work. Over the years, it had become her tradition to use the time each morning to call family members and check in, she said. As work shifted to work-from-home, she woke up one morning to find it had been weeks since she had talked to her mother and sisters.

“The commute was when I had my social contact because it was the only time I had to myself, and suddenly, that is gone,” she said.

Her suggestion to parents for self care?

“Be aware of how you have lost that kind of time so that you can think about what is missing and then find ways to bring those things back in a new way,” said Carpenter.

She encourages parents to carefully log how they are spending their time, and then determine whether the activities they are engaged in are in line with their values and what makes them feel good. It requires making some hard choices with scarce resources about what can be let go of right now and what is really important to carve out time for. For some it might mean finding a way to stay connected to friends, for others, a way to find moments of alone time for quiet reflection.

What is clear from talking to many parents is that they are all holding an enormous sense of loss, not only for what they don’t have right now, but what they see absent in their own children’s lives and what they have to deny them to keep them safe.

“To be the one that has to say no, to be weighing safety and security of kids against their strong need to be with their peers does not feel right,” said Carpenter.

There is no one-size fits-all solution for the stress parents are feeling in this topsy-turvy existence. But it is important for parents not to remove themselves from the equation as they add up all the things they need to do in a day to take care of their kids. Whatever you do, just remember Carpenter’s advice to incorporate something in your day that brings you joy. There is wisdom in the expression “you can’t fill a cup from an empty vessel” — and that is especially true today. 

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