I feel somewhat awkward to be writing about what burnout feels like, especially since I was just googling it myself a few weeks ago, not knowing if I needed to go to the doctor to have a COVID test, or to the ER to get an MRI for the crippling migraine, brain fog and muscle aches I was dealing with. In a time like we’re in now, when we are weighed down by COVID, devastated by its impact on our economy, schools, childcare systems and overall livelihood, not to mention the possibility of contracting said virus, whose symptoms mimic those of parental burnout, it is nearly impossible to tell whether you are burned out or not.
For me, parental burnout has felt like someone punched me in the head a few dozen times. It has been a constant aching headache, brain fog and overall fatigue. And yes, I did get a COVID test (which came back negative), but only after crossing any other possible physical ailments off my list did I finally realize what I was feeling was actually burnout. I was speaking to a mentor/investor of mine about how I was feeling, and when he said “what you’re feeling is burnout”, it was as if a light had been switched on. The depression, crippling bouts of anxiety and overall malaise was due to the fact that I, like too many of us right now, have been handling way more than I’m capable of, and my knees had finally buckled beneath me.
The amount of pressure the world is under currently is unparalleled, only to be compared to times of war or financial crisis. No other time in our lifetime has the entire world been under this level of stress universally. Working parents are shouldering an even larger burden, with primary childcare support systems either shut down or at limited capacity. For our family, my elementary aged boys have bounced back and forth between virtual and in-person school at the whim of an overwhelmed school board. Having to take on the task of managing my kids’ asynchronous work, their ever changing school routines and their mental well being has proven to be a full time endeavor all on its own. But add to that the fact that I am an entrepreneur in the childcare space who was forced to pivot her company during a pandemic – it took an enormous amount of effort and resources to turn the ship and get it to a place where we have product market fit and steady month over month growth – but the mental toll it has taken on me is one I will not be able to come back from anytime soon.
My parental burnout started a few months ago, towards the end of 2020, when I started waking up on a daily basis feeling unmotivated. I’d wake up with thoughts like “I don’t want to do this anymore” or “I need a nice long break”. Unfortunately I chalked it up to regular year end anxiety and kept pushing myself as I had for the previous 8 months – waking up at 4am to work, then homeschooling my kids for half the day, then working again in the evenings. I didn’t realize at the time that I was already running on empty. Fast forward a few weeks, to after the holidays (which only exacerbated the problem) to the first weeks of the new year. After a tumultuous election cycle, from the Capitol insurrection and the feelings that came with it, to finally getting through the inauguration, the let-down of the enormous amount of stress most of the country had been holding to that point was poignant. That week felt so wonderful and draining at the same time – I remember thinking that the week of January 20th felt like the longest week ever.
In between all of this, a picture my son drew went viral, and the impending PR storm was amazing yet utterly overwhelming. My days (and many evenings) were inundated with PR requests, interviews, podcasts and other demands on my time that all but depleted what little reserves of energy I had left. The company was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight, and many of the requests that came our way opened an entirely new set of opportunities that I was not ready to take on. While all this was going on as well, we were experiencing a snowier than normal winter, with very few days of sunlight here in western PA. It was – pun intended – a perfect storm.
Each day, I pushed myself beyond my limits, filling my head with guilt ridden thoughts such as “your family is healthy, you have a roof over your head, you have food in your fridge, you have nothing to complain about” – I was not giving myself room for compassion; and in hindsight I hadn’t given myself much room for compassion throughout the 5 years that I’ve been an entrepreneur. Finally, one dark February morning, I had a massive nosebleed that lasted for nearly a half hour. The entire day I felt light headed and drained, yet I still pushed through and tried to get work done. Then the next day I had another nosebleed, and this time it was accompanied by a splitting headache. My team, as well as my family, were concerned. They forced me to take time off to regain my strength. I finally gave in and cancelled my meetings the following week. Unfortunately that much needed time off came after I was already completely burned out.
I spent most of my week of “rest” in bed with my eyes closed. But that week, I finally gave myself a moment to breath and realize a few vital things:
- Coming back from parental burnout is not an overnight process – I have a tendency of setting unrealistic goals for myself, and have always expected myself to just bounce back. This is also the unfortunate and unforgiving burden that is placed on moms collectively, especially since moms feel as though we have to always be there for our family. I have come to the realization that I am useless to my team or my family if I have not taken care of myself, and that taking care of myself will take time and focused effort.
- In order to come back from this, I need to make some real changes – Obviously, this journey back to normal can’t happen unless I make some real changes, both personally and professionally. I’ve already begun making some changes to my work hours, my exercise routine, and my diet and have started reincorporating things like meditation, yoga and even acupuncture into my life. Obviously some of these well being practices are still somewhat tricky with COVID but based on where I have been mentally, physically and emotionally, the benefits have greatly outweighed the risks.
- Focus on well being starts with asking for help – One of my biggest personal challenges has been knowing when to ask for help. I have always operated under the assumption that I have to figure everything out on my own (see above) so it was just a matter of time before I completely burned out. I have gotten better at asking for help – from my spouse, my team and my kids. Many of us don’t have our traditional support systems available to us right now, but even asking your co-workers or employers can help tremendously in setting the right guardrails for you to come back from the brink.
I am now at the beginning of my journey of coming back from burnout. I’m hoping that with the increased sunshine, new routine and general self awareness of my personal tendencies, I can move forward out of this darkness and learn ways to avoid this place again.