Parenting burnout - I'm a psychotherapist and here's what it might look like for you (and sometimes it's not so obvious)

GoodToKnow expert panellist Anna Mathur reveals the five hidden signs you might be suffering from it

(Image credit: Getty Images)

When replying to a friend’s WhatsApp message feels like another admin chore… it could be burnout. Psychotherapist Anna Mathur shares the hidden signs of burnout - because they're not always so noticeable - and what you can do about it.

Many aspects of parenting can contribute to burnout, such as navigating matrescence (the change your mind and body go through when you become a mother) or becoming the default parent and having to organise and remember everything - including how to explain the mental load to your partner. Be honest, how often have you brushed off feeling frazzled because… well, it’s motherhood, right? How often have you kept going because that’s 'just what parents do’? But, when life's demands aren’t balanced with periods of refuelling, that's when burnout strikes. As a Psychotherapist, I talk to burnt-out mums a lot, and I want to challenge the notion that motherhood equates to feeling like the worst, most sensitive, snappy version of yourself. While it might be common, it doesn't mean it's normal.

Here's my burnout story. One morning, while in sole charge of my three children, out of rage, I smashed a melamine plate against the floor. Hot shame and tears followed (theirs and mine) as I scrabbled to fix the collateral damage of the plate: my children’s shattered sense of safety. Instead of letting that shame drown me, as it so easily could have, I recognised this destructive outburst as a symptom of burnout and a red flag that said I needed to seek support and rest as soon as possible. Like many others, I experienced burnout, which meant my desire to socialise and my ability to experience joy was low. Even my children's happy play felt stressful. This burnout came post-pandemic when the need to keep on keeping on left many of us wondering why we had become so angry and triggered.

My own experience of burnout gave me a deep respect for the limits of my resources. It fuelled my passion for helping parents recognise certain behaviours as overwhelming and burnout rather than a new character flaw. It takes a good while to recover from burnout. The autonomic nervous system (the major neural pathway activated by stress) needs to be given a chance to become more resilient to the general noise and chaos of family life by pulling back on busyness and demands where you can.

What is burnout?

Burnout is characterised by emotional and/or physical exhaustion, not feeling good enough, and experiencing emotional disconnection. Burnout is when you feel exhausted yet unable to rest enough to re-energise. At times, everyone experiences that visceral tiredness, the bone-aching desire to become one with the sofa or the yearning to return to bed as soon as you wake up. Usually, with a bit of rest, a slowing down, or a good night’s sleep, this tiredness lifts. But burnout hits different. Burnout happens when you repeatedly push through the limits of your resources, choosing or having to ignore the metaphorical warning lights of your mind and body.

"I want to challenge the notion that motherhood equates to feeling like the worst, most sensitive, snappy version of yourself. "

When that ‘village’ of support is nowhere to be found when you yearn to tap out for a bit, you could be at risk of burnout. If this resonates with you, you’re not alone. In 2022, The Parenting Research Centre spoke to over 2.5k parents. Of these, 60% said they didn’t often do relaxing and energising things, and 45% reported severe or moderate distress.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), whilst focussing on workplace burnout, is a scientific measure of burnout and recognises that burnout impacts people on every level, interpersonally (your relationships), physically and emotionally. It invites patients to consider whether they feel stressed or hardened towards others and can effectively deal with problems.

Mums with kids

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Burnout has been recognised in the workplace for decades (consider the whisperings in the office that a colleague was on sick leave because they’d ‘had a nervous breakdown’), but parenting burnout feels like the last taboo. I imagine this is because the symptoms of burnout (think impatience, disconnection, irritability, rage) feel the opposites of the archetypal parenting ‘love, patience’ we all pressure ourselves to experience. Burnout does not equal a lack of love; it speaks of a lack of resources. In the therapy room, I often encounter two different causes of burnout:

  1. Circumstantial causes: These are circumstances in your life that mean you’re not able to resource yourself. Perhaps you’re juggling young children with a demanding job and limited childcare. Maybe you’re caring for a sick parent, perhaps you feel isolated and don’t have the support you need.
  2. Created causes: Perfectionism can increase the likelihood of burnout. If you’re trying to do too much, to too high a standard then you may experience less down-time and more frustration and self-criticism when you inevitably miss the goalposts. In the same way, being driven by a need to please others can mean you prioritise others above meeting your own needs at all costs.

Perhaps you recognise yourself in some of these causes of burnout. Maybe your circumstances mean that rest is hard to come by, or perhaps your own standards mean you’re exhausted by constantly striving to meet a bar that is set too high (skip to the end as I have some resources to help you add some humanness to your standards). Maybe you experience a mixture of both. But it’s worth monitoring these things so that you can protect yourself from feeling floored, where you can, and seek extra support where needed to stop things spiralling further.

An important question. If your child was consistently overwhelmed or chronically crabby, would you seek to do something about it? Of course you would. You’d do something, anything. But what about when it comes to you? I have concluded that the bar we set for our children’s wellbeing is far higher than the one we set for ourselves. We show care to our children, but when it comes to our own wellbeing, many push on, chalking it down to ‘motherhood’. I encourage you to challenge this narrative and seek more for yourself. And I’m going to tell you how.

Five hidden signs of burnout

  1. You no longer enjoy things - they've become a 'to do'
  2. 'I'm fine' is a stock answer
  3. You find it hard to rest
  4. 'Switching off' looks like alcohol or doom scrolling (sometimes both)
  5. You shout more than you want to

The things you used to enjoy are just another thing to add to your to-do list. A friend messaged you, and you feel irritated by the admin for replying.
What to do: Cut back on what you can to preserve energy for the things that resource you. Cut corners and seek ‘done’ over perfect, be it muting the school WhatsApp notifications or placing boundaries around how you spend your energy. It can feel uncomfortable saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’, but you’ll be able to engage in supportive relationships and activities in time.

When people ask, your automatic response is, ‘I’m fine. ' The true answer? Well, you don’t even know anymore.
What to do: When considering your child’s needs or feelings, check in with yourself too. Ask yourself, ‘What do I feel? What do I need?’ Next time a good friend asks how you are, challenge yourself to go beyond the ‘I’m fine’ and experience the benefits of being validated and supported.

"Burnout does not equal a lack of love; it speaks of a lack of resources."

You find it hard to rest or feel guilty when you get the chance to slow down. Rest feels like an unproductive indulgence.What to do: Rest is the antidote to burnout, recovery from your challenges, and a way to refuel for the ones ahead. If rest is hard to come by, consider what you can do that feels restful. Slow your movement and speech to calm your body, or delegate some of the mental load. Say ‘yes please’ to an offer of help, or reach out to someone in your support. Imagine you’re plugging yourself into a power socket like a phone to counteract guilt.

You lean towards scrolling or a glass of wine to switch off.
What to do:
It can be hard to determine what you need when you fill every silence with digital noise or every moment of downtime with busyness. Scrolling or grabbing a glass of wine might feel like meeting a need in the moment, but in truth, scrolling's unpredictability sets our nervous systems on edge, and wine saps sleep quality (if you're sober curious, take a look at how GoodToKnow Editor-in-chief and mum-of-one did it, and what really helped her give up alcohol). Consider what else you might do to move into a relaxed state. Relaxing after deep breaths or reading a book might not be as immediate, but it will be more nourishing.

You shout more than you’d like and struggle to cope with stress.
The parenting books tell you how to respond to the usual chaos, but you have no calm when chaos arises.
What to do: I remember the lightbulb moment of realisation that my daily lockdown walk was an act of love for my children. It reframed how I felt about doing things for myself. It takes energy and resource to respond to stress well. It takes energy to rationalise anxious thoughts, to calm a stressed child, and even to laugh (ever noticed how your sense of humour goes AWOL when exhausted?). Doing things that fill your cup means that you’ve got something in the tank to give.Maybe you recognise all of these symptoms, or perhaps you’re making a mental note for the future. Keep tabs on how you feel and how quickly you transition from calm to rage or from rest to panic. Sure, you’ll have rough days, stressful times and sleepless nights, but if you feel these transitions quicken more often, then it’s time to re-evaluate what support you have and where your expectations and boundaries are placed.

Explaining burnout to your children

If you are more ‘incredible hulk’ than ‘mum’, you might want to find a way to explain your burnout to your child. You may be a connoisseur of putting on a smile when you’re feeling floored, but children are perceptive to the disconnect between internal feelings and external behaviour in caregivers.

To avoid confusion, name your feelings: ‘I’m feeling grumpy and tired today. I’m going to bed early tonight.’ By claiming responsibility for your feelings, you are also modelling how to verbalise and respond to emotion.

Burnout happens over time, not overnight. In the same way, burnout recovery takes time, too. In becoming aware of your needs and finding new ways to meet them and speak them out, you’ll be rebuilding your strength from the inside out. You’ll find yourself dancing to trying to ‘do more’ and pulling back. Take it gently where you can, and allow the burnout to help you choose to drown out the cultural drum beat of ‘do more, do more’ with a proclamation of ‘I am a human with limited resources. I cannot do it all and be it all’. In time, joy and ease return.

Wherever you sit on the scale of thriving to burnt out, next time you feel tired or shouty, instead of leaping straight to self-criticism, ‘Why can’t I be a better friend or mother?’, try responding to yourself with kind enquiry. ‘I need to try harder’ turns into ‘I’m running on empty. What do I need?’ This simple but compassionate reframe enables you to ask for help or amend expectations.

Next time a friend says they’re exhausted, ask a little more. Maybe they’re fighting burnout, not simple exhaustion. And while you might not be able to change their situation, being open to hearing more can usher out the truth and allow you to be a source of support and validation.

So, let’s continue to challenge the taboo of burnout, fight to strip away the shame that keeps us silent, and remember that burnout does not equal a lack of love; it speaks of a lack of resources.

Where else you can go to get help

The Therapy Edit - ‘On 5 ways to get rest when you can’t.’
The Motherkind Podcast - ‘The cost of holding it all together with Anna Mathur.’
Mental Health UK on Burnout - How to find balance, feel good, and see your children flourish as a result.

You're not alone if you're experiencing burnout; read all about how mum-of-one Jayne experienced parental burnout, and check out our piece on knowing how to spot the signs of parent burnout. We also share expert tips on how to manage stress as well as these relaxation exercises. You could also try some of these self-care ideas - they're all free.

Anna Mathur MBACP Accred
Mother, Pyschotherapist and author

Anna Mathur is a mum of three, psychotherapist and bestselling author. She's passionate about taking therapy out of the therapy room and sharing her own personal and professional experiences to support mums through motherhood. Psychoeducation is a big passion of Anna’s as she believes that knowing yourself and understanding your thoughts and feelings is a huge part of enabling change.