Parenting is exhausting. And it’s hard on our physical health. But few parents talk about their mental health. However, it’s an important topic! Because about 1 in 10 parents will experience depression. And about 1 in 10 parents will experience parental burnout. While the symptoms of each are similar, the solutions — and prevention — can be different. So let’s talk about parental depression and mental health.
Signs of Depression
Depression is a result of physical and chemical changes in the brain and body. While these changes can be caused by long-term stress, they can also be caused by physical illness or major changes (ie. pregnancy, surgeries, injuries, etc).
Parents experiencing depression will be tired, and no amount of sleep seems to fix that fatigue. They go to bed tired, often experiencing insomnia, and wake up tired. They struggle with feelings of guilt or inadequacy, having crying fits in the shower, numbness while watching the kids play, and difficulty participating in life in general. Depressed parents flounder to connect with their kids and their partners, emotionally, physically or socially. And they tend to feel hopeless, often with thoughts of “I’m not good enough, and I’ll never be good enough,” or “They’d be better off without me.”
Signs of Burnout
Burnout is the result of feeling overwhelmed, stressed and strained for a prolonged period of time, due to the busy-ness of life and lack of support. Generally there hasn’t been a trigger for it, but burnout builds up over time.
Parents experiencing burnout are exhausted, though a couple of nights (or week of!) good sleep will give relief. Burned out parents often feel alone and isolated, and fight brain fog and confusion. They tend to be forgetful and emotionally withdraw, because they just don’t have the energy to cope anymore. They will say things like “I’m just so tired of all the stress,” or “I love my kids, but I need a vacation,” or “I wish I had more help!”
What you can do
If you have parental depression, seek medical help immediately. Depression, no matter the trigger, has physical causes, and requires medical & psychological support.
Burnout, on the other hand, while creating physical changes in the body, requires support from the community. This could include your doctor, but often, burnout can be solved without medication or medical intervention.
Physically, parents often are tired, missing meals, finding it hard to keep up with showers let alone workouts. But if your physical health isn’t fixed by a single good night’s sleep and a long hot shower, you may have parental burnout or depression.
Treating depression requires medical support, so please consult your doctor. This could involve medication, and there’s no shame in taking medication.
Burnout treatment could include medical support, but doesn’t necessarily have to. However, consulting a doctor is a great place to start.
Either way, depression and burnout treatments start with prioritizing the basics of self-care: rest, nutrition, hydration, hygiene and movement, ongoing. They need to be your main focus, before work or laundry.
So take those naps, eat small & healthy meals, drink lots of water, take those long hot showers and baths, and take a walk outside. While these things won’t immediately fix the problem, they will start the process for you. And talk to your doctor!
Mentally, parents are often stressed, trying to remember all the details that go into running a household while still maintaining relationships. Between the calendar, the to-do list, and the insane amount of pressure — both external and internal — to have the Instagram & Pinterest-perfect life, is it any wonder that we just want to check out at the end of the day and binge watch the latest series?
Mental burnout is when you end up on a “hamster wheel” of rushing, forgetting, backtracking and redoing the same things, and then using unhealthy habits (eating, drinking alcohol, vegging out on video games or tv shows, etc) to cope and avoid more exhaustion. Depression is when the “hamster wheel” stops working altogether, and you barely get through your day, just going through the motions.
If you are burning out or fighting parental depression, talk to someone about your feelings. Sometimes getting an outsider’s perspective can help you regain clarity and set appropriate boundaries around your schedule, your obligations and your to-do list.
If you are burning out, there’s no shame in taking a step back from your obligations and clearing your schedule. Take a few days off, get a babysitter, and give yourself a break to regroup and catch your breath. Write in a journal, read books or blog posts about what others’ did in your situation, and you’ll feel less alone.
If you are suffering from depression, talk to a mental health expert. They will be able to help you get the medical and mental support you NEED. There is absolutely NO reason to feel guilty about getting treatment.
Emotionally, parenting is a roller coaster. The highs and lows of parenting can make you feel like you’ve got whiplash, literally. One minute you’re cheering your kids on as they achieve another milestone first, and the next, you’re horrified as they make yet another risky choice. You fall in love with their sweetness and wince at the whiney voices. They can make you cry, laugh, and lose your temper in just 5 minutes!
Parenting is not easy.
Burned out parents can often fall into a rut emotionally, fighting feelings of guilt, inadequacy, failure and shame. We can start calling ourselves names mentally every time we make a mistake — forgetting something, yelling, being impatient with our kids — and that takes an emotional toll. It’s easy to fall into a negative habit of feeling numb, unresponsive to our kids and then overreacting.
Depressed parenting can look similar — unresponsive then overreacting — but it can be more dangerous, leading to neglect and abuse.
The first step is to recognize that there’s a problem, and it isn’t your fault. But it is your responsibility to get help!
And there is help available.
If you’re emotionally burned out, talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Find a support group, connect with a Facebook group or in-person community, and surround yourself with people who have been there, done that, and know how to walk you through it.
If you have depression and you are feeling numb, you’re at risk of harm — either towards yourself or someone else. Talk to your doctor immediately, or call a hotline.
Socially, parenting these days is a minefield. The “Mommy Wars” of judgement, misperceptions, and parent-shaming demands make interactions with other parents risky at best. Post something in a local mom’s group, and you’ll get 10 comments telling you what a bad mom you are for even thinking about whatever it was you posted. It makes us afraid to be real with each other, so we walk into playgroups and school pick up lines guarded and unapproachable.
If you’re burned out on toxic social interactions, you’re not alone. It’s ok if you need to step back and take a break from relationships. Just don’t isolate yourself entirely. Try anonymous social situations such as video games where you can take on another persona. Or branch out to different environments altogether — maybe connect with a different generation.
When the thought of any kind of social activity makes you want to run and hide, for weeks on end, you may not be just burning out but more. Even introverts need some social interaction regularly, so isolating and hiding can be signs that you’re suffering from parental depression.
Isolation is not the answer. Let those around you know what’s going on and that you’re struggling. They can help you figure out what your next steps should be.
There is help available.
Parenting isn’t easy, but you’re not alone. Even if you’re parenting alone — you’re still not alone, because there are lots of us who parent on our own too. Burnout is a real thing, and left unchecked, can lead to more serious issues. But if you’re burning out, you can fix it fairly quickly. The key is to recognize where you’re at, and to do what you need to do in order to get healthier.
If you’re past burnout, and you’re suffering from parental depression, it’s not too late to get help. Recognize that you do need help, and that it will take more time, more effort and more support to get you back to healthy. There’s no shame! It’s not your fault that you’ve gotten sick from an unhealthy situation.
In Canada and the US, you can call: 1-800-273-8255
In the UK, call 0800 689 5652.
For other countries, here’s a list of places you can get help: Crisis Support