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Reaching Breaking Point: An Inevitable Part of Parenting?

by Sarah Hughes

In February 2021, in the midst of the Covid 19 lockdowns, the New York Times published a series entitled, ‘The Primal Scream’ detailing American mothers on the brink of breakdown. It’s a fascinating, if not heartbreaking examination of women in crisis, struggling to keep their heads above water financially, emotionally and practically after the complete removal of schools, family support and paid-for childcare.

In researching this article I went back and re-read some of the NY Times pieces and it brought back memories of one of the most bleak and panic-stricken times I’ve ever experienced. In the UK, our schools closed with just one days notice in January 2021, throwing our family and work lives into chaos. Knowing what had happened the previous year, most parents knew in their gut that the kids wouldn’t be going back to school any time soon.

Now before I go any further; please allow me to throw before you my raging middle class guilt: No, we were not one of the families who lost jobs and livelihoods and needed the food parcels which were made possible by the sublime Marcus Rashford. No, we did not live in a high rise flat with no outside space. No, I wasn’t a single parent struggling to do the homeschooling of three kids completely alone and without devices. Whilst drowning in stress and anxiety I used to beat myself up on a daily basis for feeling the way I did, knowing that many, many women had it far worse.

Nevertheless by February half-term, with no sign of a return to school for any of my sons, and without the respite of escaping to work, I had absolutely reached my breaking point. For someone who is generally on the sunny side of the street; the hopelessness and anxiety I felt was unfamiliar and frightening.

We’re a year further forward now of course. Somewhere pretty close to ‘normal’ life. So why does it still feel like parents, and more specifically Mothers, are stuck on a hamster wheel of exhaustion with the only destination complete burnout? Is reaching breaking point just an inevitable part of parenting?

Well, society has changed beyond recognition over the past half a century which has in turn led to a vast increase in stress for parents. We have way more stuff to do and way less time to do it… it’s a killer combo. Most families now have dual earners, meaning one parent isn’t available to sort out the mammoth task of family-life admin and the rising cost of living means taking shorter hours or a less demanding job just isn’t a viable option.

Plus, there are different types of stress right? Lots of women are used to working in high stress environments over the course of their careers and some absolutely thrive on that pressure. Managed correctly, it can make us more creative, more productive, more efficient. However the stress that comes with trying to make a child get dressed in the morning/get in the car/eat a morsel of breakfast /stop throwing themselves on the floor in a screaming tantrum… that stress just doesn’t produce the same effect! It doesn’t make us more creative, productive or efficient. Instead it makes us angsty, exhausted and frustrated.

The introduction of social media in the early 2000’s has undoubtedly been a game-changer in terms of parental burnout too. The comparison culture is now so pervasive most of us are unaware we’re negatively comparing ourselves to others on an hourly basis. I hold my hands up to that one! Professor Sarah Coyne from Brigham Young University found in her 2017 study that mothers who more frequently compared themselves to others on social networking sites felt more depressed, more overloaded in the parental role, and less competent as parents.

Hand in hand with all of the social media comparisons is one of the biggest parenting stressors of our time: Guilt. Big fat crippling guilt. The time that we now spend away from our kids due to either being separated from their other parent, or from working long hours, means that feelings of guilt are never far away. This leads us to overcompensate at weekends and insist on cramming in activity after activity, no matter how taxing that might be in terms of time or financial limitations. The world has become so much more accessible to our children over the past couple of generations; they’re unlikely to stay in their home town, marry the boy or girl next door and work down the road. That increased opportunity has led to a relentless pressure on parents to equip their children with different skills, languages and talents, in order that they don’t have the doors closed to any of these wonderful opportunities. In short; this has made parenting more time consuming and pretty bloomin’ expensive.

So for all of us hamsters running like crazy on that blasted wheel; is there anything we can actually do? Are there any magic tricks to make this unsustainable pace more bearable?

Well… far be it from me (the stressiest Mother in town) to proffer advice, but here’s what my research has thrown up.

  • An Australian study in 2019 found that earlier bedtimes for children resulted in a noticeable drop in stress for parents. Specifically having all children asleep or in their bedrooms in silence by 8.30pm allowed parents to ‘decompress’ at the end of the day.

  • Spending less time on our phones can play a part in heading off that parental overwhelm. The reasons for this are twofold: firstly, if you put your phone away when you’re around your children you will be more present with them and less likely to fall prey to the big fat guilt. Secondly, you’ll be less likely to find opportunities to compare yourself negatively to other Mothers and families who seem to be living in blissful harmony. I promise you; they’re not.

  • Find your support team. You’ve heard the saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ right? And it’s so true. Lots of us aren’t living close to our own parents and siblings so it’s even more important to build up a small network of trusted friends who you know you can turn to for help with childcare or just a sympathetic ear when you want to scream. Feeling isolated is a key factor in parents being unable to cope.

  • Look at the distribution of family labour. This one is such a biggy but so often overlooked. Many things have changed since our Mums were raising us and our siblings but one thing that hasn’t changed as much as we’d like is that the patriarchy is still alive and well in lots of our homes. If you have a partner, look at how the important day-to-day work in the home is divided up, and if you see that a disproportionate amount is falling on one person, as a team you have to tackle that situation. And it’s not just for the adults either; do your future son/daughter-in-law a favour and ensure your kids know that helping out with chores at home is part of being a family unit.


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