parenting burnout

I don’t need to tell you that today sucks. Yesterday sucked too. This morning I was blank and distracted and my boyfriend asked, are you feeling bad about everything? I was, but I think a lot of us have learned to sublimate in order to keep going. I keep scrolling through Twitter and the outrage is the same but there’s a compulsive need to feel it. If you can’t bring yourself to feel it, I think that’s okay. But if you need to, give yourself permission. It’s not meaningless to fight the numbness.

When the rest of the world makes me feel bad I’ve always found that work makes me feel better. This is a fucked up coping mechanism for a broken world — and, I’ve come to understand, says less about me than it does about how helpless we’ve come to feel. The ability to read and write words feels under my control. The continued legislative refusal to acknowledge — let alone confront — white supremacy and gun violence does not. And so.

I divided my book leave into two parts: first, read everything; then, write everything. I’ve enjoyed it much more than the schedule for my last book, which was to read everything related to one chapter/female celebrity (say, Melissa McCartney) and then write, and then do the same thing for the next nine chapters. That strategy kept the details of the specific research more in immediate mind; my current strategy has allowed me to integrate and synthesize a much bigger, historically rooted understanding of burnout and what’s exacerbating it.

It also allows reading, and stats, and arguments to simmer for weeks — until they become something like a thick reduction sauce of themselves, pungent and salty. That’s what’s happened with piles of reading I’ve done on parenting burnout, and the resilient uneven division of labor that fuels it. Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed and Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun are recent “classics” of the “this shit is absurd” genre, but the best book I’ve read (by far) is Darcy Lockman’s All the Rage: Women, Men, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, which was released earlier this year.

Instead of the “problem that has no name,” famously described in Betty Friedan’s landmark 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, this problem has a name, and that name is burnout. It’s a result of numerous cultural shifts, developing over the last four decades, but the most significant seem to be: 1) society is still structured as if every family has a caretaker who stays home, even as fewer and fewer families are arranged that way; 2) women have been “liberated” from many explicit forms of subjugation and sexism, but others are sublimated into the ideology of contemporary womanhood, in which women are expected to gracefully manage and maintain her high-pressure job, motherhood, a relationship, a domestic space, and her body. She is “free” to be pressured to be everything to everyone at all times, save herself.

I keep thinking back to a line from All Joy and No Fun, highlighting the shift in expectations post-feminine mystique: “It was a woman in Minnesota who clarified this shift for me,” Senior writes. “She pointed out that her mother called herself a housewife. She, on the other hand, called herself a stay-at-home mom. The change in nomenclature reflects the shift in cultural emphasis: the pressures on women have gone from keeping an immaculate house to being an irreproachable mom.”

At least your house has a discrete amount of space: you can, in fact, finish cleaning it. But motherhood, like our contemporary understanding of work, cannibalizes every part of your life. There are few (if any?) configurations in which a mother is not, first and foremost, a mother. Working mother, hot mama, fit mom: the adjective modifies the primary mode of identification. Being a woman within our current patriarchal framework is already exhausting; being a mother, for so many reasons beyond the actions of actual children, is even more so.

Which is why I find books like Mommy Burnout, written by a psychologist and family therapist, or Girl, Stop Apologizing, written by Rachel Hollis, to be so unhelpful: they address the symptoms of that exhaustion (You don’t have to be perfect! Ditch the mom guilt!) and avoid the larger, structural causes of that exhaustion. You know why you’re doing all the work? Because you’ve internalized that you should always put everyone else first, but also because our current parental leave structure sets it up that way. Indeed, as Lockman very convincingly demonstrates, drawing on a wealth of global data, the only thing that really sets a family up for an equal distribution of labor is when the non-birth parent takes significant leave on their own. But that takes policy changes and societal changes, and that’s something a psychologist (who operates on the level of the individual) or Rachel F-ing Hollis ,whose understanding of the world can be boiled down to “You, after all, are the only one in control of how your life goes,” refuse to acknowledge, let alone address.

You can’t fix burnout by making time for bible study or journaling in the morning, as Jessica Turner suggests in Fringe Hours, or by learning how to fight like an adult, as Jancee Turner argues in How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids. Those things might help, but there has to be a clear-eyed acknowledgment of what’s actually fucking with your life: patriarchy (responsible for the impossible have-it-all/do-it-all ideal) and our current form of capitalism (responsible for (over)work conditions and economic realities and loan payments that making doing-it-all even more impossible).

The problem with patriarchy is that everyone, even the people ostensibly empowered by it, suffer. In a 2015 editorial in the Washington Post, therapist Samantha Rodman tried to explain why men don’t complain about parenting quite like women do. She wonders: “Is it possible dads are the new Supermoms, with all the attendant guilt, self-imposed high standards, and societal disapproval for admitting anything less than rapture and delight with parenting?” In other words: dads suffer under patriarchy and capitalism too.

I agree, but I think most moms and dads would agree that the self-imposed high standards of motherhood are simply on another level. Just because everyone suffers in some way doesn’t mean they suffer equally. (White supremacy is toxic to white people too, but compare that toxicity to what white supremacy actually enacts on people who are not white).

Until we actually name, interrogate, and work to rectify the causes of suffering, it’ll continue to metastasize as we all, mom or dad, parent or not, slowly collapse under its weight. Parenting has never been easy. But it’s also never been this particularly complicated and deceptive kind of difficult.

I’d love to hear about your personal experiences with parenting burnout. Moms, Dads, Single Moms, Single Dads, Co-Parenters, Grandparent Parenters, Sibling Parenters, Moms Parenting With Moms and Dads Parenting with Dads — you will make the book better. If I quote you in the book, I’ll send you a free copy. You can find the survey here.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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