“Time studies find that a mother, especially one who works outside of the home for pay, is among the most time-poor humans on the planet,” Brigid Schulte writes in “Overwhelmed,” “especially single mothers, weighed down not only by role overload but also what sociologists call ‘task density’ — the intense responsibility she bears and the multitude of jobs she performs in each of these those roles.”
Whatever leisure time remains is increasingly spent with, or constantly interrupted by, children. Mothers exercise — with their children. Mothers cook — with their children. In quarantine, more than ever, mothers do everything — with their children. “I’m so desperate for alone time that I stay up far later than I should, just in an attempt to have moments to myself,” Katie, who lives outside of Atlanta, explained. “I wind up making myself more exhausted by trying to take time for myself.”
This is parenting burnout, pandemic style: You’re still managing the mental load of the household, while also making sure the masks are laundered, the Zoom schedules are followed, and trying to figure out how much kid screen time is too much and how much screen time is necessary to just get through your day. And instead of giving ourselves some slack, whether it comes to productivity levels or parenting standards, many of us feel like we’re failing at, well, everything — even though every article we read, every friend we talk to, tells us otherwise.
Part of the solution is realizing the extent to which those exacting standards are perpetuated — and enforced — by ourselves. And while everyone’s pandemic parenting struggles are different, core commonalities remain. You are not failing. Society is. And any attempt to rectify that failure on your own — without other parents, including fathers, and without concerted, structural reform — will only lead to even deeper burnout.
The parents who’ve told me they’ve found a way to survive? They’re rebuilding support systems as safely as they can with their neighbors and their peers, including those who don’t have kids. The process is imperfect, often stressful, but ultimately rewarding. It’s hard to cure burnout on our own. But we can begin to help it with other people.
Anne Helen Petersen is a culture writer based in Missoula, Montana. Her previous books include “Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud” and “Scandals of Classic Hollywood,” and her new book is “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.”