Lifestyle

Trying To Be A 'Perfect Parent' Is Bad For Your Health

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Parental burnout is different than just being tired. All parents are tired at times. For parents of little ones, “tired” is pretty much our default setting. But parental burnout is being exhausted to the bone—not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually, mentally.

It’s feeling like you have given your kids every last ounce of yourself and have nothing left. It’s feeling like the parent you hoped to be has been lost at sea, nowhere to be found. It’s feeling like you have burned the candle at both end for days, weeks, months … you’re burning still right now, turning to ash.

Parental burnout makes you feel like a ghost of yourself, and it can get scary AF.

I experienced a profound bout of parental burnout when my first son was two-and-a-half years old. He was one of those kids who did. not. sleep. He didn’t ever like to play alone, was prone to epic tantrums, and was just a very intense, high-needs kid.

He was also, of course, extremely bright and passionate, and because he was my first kid and I was his full-time caregiver, I felt like I needed to give him my all, every damn second of my day. I co-slept with him, napped with him, spent hours on end putting him to sleep, playing with him, and catering to his every need and cry.

Because I believed so strongly that giving him my everything was the only way to properly parent him—and I did so without being mindful of my own needs for sleep, emotional recharging, and basic self-care—I didn’t realize that I was losing myself until I was already lost.

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I remember watching my son joyfully splash around at the pool that summer, feeling like I was watching my life as an outsider. I was watching the movie of someone else’s happy life, and it wasn’t mine. I couldn’t feel love or contentment for my life as a mom or even my own child.

In that moment, an eerie, terrified chill passed through me, and for several weeks, I couldn’t shake that horrible feeling of numbness.

Parental burnout makes you feel like a ghost of yourself, and it can get scary AF.

Luckily, for me, that intense feeling of burnout detachment was the wake-up call I needed to go back to therapy, try to figure out how to make my own self-care a priority again, and reexamine my need to be a perfect parent. (Spoiler alert: no parents are perfect, and kids need physically and emotionally healthy parents above all else.)

But I learned then that parenting burnout is a real thing. And over the years, as I pass through different parenting stages with my kids, I’ve had to be careful not to let myself fall into the trap of putting my kids’ needs so far ahead of my own that I fall into the pits of parenting burnout again.

I am far from alone. Parenting burnout is super common, and it has real and profound consequences for parents who experience it. According to a researchers from UCLouvain and Stanford University, parenting burnout isn’t just something we need to address so that parents can live happier and less burdened lives, but neglecting to address it can have negative consequences for our kids as well.

The research, presented in Clinical Psychological Science, defines “parental burnout” as anytime the day-to-day stress of parenting becomes chronic, and leads to exhaustion and depletion among parents. The researchers also address the pressure on parents to be perfect all the time (oh boy, can many of us relate to that!).

“In the current cultural context, there is a lot of pressure on parents,” lead researcher Moïra Mikolajcza, tells Science Direct. “But being a perfect parent is impossible and attempting to be one can lead to exhaustion. Our research suggests that whatever allows parents to recharge their batteries, to avoid exhaustion, is good for children.”

Amen to that.

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After surveying almost 3,000 parents across three different surveys, the researchers found a strong relationship between parental burnout and three outcomes: parental neglect, violence, and “escape ideation” (i.e., the strong feeling that you want to exit your life as a parent).

These are some concerning outcomes, especially if they result in any harm toward children. And as the researchers point out, the ironic part of all of this is that parental burnout stems from a desire to do best by our kids—to give them all our utmost care and love—but the result is the polar opposite.

“We were a bit surprised by the irony of the results,” Mikolajczak remarked. “If you want to do the right thing too much, you can end up doing the wrong thing. Too much pressure on parents can lead them to exhaustion which can have damaging consequences for the parent and for the children.”

As you may have guessed, the researchers’ solutions are to emphasize to parents that self-care should not be negotiable. They encourage parents to seek mental health care when needed, and advise health service professionals to become more aware of the fact that parental burnout is a real thing—and that any taboos around parents putting their needs first must be put to rest right freaking now.

Of course, all of this is fine and dandy as long as parents have access of affordable mental health care, days off from work or childcare to tend to their needs, and support networks available to allow them to tend to their emotional needs. Clearly these aren’t accessible to many parents, so simply saying “practice self-care” may not be helpful.

“If you want to do the right thing too much, you can end up doing the wrong thing. Too much pressure on parents can lead them to exhaustion which can have damaging consequences for the parent and for the children.”

Still, awareness is always a good thing, and I think just being given permission to put your needs on the forefront is a revelation to many parents. I know that I could have used the reminder when my kids were little.

Trust me: you truly can’t pour from an empty cup, and what our kids need most of all are happy, whole, and well parents. Period.

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