The U.S. Ranks Second In The World For Parental Burnout—Is Anyone Surprised?

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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I’ve been at this parenting thing for almost 15 years now, and I’m very familiar with the feelings of parental burnout. For me, it’s experienced as an exhaustion that goes far beyond the physical. I feel a heaviness in my bones, a feeling of emotional and physical depletion. I want to run and hide from my family, from all responsibilities. I begin to feel numb, distant. I panic at doing even the most mundane parenting tasks. I feel as though I’m literally falling apart.

Thankfully, these times of parenting burnout are balanced with times of joy and balance. And it’s gotten better since my kids were little. I’ve learned to ask for help, and to accept the help that has been offered to me. I’ve learned to say no to extra responsibilities or activities that aren’t serving myself or my kids. And I’ve learned to ditch the idea that I need to be a perfect parent. Good enough is, well, good enough.

I also know that parental burnout isn’t something just experienced by me—far from it. In fact, I don’t think I know one parent who hasn’t experienced some form of burnout. Either that, or they are lying. Or they are wealthy enough to afford an entire team to help them parent and manage their household. (This team would include a housekeeper, a chef, a tutor, a counselor, a nurse, a financial planner, and a chauffeur, because parents these days must play all those roles at once.)

I was also not surprised at all when I saw a recent piece of research that found that when it comes to parental burnout, the U.S. ranks #2 in terms of the percentage of parents experiencing it. According to the research, led by a team from UCLouvain in Belgium, Belgian parents had the highest rates of parental burnout (8.1%), followed closely by U.S. parents (7.9%), and then Polish parents (7.7%).

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The research team sent detailed questionnaires to more than 17,000 parents coming from 42 different countries. The research was conducted between 2018 and 2020, but was finished by March 2020, so didn’t include pandemic parenting.

As Science Alert explains it, the results of the surveys varied quite a bit from one country to the next, and the thing that the countries with the most parental burnout had in common was one thing: an emphasis on cultural individualism. This was independent of other variables, including family size or economic status.

In countries that placed individualism on a pedestal (ummm, like the grand old U.S.A.) and where more cooperative models of parenting and family structure were de-emphasized, parental burnout was more common.

“Individualism plays a larger role in parental burnout than either economic inequalities across countries, or any other individual and family characteristic examined so far, including the number and age of children and the number of hours spent with them,” the study researchers said.

According to the researchers, individualism in these countries looks like viewing parenthood as a time of intensity, where parents are judged by others and themselves for how well they are performing. These cultures place an emphasis on perfectionism in parenting, and with that comes high levels of pressure and stress.

“What parents feed their children, how they discipline them, where they put them to bed, how they play with them: all of these have become politically and morally charged questions,” the study authors write.

Holy crap, that description is highly accurate.

My personal hunch is that things like lack of parental leave and universal childcare, both of which plague the U.S., have got to be a factor here, too. I mean, moms in the U.S. are being forced to go back to work within a week or two after giving birth. How could that not contribute to burnout?

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Either way, as the study researchers point out, parental burnout isn’t just an unpleasant feeling. If not addressed, it can lead to all kinds of issues for both parents and children. According to the researchers, parental burnout increases the likelihood of alcohol abuse, mental health issues, sleep disturbances, and suicidal ideation. Importantly and tragically, parental burnout can lead to parental neglect and violence toward children.

I don’t really know what we can do about the high level of parental burnout in the U.S. I think that if there is any silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that parents were confronted head-on with some of the factors that have been causing them to burn out for years, and have started to say “no more!”

Still, I’m not sure if all of this is enough to change the American cultural ideals of individualism that have ruled this country since its inception. I mean, we Americans certainly aren’t winning any awards lately when it comes to having compassion for one another or making sacrifices for the common good.

But I refuse to give up on us. I know so many good parents out there who just want to raise their children with love and safety, and are doing their best not to completely burn out in the process. I’m hoping, too, that our children—who are proving themselves to be a total kick-ass, take-no-bullshit generation—will be able to rectify some of the societal norms that are holding us all back.

Parenting our kids should not be as stressful and burdensome an experience as it often is. We can do better. And we must.

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