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Burnout Prevention as a Component of Family Planning

3 steps to sharing the load

Published on: May 26, 2023

Woman cradling partner's pregnant belly and smiling with eyes closed
Preparing to share the full load of parenting a new baby

Let’s envision arriving at home with our newborn. Prior to that arrival, we have prepared a space within our home for our new baby. Within that dedicated space, we have stocked diapers, clothing, supplies for bathing and feeding, and so forth. This is what I like to call “mise en place for parents”: We gather and arrange these items for immediate use and replenish them when our supplies run low.

Could we prepare in a similar fashion to help prevent parental burnout? To a certain degree, we can. As a burnout prevention strategist, I propose an additional component of prenatal family planning: burnout prevention, coupled with intentional support and resource cultivation.

Resource cultivation and integration as a component of burnout prevention incorporates discovery, time management, and the ability to strategize and adapt to “parental unknowns.” A recent survey published by researchers at Ohio State University found that 66 percent of working parents meet the criteria for parental burnout, which can be defined as a prolonged response to chronic and overwhelming parental stress, characterized by extreme physical and mental exhaustion, emotional distancing from one’s child(ren) and feeling ineffective in one’s parental role.

As parents, we frequently encounter cancellations and unanticipated scheduling conflicts that can derail the flow of our regular routines. Here are three tiers of burnout prevention that we can implement to help offset impacts:

1. Plan for reliable child-care support.

If you are in a partnered relationship, you can decide who will provide backup care if the other parent works outside of the household. If both parents work remotely, you can schedule specific work windows and break periods in order to look after your child(ren) during work hours. For purposes of transparency and flexibility, discuss this plan in advance with your direct supervisor or manager. If you are a single or solo parent, this is an opportunity to explore your local options and to gather resources specific to child care. If you have trusted friends or family members who can provide additional child-care support, lean on them. If you are struggling to find support, you can research your state’s resources, connect with a resource hub or explore referral agencies.

2. Assemble reputable, reliable, easily accessible resources.

Initiate this discussion with your health-care team during a prenatal visit. Some options include:

  • Compiling a list of important contacts for health-care providers: OB/GYNs, midwives, postpartum doulas, pediatricians, licensed mental health specialists (if applicable), emergency contact numbers, crisis hotline numbers and others.
  • Developing a flexible, customizable postpartum action plan outlining household goals, redistribution of household tasks, meal preparation plans for busy days and protected time for self-care.

3. Develop a flexible sleep schedule.

Although obtaining a full night’s sleep may be a challenge during the early stages of parenthood, there are a few factors that we can control and modify: room environment; food, water, caffeine and alcohol intake; and pre-bedtime activities, particularly screen time.

Shelby Harris, Psy.D., recommends sleeping in a cool, dark and quiet environment (similar to a cave) as melatonin production increases with darkness and cooler temperatures. Blue-light exposure before bedtime encourages wakefulness and rumination while decreasing melatonin production. She recommends weaning yourself off screens gradually, increasing by five-minute intervals each night, with a goal of reaching 60 minutes of screen-free time before bed. She also recommends developing a routine for winding down that incorporates restorative yoga or gentle, provider-approved stretching.

Another crucial element in the prevention of parental burnout is balancing the mental load (or cognitive load) of parenthood. These mental-load tasks include scheduling health-care appointments, event planning and travel, and household task management. Such responsibilities, commonly referred to as the “invisible labor” of parenting, are frequently performed by mothers. What we often overlook as we prepare for parenthood are the components of family planning that emphasize the parents’ well-being, and that must include an intentional redistribution of household and child-related responsibilities.

When we peel back the layers of mental labor, we can distill it to individual components and apply them to burnout prevention as an extension of prenatal family planning.

  1. Being vigilant about family members’ emotional, developmental and physical needs
  2. Preparing meals
  3. Maintaining physical health
  4. Monitoring resources
  5. Anticipating moods and emotional needs
  6. Strategizing and planning for all of the above

At the core of each of these distinct categories lies meta-parenting, or the thoughts, considerations and philosophies that we embody as individual parents. Meta-parenting is, in essence, our own uniquely developed “guide” for how we raise our children and the values that underscore our parenting styles. As we prepare for a new addition to our household, we develop tools and strategies that we can use when the unexpected occurs. Part of family planning includes emotional and mental preparation for parenthood as well as establishing a trusted multidisciplinary care team. This can be assembled in advance of any expected or unanticipated events involving family.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, two of the benefits of family planning include “improvement of women’s opportunities for education, employment and full participation in society; and contribution to economic growth at the family, community and household levels which subsequently reduces poverty.” If we, as a society, want to provide mothers with more workforce participation and opportunities, we have to continue to promote workplace equity. In order to do so, we must continue to address wage gaps, offer comprehensive paid parental leave and promote healthy, flexible employment environments where working parents can thrive.

In addition, parents must be offered free and low-cost opportunities to participate in parenting courses and support groups, which educate parents about parental stress reduction, early child development, time management and the cultivation of household equity. Such resources help new parents develop a positive parenting approach that is beneficial to both child and parent(s). These topics can be discussed with one’s health-care team and, when applicable, specific referrals can be made to help facilitate resource connections.

These burnout-prevention strategies work together to cohesively form an adaptable framework for any household. These strategies do not replace ongoing clinical care, but rather complement your health-care provider’s recommendations. By cultivating these support factors as early as possible, it becomes feasible to decrease the time spent on resource navigation and improve household harmony through enhanced collaboration.

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