When Ane Bengoa, 36, started raising her child, she didn’t feel that magical connection everyone was talking about. She just felt like crying. But she choked back her tears. After all, she had a healthy baby, a loving partner, and a supportive family. She had no right to complain.
Ane lives in Ibiza and her family in Bilbao. When she was born, she had few friends with children, nor did she have access to a support network. She felt lonely and angry at the world and didn’t know exactly why. “As time passed, I realized I didn’t have a minute to myself,” she explains. “That I haven’t looked in the mirror in several months and haven’t slept more than two hours at a time since my son was born. My whole world had changed. Everyone else’s life went on and I was still at home, but still I didn’t have a good time or a quiet moment.”
Ane Bengoa suffered from burnout, or parental exhaustion, a non-clinical term for parents who are so exhausted from the pressure of caring for their children that they reach the end of their strength. An Ohio University report released in May claimed that 66% of working parents fit this profile.
According to the Ohio Research, women are more likely than men to suffer from parental burnout. The ratio is 68% to 42%. “Because women often still bear a large part of the responsibility for looking after their children and for balancing work and family life,” explains Bernadette Melnyk, author of the study. This ratio was to some extent expected, but Dr. Melnyk highlights other aspects that are less obvious: “The study provided evidence that parental burnout negatively affects not only the parents, but also their children, who eventually externalize the stress in some way,” she says. The study, conducted between January and April 2021, provides a snapshot of a different time when the US was homebound because of the coronavirus. The lockdown was the icing on the cake, but the cake, says Melnyk, has been baking for a long time.
Another survey conducted by Lingokids in Spain finds strikingly similar results: 67% of respondents admit that “the importance they place on being a good parent and the effort they put into it is becoming tiring”.
Parental burnout syndrome does not appear in clinical manuals or dictionaries. This is because it is something that is not talked about in our culture. Until recently, motherhood was taboo, so only the positive side of parenthood could be mentioned. Many burnout sufferers could not name what was happening to them. And what has no name usually remains invisible. Lola, a 38-year-old teacher from Seville agrees: “A lot of parents go through this but they don’t talk about it, unless with a close friend.” Having raised the issue with mothers of different ages, Lola believes that we face a generational problem. “My mother didn’t feel that way,” she adds. “I think on the one hand we don’t have the tools that they had and on the other hand we’re under more pressure and being bombarded with more information.”
How the lack of authentic role models affects us
Ane Bengoa had to go to a psychologist to talk about what was happening to her. She met a group of mothers and started “a tribe.” Now, months after naming her experience, she’s enjoying the education and feeling less drained. “After more than a year, I have a clear idea of what happened to me,” she says. “I didn’t have any examples of mothers around me. I have never had babies around me or seen any family members breastfeeding. I lacked role models in my immediate environment.”
In Spain, the birth rate has reached an all-time low – lower even than during the civil war. And that inevitably means there are more isolated mothers: “Women used to learn a lot about parenting through closeness,” explains psychologist Isabel del Campo. “They were in contact with friends who had children, with cousins, they had nephews and nieces. But now that the birth rate is falling, that exposure to being with other mothers before they actually become mothers is far less. Most women come to the experience with no prior knowledge.”
This is reinforced when the missing references in the direct environment are replaced by celebrities and influencers. “The image they sell of motherhood is very romanticized,” says Natalia López, a 33-year-old mother of three from Barcelona. In her opinion, unrealistic standards are set, and new moms inevitably feel they are falling short. “It’s like a modern take on the 1950s when there was an image of what a woman needed to be. And it’s scary. You must always be in love with your child who in turn must be cute and share your values and most of all fun. And you have to do everything with your best smile, and if you stop going out, you’re one of those women who changed and became jerks since becoming a mother.”
All women interviewed agree that the problem is not the children or work; it is the system. The incorporation of women into the labor market has prompted more affluent parents to outsource care and those who cannot afford it to combine work and parenting in a role division in which women tend to lose out. On the other hand, there is a lot of information about upbringing and many idealized role models that are difficult to identify with. Motherhood is being sold to us through an Instagram filter.
“We have a problem as a society,” notes Dr. Del Campo. “If you combine work and parenting, you’re likely to lack social connections and time for yourself. And that is hard to imagine in a context where parents are under a lot of pressure to be aware of how they are raising their child, to be positive and not to waste a minute.” The mothers agree with this view. In fact, Natalia López sums it up in a sentence she read once and has had in her head ever since: “We must raise our children as if we had no work, and we must work as if we had no children.”