What You Need to Know About Burnout From a Single Parent

When I was in graduate school, I remember constantly hearing the burnout statistics for teachers. I don’t remember what they were then, but they weren’t good. Most people entering the profession weren’t staying longer than three years. I was determined to do better. And then I found myself resigning after two years; teaching for a demoralizing administration was more than I could handle and I was on the express train to burnout town. It was disappointing and I felt like a failure. I knew I was a good teacher, but I couldn’t keep it up. I couldn’t wear myself down that hard and fast, especially since Keith was in a family medicine residency program with the Air Force (also high stress, but with an 8 year commitment, so he couldn’t quit). The best option for us was for me to leave teaching. To kick the proverbial horse while she’s down, I was having one to two panic attacks a day.

I felt like a shell of a person. I had no hobbies. Each day when work was over, I’d head home, attempt some domestic chores, and crash just long enough to get up and do it again. When I finally handed in my resignation, I was sad to leave my students, but hopeful that I’d never feel that terrible again.

Two and a half years later, when Keith died, I was already halfway back to burnout. My oldest had just turned two, I was at the end of third trimester with kid two, and we had just spent a grueling three months in and out of doctor’s appointments and grappling with the reality that Keith’s cancer would be fatal.

Some days I couldn’t get enough sleep. Other nights I’d be up all night. Every muscle in my body was tense. The combination of grief, pregnancy, and impending burnout was producing extra stress on my mind and body.

Even after my daughter was born, it took me a couple years to figure out how to avoid burnout. Now, instead of being stuck in the burnout, crash, recover cycle I was accustomed to, I’m working hard to prevent the burnout from happening at all. Solo parenting isn’t my favorite, but I have learned some valuable burnout coping skills that aren’t just for single parents:

1. Deciding burnout is not inevitable

I always thought that if I could keep pushing through the hard parts of life, I’d be fine. I’d crash, but that was just part of life. As a single mom, I’ve learned that burnout is not inevitable. I don’t have to burnout at all. Not ever. That shift in perspective helped me to set new boundaries and habits that keep me from burning out again. I’d rather keep living at a slow and steady pace than continue my burnout, crash, recover cycle. I say no to more invitations than I’d like to and I don’t accomplish as many projects in my work that I’d like to. But I feel like everything has its place in my life and none of it leads to burnout.

2. Realizing I can’t be everything for my kids

It’s not reasonable for me to expect to be mom and dad to my kids and also keep on top of my personal and professional to do lists. As I have adjusted my expectations and welcomed help in the ways I can’t keep up, I have felt less pressure to tend to and provide for all of my kids’ needs. My personal motto has become “I can’t be awesome at everything all the time.” My sister is an occupational therapist, so she taught both my kids to use buttons and is in charge of shoe tying lessons. At one time, I would’ve felt guilty because I’m the mom. I should be able to teach my kids those life skills. But I can’t be awesome at everything, so I do what I can and let other people fill in the gaps.

3. Accepting that I will fall flat on my face

I will mess up. I will drop the ball. I will disappoint other people. Because I can’t be awesome at everything all the time, I will fail at something eventually. And probably more than once. And that’s okay. I don’t expect anyone else to have it all together all the time, so why am I so surprised that I make mistakes, too? Since adjusting my expectations for myself, I’m less afraid of failure (I’m not unafraid of failure, just less afraid, haha). Each time I get the sink-full of dishes clean, I’m determined not to let it get that out of control again, knowing it’s an empty promise. When it comes down to it, I’d rather do just about anything than wash the dishes, so the go undone. Again. But it doesn’t make me a failure. It just means I’m realistic about what I can accomplish in a day.

4. Including my people in my life

I’ve always surrounded myself with trustworthy people, but when I was unwilling to identify and admit weakness and failure (see #3), I was dealing with my deficiencies on my own. I like being able to do things on my own. And if I can do it all by myself, then I don’t have to ask for help (I remind myself of my three-year-old, “I can do it myself! Help me!”). As I have let people into the messier parts of my life, they have surprised me. They have treated my vulnerability with tenderness and followed through with help in ways that were truly helpful. My friends have done my laundry and cleaned my toilets. And on days when I’ve felt overwhelmed by life, they’ve come over with wine and chocolate and listened and asked questions and reminded me that I’m loved. And I’m sure they’d have been wonderful if I hadn’t opened up to them, but I know that I never would have grown to trust them had I not chosen to be vulnerable. It’s not easy but it’s worth it.

5. Learning to care for myself

There’s a time for survival, but at some point you need to learn how to care for yourself. After Keith died, it took me a few years of survival before I felt like I was really living and not just barely holding on. It was like constant burnout with little relief. And then I started learning to care for myself. Not the commercialized self care of bubble baths and pedicures, but creating rhythms in life that recharge me and bring me hope. I read more fiction. I take naps when I’m tired. I spend a lot of time alone and no longer deny my position as the Queen of the Introverts. I breathe deeply. I learned to meditate and focus my mind on important things or just let it wander or rest. When I care for myself, I find mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. And when I know what healthy feels like, I can identify when I start to lose it (a sure sign that burnout is imminent).

6. Working from rest

As my friend Chantel Runnels always says: work from rest, not rest from work. Rest is what prepares us for work. Rest is not a reward for working, but an essential part of the work. Instead of pushing through, and telling myself about all the things I “should” accomplish, I take a break and rest for a few minutes or an hour. I get enough sleep at night so my body and mind are ready for the day ahead. I plan fun things into each day because fun is restful and motivates me to get more done. When rest and work are partners, not enemies, I get a whole lot more done. Sometimes I even get all the dishes cleaned the day they’re used!


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8 Comments

  1. Vanessa on March 19, 2019 at 3:48 pm

    As a single mom to 3 kids, I’m feeling VERY burned out lately.
    My babysitters moved away, my family is not helpful with my kids (no one lives closer than an hour away) and I’m stressed out. My ex sees the kids infrequently, and isn’t healthy anyway so I wouldn’t push for more.
    My house is messy but I try to make sure I get enough rest at night because sleep is SO important.
    After 4 years of this, I thought I would be doing a bit better but life keeps throwing us curveballs.

    • Becky L McCoy on March 22, 2019 at 1:43 pm

      Vanessa, I’m so sorry everything feels so hard. *hugs*

    • Katie on July 6, 2019 at 10:54 pm

      Hi Vanessa, I could have written this myself. 3 kids here as well. Their dad is minimally involved so I have them almost 90% of them time. I do everything and receive $0 child support so I also pay for everything while working full time. My mom died during my divorce- she had pancreatic cancer. My dad is 68 and dating a 45 year old so he is of zero help. My babysitters suck and are completely unreliable. Just wanted to let you know I get it and understand. Hang in there

      • Becky L McCoy on August 26, 2019 at 6:29 pm

        Katie and Vanessa – I’m so sorry to hear you’re both having such a hard time. Remember that you can only do so much you have. Be kind to yourself and keep doing the best you can. Figure out the next right thing, one next right thing at a time.

  2. Monique on July 9, 2019 at 5:21 pm

    I’m in the same position. I am a single mum to my 4 (nearly 5 year old) son. I have relatives that live less than an hour away but no one ever comes to visit me and my son. Not even my own mother or father even when I reach out to them. And I don’t have any friends. My son goes to his dads house for 1 overnight stay a week. I ask him if he could have him a bit more as he works 4 days on and 3 days off but he says it’s too much for him. So I have my son all of the time really, with no help, and no one I can truly turn to even when I have reached out. I don’t tidy my house anymore and haven’t done for a very long time and I don’t cook anymore. I used to cook nearly everyday and now all I do is buy take out food because I just don’t have the energy. Yes, I have become a slob, although I don’t like it and I wish I could be more energetic, happy and be the best mum I can be to my son. But this just isn’t the case anymore. I also have a criminal record which makes like even harder like finding jobs, going oh holiday, taking out insurance etc.. my family know how hard things are for me but still no help. I just don’t know what to do anymore. I have been thinking about giving up my son because I cannot care for him as I should be and I regret bringing him into my messed up life with my criminal record and everything. How can the people who are suppose to be the closest to you, family that don’t even live that far away, family that know your struggles in life just leave you to your own devices even when you have reached out countless time??? Anyway, I am at the end of my tether and if something doesn’t change drastically very soon I am thinking strongly to give up my son and I will just continue to amount to nothing.

    • Tara K. on September 2, 2019 at 5:38 pm

      Girl, you are doing so well with so little help. How much it must hurt that people so close to your son – his grandparents and father – don’t help out more. You must feel so frustrated that people can act like that. It’s really heartless. All I can say is that, I was in your shoes. A divorced single mother of a 4-year old on the Aspie scale, with parents and sister living less than a half-hour drive and never visiting (and even forgetting birthdays). It gets better. Why? Because your son will grow more independent. You will become better at juggling. And sooner or later, some reliable help will come into the picture. Maybe a new mom friend, new partner, some family finally stepping up. You’re doing awesome with what little help you get. Keep going.

      • Becky L McCoy on September 11, 2019 at 11:48 am

        I second Tara! Keep going, Monique, you can do this!

    • Michelle Rakowski on September 7, 2019 at 8:53 pm

      I’ve been a single parent to my 4 kids for 10 years now and caregiver to my disabled father for over 16 years (he’s had 3 strokes and lung cancer). No family to help. Not enough time to make friends or join community groups for support. The kids’ dad lives 2000 miles away. He gives minimal financial support and sees them maybe once a year. I run 2 small home based businesses so I can be present when dad ends up in the hospital, has appointments or when kids need a parent for any number of reasons. I barely pay the rent, bills and food…but somehow we make it and the kids are doing well. To be honest, ‘burnout’ is not an option here; if I go down, we all go down… and that’s a lot of precious lives at stake. Sometimes all I can do is put one foot in front of the other and take it minute to minute, but the hopelessness always passes eventually…. and tomorrow’s another day to try again.

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