When Ane Bengoa, 36, started raising her baby, she didn’t feel that magical connection that everyone was talking about. She just wanted to cry. But she swallowed back tears, in the end she had a healthy baby, a loving partner and a supportive family. She had no right to complain. Ane lived in Ibiza and her family in Bilbao. She barely had any friends with children or a support network. She was lonely, she was angry at the world and she didn’t quite know why. “And suddenly, time passes and I realize that I haven’t had a minute to myself,” she explains on WhatsApp. “That I haven’t looked in the mirror in several months, I haven’t slept more than two hours in a row since my son was born. My whole world has changed, the lives of others are still in motion and I am still at home and at the same time, I don’t have a moment of quality stillness”.
Anne Bengoa had burnout or parental exhaustion, a non-clinical term that designates parents who are so exhausted by the pressure of caring for their children that they do not give them life for more. A report from the University of Ohio, published in May, ensures that 66% of working parents meet the criteria to fit this profile. The study includes a test to prove it.
According to this analysis, women are more likely than men to experience parental burnout. They do so in 68%, compared to 42% of their peers. “It’s because women often continue to bear a large part of the responsibility for caring for their children, as well as balancing work and family life,” study author Bernadette Melnyk explains by email. This variable was, to a certain extent, expected, but Dr. Melnyk highlights other aspects that are less obvious at first glance: “The study provided evidence that parental exhaustion negatively affects not only the parents, but also their children, who end up externalizing stress in some way. The study was carried out between January and April 2021. It offers a snapshot of a different time, when the United States was confined at home due to the coronavirus. The confinement was the icing on the cake, but the cake, confirms the doctor, had been cooking for a long time.
The data can be extrapolated to Europe and also to this new normality. The author does not say so, but another survey, carried out by Lingokids in Spain, which reaches strikingly similar conclusions: 67% of those consulted admit that “the importance they attach to being a good father or mother and the effort they put into that end becomes exhausting”.
Parental burnout syndrome not only doesn’t appear in clinical textbooks, it doesn’t appear in dictionaries either. And it is not because it is an anglicism, but because it is something that is not talked about. Until recently, there was a taboo around motherhood and only its positive side could be mentioned. Many of those affected did not even know how to put a name to what was happening to them. What does not have a name does not exist and tends to be made invisible by society. Lola, a 38-year-old teacher from Seville, confirms this: “Many parents are like this, but they don’t tell about it, unless you’re a good friend and trust them, people aren’t going to complain.” After talking about it with mothers of different ages, she believes that we are facing a generational problem. “My mother didn’t feel that way, I don’t know what’s going on… I think that, on the one hand, we don’t have the tools that they had and, on the other, we have more pressure and more information.”
From your nephews to the ‘influencer’: how the lack of real models affects mothers
Ane Bengoa had to go to a psychologist to externalize what was happening to her. She met a group of mothers and created “a tribe.” Today, months after naming what she was going through, she is enjoying parenting and feels less drained. “Now that more than a year has passed, I have a clear vision of what happened to me,” she reflects. “I had no examples of mothers close to me, I never had babies close to me, nor did I see any relatives breastfeeding… I lack examples in my environment.”
In Spain, never had so few children been born as now. Not even during the Civil War. And this, in some way, affects first-time mothers: “Women learned a lot about parenting by proximity,” explains psychologist Isabel del Campo. “They had contact with friends who had children, with cousins, with nephews… but now, as the birth rate drops, that exposure to being with other mothers before being one is lower. Most women face that experience without prior knowledge. And that can be a problem.
This is further aggravated when the lack of close references is replaced by the famous and influencers. “The image they sell of motherhood is very romanticized,” says Natalia López, a 33-year-old from Barcelona with a three-year-old son. From social networks, she denounces her, unrealistic standards are established, with which a new mother tends to compare herself. And in that comparison she always loses out. “It’s like the image of how women had to be in the fifties, but adapted to today. And it’s scary. You have to always be in love with your son, who also has to be the nicest and share your values and be the funniest. And you have to arrive at everything with your best smile and, if you stop taking time to go to beers, you are one of those who since they are mothers have changed and have become imbeciles”.
The problem, the interviewees agree, is not the children or the job; it is the system. The incorporation of women into the labor market has led wealthier parents to outsource care and those who cannot afford it to combine work and parenting, in a distribution of roles in which women tend to lose. On the other hand, there is a lot of information about parenting and many idealized models that are difficult to identify with. Motherhood is sold on the networks passed through an Instagram filter. “We have a problem as a society,” says Dr. Del Campo. “If work and parenting are combined, social relationships and time for oneself are most likely to suffer. And this is difficult to assume in a context in which there is a lot of pressure on parents to educate consciously, to be positive, not to miss a minute…” The interviewees agree with this diagnosis. So do the studios. Natalia López sums it up in a sentence that she read once and that has been repeated endlessly ever since: “We have to raise our children as if we didn’t have a job and we have to work as if we didn’t have children.”
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