Why Do I Feel So Bad? Pandemic Parent Burnout and The “Five Layer Dip”
“Why don’t I feel better yet?” a mom asked me recently. We were talking on the phone together, far apart, still alone, recounting the good things that were going relatively well in our lives at this point: the kids are back in daycare, work is picking up, vaccinations are rolling out.
“I can’t really put my finger on what’s bothering me today, but I just keep feeling sad,” she said. “I thought I’d have my energy back by now, but I feel a bit lethargic and all over the place.”
Pandemic parent burnout is real, and it’s here. I work with parents, and I am a parent, and many of the parents I know are still not okay. I’ve written before about how my brain feels broken and what it’s like to try to write with children. Today, in June 2021, we are living in the fog of pandemic grief, and we’re not the same as before. But it’s not just the pandemic that needs to be over for us to feel better. This is bigger than a pandemic, and the end of the pandemic isn’t the same as healing.
Most of the parents I know are still not okay. Pandemic parent burnout is real.
When I think about why my brain feels broken and how tired I am, I start to see how this fatigue and burnout is part of a much larger puzzle. It’s not just the pandemic that wore us down, although that’s a huge part. Instead, it’s an amalgamation of many forces, all layered on top of each other. As a result, it feels like we’re carrying loads of sandbags around with us at all times. We carry the weight of all that we’ve been through. It’s a particular set of layers that I’m now referring to as the five layer dip.
Parents are tired, sad, and still not okay. It’s not just the lockdowns or the intense lockdowns that lasted over half a year. It’s not just social distancing and the stress of the pandemic. Here’s the five layer dip—and for many, it’s a six, seven, or ten-layer weight bearing down on you.
We’re burned out because of:
Parenting pre-pandemic was exhausting and untenable. The pandemic exploded a fragile system that was barely working. I was three and a half years into building a career with two tiny humans and I had bags under my eyes and desperation the size of a small truck. Building a business and the steep learning curve of parenting was ALREADY HARD. The pandemic added 25 pound weights to my ultramarathon adventure.
But it’s more than parenting and a pandemic.
2. WORK CREEP, HUSTLE CULTURE, AND ATTENTION FATIGUE.
It’s the expansion of work culture to be all-encompassing, and the burnout paralysis of work scope creep eating into all areas of our lives, from early morning messages to all-day Slack to evening email to weekend social media. It’s always on, always working.
It’s the erosion of our attention and the ability to think because you’re answering upwards of 500 messages a day across all platforms. It’s the explosion of your attention into tiny fragments of time, pings that happen constantly and incessantly across all areas of digital existence.
It’s hustle culture, and the glorification of independence, self-efficacy, and lack of networks. It’s the failure to realize our interconnectedness or acknowledge the ways in which we thrive (and perform) in communities.
3. ERRATIC LEADERSHIP.
It was four years of an erratic, narcissistic, volatile president storming into national attention and hooking your mind on unpredictable, outrageous, incendiary messages from a station point that was meant for a leader.
It was an election cycle for a year.
4. RACISM AND INJUSTICE.
It was the pouring, swelling outcry against systemic racism and the losses happening at the hands of institutions, in the lack of police protection of Black bodies, it was the heightened deaths and disease pandemics happening right in front of us to the most vulnerable populations. It was calling workers “essential” but behaving as if they’re expendable. It was equating the virus to a country and the inexcusable, horrific racism and violence against the AAPI community.
5. AND THEN… IT’S A PANDEMIC.
Then it was a pandemic. Then it was the grief of losing our only few moments of free time, of losing our support structures, of losing people we love. It was the grief of losing our jobs and the overwhelm of working 14-hour days without ever having a break. It was losing a parent and a loved one in the middle of the nonstop marathon.
It was, in the words of a dear friend of mine, “being unable to cry because I couldn’t take a deep enough break to let the sobs out.” It was losing the ability to care more because the empathy well was broken. It was living in a glassy, zombie-like state because feeling all of the feelings fully was no longer possible. It was stuffing the anger into a more convenient place because I didn’t know where to put it.
It was the weird, strange, almost-crying moment I had on the bike a few days ago because I couldn’t find a way to deeply cry because I didn’t have enough energy to cry. It was not hugging anyone, and not being seen and heard for a year. It was the casual cruelty lodged against working parents and working moms, letting 2.6 million mothers “disappear” from the workforce. It was watching your dreams and careers vanish in front of you.
It was having a baby in a pandemic with no one around, and learning new motherhood and parenting for the first time without the transfer of knowledge from a deep-rooted, connected humanity. It is the misery of being alone, and the strange gaslighting feeling of walking out on a sunny day and wondering, “But why do I still feel like such shit?”
This is the reality of pandemic parent burnout.
The parents are not okay.
PANDEMIC PARENT BURNOUT IS REAL, AND IT IS FIVE, SIX, OR SEVEN LAYERS DEEP.
It is grief, it is overwhelm, it is exhaustion. It is emotional depletion, it is social isolation. It is the depression hangover from being so far apart from other people.
Every person has their own set of layers piled on top of this.
You might have more layers, whether from financial insecurity or job losses, from trauma or abuse, from divorces or separations. What you’re going through is one more thing on top of all of these massive social, civic, and cultural upheavals. What I learned from this, as I look around from my own not-okay-but-still-working state, is that where I am is where I am.
IT’S REASONABLE NOT TO BE OR FEEL OKAY.
I desperately want things to be better, to be great, to be fixed. And as a woman, I’m not ‘supposed’ to feel angry or bitter or sad, and I feel the additional guilt of complaining. But to be honest, I no longer see it as complaining—it’s telling the truth.
We can be here with each other and say, “I’m not doing great,” and “I’m not the best,” together. Or maybe—like I did on a Zoom call the other week—I’ll just burst into tears, yet again. Because this is a lot of layers and a lot of feelings, and I’m working through it. Our recovery won’t work if we pretend everything is fine. I know that I won’t get better by trying to press on and ignore it. There is a deep recovery needed, and it’s going to take time.
So the next time someone asks, “How are you doing?” I might say “It’s complicated,” or “It’s a lot,” or “This has been really, really hard, and I need more time to recover.”
And if someone asks, “Is there anything I can do to help?” I’m going to make sure I say yes. Because I need you, and we need each other, and we are going need each other to get better.
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Sarah K Peck
Founder, Startup Parent
Sarah Peck is a writer, startup advisor, and yoga teacher based in New York City. She’s the founder and executive director of Startup Parent, a media company documenting the stories of women’s leadership across work and family. She hosts the weekly Startup Parent Podcast and Let's Talk, her second podcast. Previously, she worked at Y Combinator backed One Month, Inc, a company that teaches people to code in 30 days, and before that she was a writing and communications consultant.
She’s a 20-time All-American swimmer who successfully swam the Escape from Alcatraz nine separate times, once wearing only a swim cap and goggles to raise $33k for charity: water. She’s written for more than 75 different web publications and and has delivered speeches and workshops at Penn, UVA, Berkeley, Harvard, Craft & Commerce, WDS, and more.