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How does a Family recover from a Parent’s Burnout Experience?

Many of us are guilty of being distracted by work around our families. At what point does that distraction start having negative consequences that necessitates change? This is our story.

We grow back stronger, closer and better than ever.

A burnout experience is never your own.  It would be selfish to think that it was. 

Your actions and behaviours have a ripple effect on those around you that range from small to seismic but here’s the thing, it isn’t like dropping a stone in a pond with immediate effect.  The burnout stone is stealth like in nature.  It gradually sneaks up on you and those in your life, moonlighting as the ugly stepsisters of – stress, anxiety & fatigue – until you hit the wall.  

As the rolling stone gathers momentum, everyone around you politely accommodates your step-sisters.  They adapt to your behaviour and accept this as your status quo.  All the while, your inner conflict is mounting, your confidence is deteriorating and your unconscious efforts of self-preservation start isolating you from the world. 

You don’t return phone calls and the social invitations dry up.  You use work as an excuse because it makes you feel important and justifies your behaviour.  This is the identity you are responsible for creating, and it isn’t easy to coexist with, so those around you leave you be.

There lies the problem – acceptance.  From everyone – including you.  With burnout comes a decline in our mental health and overall well-being.  Others might recognise the mounting problem, but until you are ready to admit it yourself, you won’t listen – as scared as you might be.  Those around you won’t understand why you continue to put yourself through it. 

How can you expect others to understand you, when you don’t understand yourself?  It’s a big ask.

Take your immediate circle, they live with the symptoms and absorb the tremors closest to the core.  Your middle circle, or neighbouring allies recognise you are under pressure and learn to navigate your behaviour as required.  Besides, at the end of the day, you both go your separate ways.  Then there are those on the periphery.  For them, it is easier to put you into the too hard basket and move on – dismissed.

My inner circle is made up first and foremost by Mr 13.  For his entire life, he knew me as one type of person.  One I didn’t like much and as I found out recently, neither did he.

The combination of a relentless job, where the margin for error was low and the stakes were high, along with an undying loyalty for my customers and a fear of disappointing others, meant I never switched off.  Even when my batteries were beyond empty, I had to be “on” because our business was 24/7.  There was no “off”. Christmas mornings were spent on call in hospitals instead of at home unwrapping presents and I kid you not, until he was 6 years old, he honestly thought my surname was the name of the Company I worked for – because of the way I answered the phone. 

I was constantly on the phone.

On a daily basis, I was impatient, rigid and constantly distracted.  My absence of personal boundaries, meant the person who should have been my priority and the most important being in my world, didn’t feel he was.  He felt like he was an inconvenience.  Even though my physical presence was in the house, my son was lonely.

How do I know this?

Recently (3 years down the track), Mr 13 and I completed what was an insightful and emotional exercise.  With a line down the middle of a poster board, I asked him would he be happy to share how he felt about himself and how he would describe me, before and after my professional change.  I reassured him he had free reign – say what you like, be honest, there is no right or wrong here.  I respect everything you say.  I was going to do the same.  His post-it notes were pink, mine were yellow – and did he paint the board pink!  He let rip. 

I should preface this with further insight into the decision I made to share much of my journey with Mr 13.  With only 2 of us in the household, I couldn’t hide what I was going through, nor did I want to.  He knew one of the reasons I resigned was because I wanted to change the type of person I was.  With what I felt he could handle, I shared my wobbly days.  He knew I visited Jo, my psychologist every month and that I was now prioritising reading and exercise into my day for my mental wellbeing.

Interestingly, he understood what I meant when I said my brain felt like it had a cyclone in it some days, because he experienced it too. 

For years, he had adapted his behaviour to tip toe around me, look for reassurance and ways to connect with me knowing I was distracted.  He was looking for security and I wasn’t giving it to him.  As a result, the smallest things overwhelmed him and sent him into a spiral of emotional negativity that was impossible to stop.    

3 years ago, we both were burnt out and needed rewiring. 

And that is what we did.  I became the Mum who walked her son to school and was there at the gate to walk home after.  These were my favourite times, because we talked and talked.  I cooked French toast for brekkie, helped him with his homework and when I could see he was wobbly, I would calmly work through it with him, ensuring he knew I understood. 

As Jo reminded me, who better to show him how to manage his wobbly ground than someone who had been through it herself – me. 

We no longer put these episodes between us which inevitably ended in conflict, we put them in front of us and work through them together.

We also acknowledged two visitors in our house.  Let me introduce you to Irene and Boris.  Irene, is my wobbly ground and Boris, is Mr 13’s. 

Irene and Boris visit us both, occasionally at the same time.  Rather than wish them away, we have learned to open the door and encourage them to come in.  We know each other well enough to read the signs of their presence – “Buddy, is Boris visiting today?”, it’s an easy way for him to let me know how he is feeling and to know what to do next.  We talk about what made Boris or Irene pay us a visit and accept their presence.  We also have confidence they are only temporary visitors and generally have disappeared after a good night’s sleep. 

Funnily enough Boris and Irene don’t visit much anymore and when they do, we are ready.  It is reassuring to be reminded of how much life has changed.

Back to the sea of “post-it” pink. 

On the left, words like – “scared, lonely, never home & pissed off”, have been replaced by – “calm, happy, listens to me and home more often” on the right. 

We have anchored ourselves to terra firma by talking about our core values and using those as our decision-making compass.  It’s amazing how much insight kids have into what is important to them in life and relationships.  They keep it remarkably simple. 

Based on these, we have created boundaries defining “what is” and “what isn’t ok” in our household.  It is about presence. 

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. 

No phone for him, no phone for me.  Dedicated individual time and dedicated together time.  We make time for talking so he understands my world and I understand his.  Curiosity is welcomed – there are no wrong questions.  If you don’t ask, you don’t know the facts, if you don’t know the facts, you can’t truly understand.  It goes both ways.  We put judgement aside and we don’t partake in the “blame game”.

He knows I am proud of him and equally, he shares with me when he feels pride in my achievements.   “How did your meeting go today Mum?” or “Awesome Mum, well done on that new client”.  Sharing our successes makes my heart swell.

I have realised, my journey is his journey too.

Of course, this doesn’t run on script every day.  He is a teenager and I get hormonal.  Our shared DNA sees us lock horns on daily realities and every now and then we need to air the closet with a good row over something totally trivial. 

Only once in the past year has he had to give me a dose of truth in the guts.  I was grateful and proud of him that he spoke up.  Juggling dinner, homework and a tired brain I was short & distracted for the first time in ages.  “Mum, you are being just like you were back THEN”.  Ouch. 

What I am now acutely aware of, is that time is literally racing by. Mr 13 will soon be Mr 18.  That is only 5 short years away.  The gratitude I feel for having had these realisations now and not 5 years down the track can’t be expressed in words.  I shudder at the thought of him describing his childhood with me as the post-it notes on the left. 

Fortunately, we have let go of that way of living and have plenty of opportunity to now grow those pink post-it words into long sentences and stories to not only fill the right side, but the entire board.  

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