The “village” it took to raise a child used to be grandmothers, grandfathers and aunties, and uncles, brothers and sisters, godparents and neighbours in our immediate community. Now, thanks to the wonderful modern world of globalization, often parenting moved away from our immediate family.
When we have children, that can be very isolating. So what happens if there’s no village to help us raise our child?
Caregiving is arduous work. It comes with significant emotional labor. Whether you’re performing that role as a professional, such as a nurse, or as a family caregiver, or as a parent, the facts remain the same. You have placed yourself in an emotionally laborious role which is directly linked to burnout.
Let’s take an example of another high-labor role. A builder’s role is high in physical labor. If you were a builder, then you would make sure that you are physically capable of performing the role until retirement. A builder’s livelihood depends on his ability to stay fit and healthy. Workplace adversity in the world of the builder is a genuine threat to their physical health. Physical injuries can ruin their professional and personal life. So… a smart builder will actively engage in a “care plan” that includes strength training, staying hydrated and eating healthily (avoiding the pies and chocolate milk from the local shops and packing their own lunch). A good sleep routine should be adhered to given the early mornings associated with the tradie life. A rigid commitment to workplace health and safety will protect them from life and limb-threatening injuries.
Yet as caregivers, professional or informal such as parents, often have no such care plan for emotional labor. The concept of committing to a good sleep routine is a Shakespearean comedy with pre-school aged children. Taking time out to exercise is equally comical. Yet what we know about the research in terms of burnout is surviving and thriving comes from effectively managing exposure to adversity: physical or emotional. Managing our exposure to adversity in healthy ways is a buffer for stress and burnout.
Recently, nursing researchers made some significant discoveries in how to manage burnout in nurses which has some insightful relevance to parents’ caregiving role as well. They looked specifically at workplace adversity and its relationship to nursing burnout. There are some surprisingly accurate synergies with workplace adversity when you overlay the family caregiving environment of the parent. For nurses, workplace adversity included job instability, patriarchy and lack of respect for the profession of nursing, workload concerns, colleague tensions and technical aspects of care.
What if we looked at those issues through the filter of the parent? Adversity in the home might look like job instability for the primary breadwinner causing financial pressure, patriarchy and lack of respect for the role of parenting, or perhaps there’s marital tension. What about if a child has special needs and there’s some significant challenges in the technical aspects of care, say if a child has autism, for example. Workplace adversity sets nurses up for burnout. It follows that the parenting adversity might do the same.
The research suggests that the first step to surviving caregiver adversity is being able to be aware of how you are feeling before burnout. This means paying attention to the signs of stress on body and mind. Nurses start to gain awareness when they hear themselves say ‘I never get a break in my shift’, ‘I’m starving’, ‘I’ve got a headache’, or ‘I’m just not thinking clearly and it’s not safe for my patients’. For parents, how many memes have you seen where mum is sitting on the toilet or in the shower with toddler, baby and dog staring up at her.
Once a sense of awareness comes, then it’s about managing exposure. The researchers suggested that for nurses, there are four techniques to respond to adversity:
- Protect – humour, get professional help, disengage
- Process – talk, ruminate, debrief
- Decontaminate – develop relationships at home and outside of the home, engage in positive activities
- Distance – get out of the environment or plan an exit strategy
These strategies to manage exposure span the spectrum from good, bad to ugly. The parent who survives and thrives consciously picks through the strategies and actively seeks out the healthy ways of protecting, processing, decontaminating and distancing. The burnt-out parent may find themselves on the road of disengaging, ruminating and tragically, planning an exit strategy. Like with nurses, self-assessment is instrumental in identifying where they sit on the spectrum of making healthy or unhealthy choices about how they manage exposure. It could be said, therefore, that parents can do the same so that they are using strategies to ward off burn-out rather than carry them closer to it.
When you look at these strategies to manage exposure, it’s no surprise our ancestors relied on the village to raise our children. When you look at these four strategies to manage adversity, each and every one of them relies on the people in your world. Say you planned a night out (distance) with your friends (decontaminate) to see a comedian (protect) and have a few drinks after (process). That relies on having people to go out with and people to look after the kids while you’re out. The “village” may not look the same anymore (with aunties and grandmothers at your beck and call). Now we must actively build our own, modern tribe that is physically at hand to help us protect, process, decontaminate and distance from adversity. This tribe is our new model of what the village looks like, and is an essential part of our care-plan to thrive and survive the emotional labor of the caregiving role.