4 Ways to avoid parent burnout

The hardest part of homeschooling for me was at the beginning, when all I could see in front of me were endless days of kids, no breaks because they won’t be at school, and me slowly turning into a crazy person.

I remember in high school French class, I read No Exit, by Jean-Paul Sartre. It’s a play about how hell is not what we think it is. Hell is actually just being stuck in a room with people you can’t ever get away from. It strikes me now as a homeschool primer. Because there’s a saying that you can’t talk about a problem until someone gives you the language to talk about it.

My first months of homeschooling were a Sartre play. Now I have better coping skills. Here’s what has worked for me – so far – to avoid parent burnout.

1. Lean on my husband for non-school stuff.
If my kids wanted to sit and read books all day, that would be great. Because I love finding books and buying books and I love cuddling on the sofa reading. But my younger son wants to run around and play all day.

He judges each day by how many games there were and how many people he got to talk to. I judge each day by how many minutes I had curled up on the sofa reading with the kids. My husband bridges this gap. If I had to actually play with my son all day, I would die. I am blown away by how my husband can somehow get it in him that he cares about who wins in kickball and he can run a little faster. I give away my disdain for fun too early on in the game.

I have more energy every day to provide the scaffolding for fun because I don’t actually have to do it. My husband does.

2. Don’t try to focus on anything important.
I used to read difficult books by authors I admired. Jose Saramongo. Blindness. Have you read that? Read it now, fast, before you start homeschooling. Because I don’t think I could concentrate long enough to read it now. Now I read the print version of the National Enquirer. And you know what? I kind of like it. Quiz me. I know everything about the A-listers that you could possibly ask.

Also, I’m writing this post at 10pm when the kids are asleep because if they were awake, they would talk to me right now and I wouldn’t remember what I wanted to say about focus. This post will have a lot of links in it. Like, I’ve been saving this link to a rap video about how dumb school is. I love the video. You will, too.

But I’m going to put all the links in tomorrow morning because that requires very little thinking. So it’s a good thing to do with kids around. Did you know that moms get asked a question by their kids an average of one time every two minutes? That really shed light on a lot for me. And guess where I read it. This week’s National Enquirer. See? It’s not so bad to read it.

3. Leave. Just for a little while.
Well, first I try to get my kids to leave. I tell them to go outside as if I’m promoting the great outdoors or something. But really I’m promoting my sanity, it’s just that I’m trying to be appropriate. It doesn’t always work, which is why I really appreciate this mom’s tweet:

Just pretended to eat a booger to gross my kids out so they’d leave me alone for a few minutes because I’m classy.

— Not your dream girl (@nettie0918) April 26, 2013

I have gone to a hotel a few times. It’s positively luxurious to have no one bugging me when I wake up in the morning. And I always feel better when I get home. So sometimes I think I should just go to a hotel once a month and stop pretending it’s not a necessity.

4. Reframe time.
Jessica Smock has a really interesting interview with a researcher who focuses on homeschoolers. And it turns out that while there are several strategies that homeschool mothers use to attempt to carve out personal time,  most fail. And the research concludes that homeschool mothers resort to managing their feelings about time instead.

This rings true to me, so I wrote a post the other day about new ways that I’ve been thinking about time. But the truth is, that I end up having to tell myself that I will only be with my boys for another ten years. I remind myself of how much I have loved each age they have been.

It’s sappy. But parenthood is messy and not really satisfying. I did not invent this idea. This research comes from Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert . Parenthood on a daily basis makes us crazy. Not just homeschoolers – everyone. But on a long-term basis, parenting is hugely rewarding. So parents get their happiness from parenting by thinking about the big picture.

That’s what the research says. And, largely, it works. My older son uses a punching bag until my younger son walks in and hits him with a pillow so he can have a turn with the punching bag. And I remind myself that there will come a day when no one even cares about the punching bag. And I will miss that.

19 replies
  1. Taylor @ Wise Family Living
    Taylor @ Wise Family Living says:

    I think vacations away from the kids are really important too. Just a few days with your spouse or alone, to get refreshed and think and have a break from your kids needs. I always used to think of that as a luxury, but now that we are homeschoolers, it is much more of a necessity.

    • Sarah M
      Sarah M says:

      We think this is hugely important and we’ve done it once a year (at least) every year since having kids. I am still amazed when I meet a mom who hasn’t left her kids at least once for an overnight out with her husband since the kids have been born…and they are like 4 or 5. I would strongly dislike my kids if I never got a break from them. I think they think the same when we go on a vacation–it’s a vacation for them, too.

      I think this is a great list, and I loved the No Exit example. I read that in college and can agree as a homeschooling metaphor that can be so true!

      Sarah M

  2. Julie
    Julie says:

    I don’t have the same focus I had for reading prehomeschool either. I just attributed it to my brain aging, but maybe it is the homeschooling. That is kind of reassuring.

    I read the book by Jennifer Lois and one of the things she also mentioned regarding burnout is that trying to separate the roles of teacher and parent contribute to it. I found that helpful, but I have also absolutely changed the way I think about time and focus on the big picture much more than I used to do. For me it is less about how much I will miss this stage later than about how I will have my time later. The stage I am in now is for them and that is how it is supposed to be. This is my new truth, replacing the idea of creating some sort of balance where we all get what we need. It is amazing how much better I feel about not having time for myself when I am not trying to create it.

  3. Jessica Smock
    Jessica Smock says:

    This is such a great way of framing this issue. I just wrote a post today about this general topic, but (as usual) you put this so much more concisely and clearly! I wrote about how everyone tells new parents that “it gets better,” and this is one of my biggest pet peeves. My son turned two this weekend, and, from my perspective, it sort of does get better and sort of doesn’t. I think new parents need to be given substantially different advice, focusing a bit more on “big picture” thinking like you describe. Every day with a baby, toddler, or young kid is endlessly long (and, yes, often really boring). You truly have to reframe time if you want to keep as sane as possible. And I find that knowing this — that not being happy or even feeling miserable some of the time — is completely normal and your greatest satisfaction comes later, maybe even much later, as a parent.

  4. Lizarino
    Lizarino says:

    Another option is having someone take your kids somewhere for the day. I’m very introverted and the thought of #3 sounds wonderful (going to a luxury hotel), but then I get exhausted thinking about the planning and packing and writing lists for everyone on what to do when I’m gone and who can or can’t play with certain things because they got in trouble that week…that exhaustion turns into irritation… why should “I” have to leave?!! I love my house, it’s tranquil, it has everything I need…

    So I prefer my husband to take the kids out somewhere for the day, the Lego store, the park, the grandparents house… so that I can just kick back, relax, read, take a nap or catch up on TV episodes that I recorded on dvr that have been there for a year waiting for me to watch… like the season finale of Downton Abbey that I have yet to watch because there is no time…even if it’s just a few hours it’s so refreshing and I’m happy to have everyone back…. of course my husband looks frazzled after his day with three little girls… but he never complains… this option also doesn’t happen that often… but it’s nice when it does.

  5. Tim
    Tim says:

    The Most Basic Freedom Is Freedom to Quit
    Schools will become moral institutions only when children are free to quit.

    …But now I want to turn to the violence we do to our children by forcing them into schools. When schooling is compulsory, schools are, by definition, prisons. A prison is a place where one is forced to be and within which people are not free to choose their own activities, spaces, or associates. Children cannot walk away from school, and within the school children cannot walk away from mean teachers, oppressive and pointless assignments, or cruel classmates.


    This is something that I think pertains a lot to homeschooling, especially unschooling, and PT has touched on it a bit here. Thought this might be of some interest.

  6. Jana @ 365 Hand Lettering Project
    Jana @ 365 Hand Lettering Project says:

    I saved my sanity by giving my kids “room time” every afternoon for 2 hours. Everyone gets to go to their room and do what they want as long as it’s quiet….read, listen to music, sleep. Most afternoons they took naps (even as they got older) and I loved the quiet house. It worked for us.

  7. Susie
    Susie says:

    I am loving all the extra time I have with my now homeschooled son. But I am an INTJ (the most independent type). Here’s how I carve out some time to get a break. My son goes to church 4 hours on Sunday, a science class for 2 hours once a week, and soon a pottery class for 3 hours. I also sign him up for full time science camps in the summer and the occasional ones available to homeschoolers offered by area museums and organizations during the school year. My husband has him all day every Friday – they work on hardscaping the back yard (hauling rocks) and other projects. I bring him to work one weekday and let him play games such as “Age of Mythology” or watch The Happy Scientist videos. We have “quiet hour” in bed prior to bedtime. And, he plays a lot outside with friends (with no hovering adult).

    I might add it is WAY EASIER for me to have him at home than it was to have him in school. Having him in school was so stressful my health was seriously impacted. I am loving this life at home with him!

  8. mh
    mh says:

    I’m an INTJ and I think I have the opposite problem. I enjoy my ideas, plans and personal time so much, most days I have to “carve out” time to homeschool.

    I’m sure I don’t do more than 90 minutes of direct instruction per day. They work on music, language, writing, hobbies, and play all without much commentary from dear old Mom. I teach math and history — and I do believe they have gotten more history from the Carmen Sandiego videos than they ever will from me. So… I teach math.

    And I teach what I know — how to prune trees and why you can’t propagate the lime tree from lime seeds, but how it does work for apples. How to complete house chores, make lists, and budget. How to cook a meal. How to shift the manual transmission car. How to run the sewing machine. Which neighbor to call when we need this or that. But it’s funny how those types of teaching require very little talking. I just work side by side with an adorable child who seems interested.

    And I’m like commenter Susie — my kids have great activities in the sciences, sports, and arts.

    • Rachel
      Rachel says:

      mh, I am so confused! Please explain about the limes and the apples! I read that Michael Pollon book and he says that apples don’t grow true from seeds– you get a different kind of apple, so if you want the same apples, you need to graft. Or are you just talking about being able to grow trees at all from seeds? Please tell me about the lime seeds too!

      • mh
        mh says:

        The lime trees here are grafted, too. The nursery here recommends a frost-resistant rootstock (even in the desert southwest, we do get a hard freeze every year or so), and mine is Sour Orange, I’m almost positive. We had a lime tree disaster in January when a three-night frost zapped our lime tree. It did not flower this year and won’t produce fruit, but it should survive.

  9. Mariana
    Mariana says:

    Penelope, it’s Saramago, not Saramongo. Actually, Saramongo sounds quite funny in Portuguese!

  10. Lisa S
    Lisa S says:

    Seven years into this homeschooling gig, I have finally convinced myself that I have a management-level job that is not only full-time, but weekends too. With homeschooling, learning happens at any time of day, and that often requires guidance and input from me. It’s rewarding, but mentally exhausting.

    I have two set ‘rest’ times during the day — the first while fixing and cleaning up after dinner. I like the hands-on, task-completion of all this so much, and the kids know to give me some space when I desperately need it. The other time is bedtime — around 8:30 the kids are in bed and my mom / teacher / counselor / consultant hat comes off. (ahhh…)

    I also have an entertainment magazine that comes every week that I love. Brain candy!

  11. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    It is so nice to know that other parents have days when they don’t like their kids. And its extremely nice to know that I am not alone when I kick my three older kids outside while the youngest is asleep just to get 5 mins of quiet time. Great post!

  12. Mindy
    Mindy says:

    Sometimes I feel guilty when I feel crazy homeschooling or parenting in general. I have a strict rule that no one bugs me when I go to the bathroom. Seriously, if the house is not on fire or someone is not bleeding to death DO NOT bother me when I escape to my bathroom. The things we do for sanity!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Mindy, I have that too — that I feel guilty for feeling crazy. Because if I feel crazy doing homeschooling then why am I doing it! Thanks for the comment – you make me see myself better.


  13. Sallie
    Sallie says:

    My daughter is six and a half. For a variety of reasons, we haven’t had an overnight away from her ever. I can deal with that and this will change eventually. But what is critical for us as homeschooling and work-at-home parents is a babysitter during the week.

    Even just two and a half hours once or twice a week makes a TREMENDOUS difference. I know this because we didn’t have a sitter come this week to play with her while we work and we are all feeling a bit frazzled. My husband and I because we didn’t get a break and our daughter because she didn’t get that intensive fun time with the babysitter she loves.

    We do the tagteam parenting as well. Daddy is the one who takes her outside to play and plays more inside. I am the one who oversees the academics. It works well for us. I can’t imagine doing it alone and with multiple children. :-)

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