How can working parents handle the unpredictability and uncertainty of this ongoing pandemic without going crazy?

Working parents had a burnout problem before COVID-19. Now it’s a full-blown burnout crisis. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 70 percent of working parents reported that it was already difficult or very difficult to balance the responsibilities of their job with their family obligations.

Then the global pandemic turned our lives upside down.

Many working parents were barely treading water before, and now it’s like an anchor pulling us under a turbulent sea. A May 2020 Harris Poll survey sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed new sources of stress for families:

  • 46% of parents say their average stress level related to the coronavirus pandemic is high (ranking it 8 to 10 on a scale of 1 to 10).
  • 71% of parents find managing their kid’s distance or online learning to be a significant source of stress.
  • Parents are more likely than non-parents to say that basic needs, such as access to food and housing, are a significant source of stress (70% compared with 44%).
  • Other factors causing added stress for parents include access to healthcare (66% versus 44%) and missing major milestones like weddings or graduations (63% versus 43%).
  • The economy is increasingly a source of stress, with 70% of adults reporting it to be a “significant” source, compared with 46% in the APA’s 2019 Stress in America poll.
  • People of color are at increased risk of coronavirus-pandemic-related stress compared with white adults, reporting significant stress about contracting the new coronavirus (71% versus 59%), meeting basic needs (61% versus 47%), and access to health care services (59% versus 46%).

For a while, we thought the virus would be a temporary inconvenience. We baked bread. We had Zoom chats to connect with loved ones. We supervised virtual art classes for our kids. Many families even appreciated the respite from the constant rush in those early days of the lockdown.

While we hope there will soon be a vaccine or effective treatment for the new coronavirus, there’s no clear answer as to when the COVID-19 crisis will be over for good. Our memories of a “normal life” are fading with every passing day. As the pandemic lingers on, it’s becoming easier to believe that burnout is now an inevitable part of life.

The problem with living in a prolonged state of stress is that our life circumstances can quickly shift from challenging to entirely unmanageable. As burnout spirals out of control, we miss opportunities to explore better routines and solutions.

We feel exhausted and resentful. We struggle to stay connected to the people we love. We’re less effective at everything we do, which drains our energy even more.

But we can’t accept burnout as a way of life.

As a busy working mom myself, avoiding burnout is one of my top priorities right now. In times of such extreme volatility and uncertainty, that can be a hard thing to do. But I’ve found that the more I implement the following strategies, the more effectively I’m able to manage pandemic life.

Since the pandemic started, I’ve come across a number of articles and memes encouraging parents to “think positively” or “look on the bright side.”

It’s one thing to identify the silver linings of what we’re going through, but relying on toxic positivity to get through hard times can pose a real danger. When we’re struggling, trying to convince ourselves we don’t have it so bad can exacerbate the pain we’re genuinely experiencing.

Immediately after the lockdown began, I did my best to minimize the effects of such a sudden change for my family. I invested in activities to keep my young sons occupied. My husband and I rearranged our schedule to make sure we could both get our work done while educating our kids. We managed cabin fever by going on walks and working outside as much as possible. We were faced with a challenge, and we were going to meet it!

These strategies helped, but I couldn’t shake the increasing sense of dread, frustration, and sadness I still felt every day. I broke down in tears a few weeks after the lockdown started. Trying to maintain this perpetual “can-do attitude” was exhausting, and it was a relief to finally just acknowledge the truth: I was afraid, angry, and deeply sad.

It was healing to finally admit I had no idea how to handle all of this. Accepting my circumstances as they were, rather than what I’d prefer them to be, has also allowed me to apply more effective solutions to our situation, as they’re based in reality.

Here are a few questions I ask myself to identify when I’m in survival mode:

  • Am I planning my day ahead, or am I trapped in reaction mode?
  • Am I expecting too much of myself right now?
  • Where can I adjust my standards and expectations?
  • What am I avoiding thinking about or dealing with today?
  • Do I need help with anything, and am I asking for the help I need?

If you’re feeling depleted and stretched thin these days, you’re not doing anything wrong. Exhaustion is an entirely normal reaction to this unexpected situation.

Many elements of this pandemic are beyond our control, which can cause a lot of additional stress on top of everything else. While we shouldn’t accept burnout as a life sentence, it’s also important to give ourselves grace when we truly are in survival mode.

There’s a lot to miss about our pre-pandemic lives, such as hugging our favorite people, enjoying chats with co-workers in a bustling office, and looking forward to a night out on the town.

But as someone who’s helped working parents overcome burnout for years, I know there are many things about pre-pandemic life that most parents weren’t happy with even in the best of times.

It’s easy to get caught up in missing what we’re used to, even if what we were used to wasn’t all that ideal. With so much change happening, now is the perfect time to assess which parts of our lives we want to carry forward — and which parts we can leave behind.

After a few weeks of living in denial, I started to examine what I could change to make my life a little easier given the new constraints on my time, energy, and privacy.

It took a little while, but once I released the death grip I had on my old life, I was able to shift my routines and attitude to better align with my “new normal,” which continues to change every day. I now take into account the unavoidable aspects of this new reality as I make choices about my life.

Evaluating what I can release from my past means asking these questions:

  • What is most important to me today?
  • What do I want my life to look like now?
  • What can take a backseat in this season of my life?
  • Which parts of my old life do I want to preserve or adapt, and which parts do I want to leave behind for good?

Asking these questions can feel like opening pandora’s box, but I’ve learned that it never helps to hold onto my past just because it’s familiar. This exploration can be challenging because there’s often a period of grief and instability as I let go of what no longer works. As I release the past, I can craft a life that fits who I am now in a whole new way.

The need for ongoing physical distancing has created an endless sense of Groundhog Day. We’re stumbling through every day in a fog, just trying to get through it. That feeling that we “just want this to be over” is powerful. But as the pandemic continues, we’re at risk of losing entire months of our lives yearning for a life that no longer exists.

One thing that draws me out of bitterness about this situation is to remind myself that I’m not entitled to forever with my family. God willing, we’ll make it out of this pandemic without any serious health issues or loss of life (far too many families haven’t been so lucky).

Even if we do get through this intact, the reality is that someday my two little boys will grow up. Inevitably, the day when these rambunctious little guys won’t be around will come, probably much sooner than I expect. My house will be quiet and calm, and homeschooling will be a thing of the past.

I want to look back on this crazy time and treasure these moments with my family. I don’t want to look back with regrets because I failed to prioritize what truly mattered.

Here are a few questions that help me stay connected to my family, even as we progress through this pandemic:

  • Where is my attention right now? Am I focusing on the right things?
  • What is one small thing I can do to make today special?
  • How are my kids feeling? Do they need support or a hug?
  • What’s one thing I can do today to lift my own mood?

It’s easy to lose perspective when we’re overwhelmed. This virus won’t last forever, but it has already lasted longer than any of us expected. As distance learning, around-the-clock work demands, and the constant pressure to keep our loved ones healthy become inescapable parts of our reality, we have to actively fight against the tendency to exist in constant hustle mode.

We’re stuck in the “messy middle” of change right now — on a lot of levels. We left the shore of one island behind in early 2020, and we haven’t yet spotted our new destination.

No one can predict what our futures hold, which means it’s even more important to reclaim the lives we do have right now. Give yourself the space to grieve what you’ve left behind. Start making conscious choices to move closer to a better future, without sacrificing the precious moments you have right now.


Sarah Argenal, MA, CPC, is on a mission to eradicate the burnout epidemic so working parents can finally enjoy these precious years of their lives. She is the founder of The Argenal Institute based in Austin, TX, host of the popular Working Parent Resource Podcast, and author of the book, “The Whole SELF Lifestyle for Working Parents: A Practical 4-Step Framework to Defeat Burnout and Escape Survival Mode for Good,” which offers a sustainable approach to personal fulfillment for working parents. Learn more at www.argenalinstitute.com.