Confessions of caregiver burnout: 5 women dealing with childcare and family needs reveal how the pandemic pushed them to a breaking point

Collage of Myka Harris, Shara Ruffin, Susan Foosness, Lidia Bonilla, and Jolene Delisle
Jolene Delisle, Lidia Bonilla, Shara Ruffin, Myka Harris, and Susan Foosness.

One morning in fall 2020, Myka Harris reached a breaking point.

As a small-business owner and single mom of a 5-year-old, she’d spent the first six months of the pandemic dedicating all her time to childcare and work needs. From staying on top of her son’s schooling to doing everything to buoy her business – a wellness center called Highbrow Hippie in Venice, California – she found herself exhausted and running on empty.

“I remember one morning just bursting into tears, lying on the ground, and crying,” Harris said, “because I just felt so overwhelmed and so alone.”

Like Harris, many Americans have taken on extra caregiving responsibilities while balancing their work in the pandemic, adding stress during an unprecedented situation. A new Insider survey of roughly 1,000 Americans found that this extra care was leading some of them, especially women, to feel stressed out and exhausted.

Women were more likely than men to report feeling at least somewhat burned out during the pandemic: 68% of women compared with 55% of men. So were parents who’d had to adapt to virtual schooling, care for a sick relative, or take on extra childcare duties.

These added responsibilities during a time of crisis have affected the mental health of working Americans and led some to leave their jobs.

An analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data from the National Women’s Law Center found that 863,000 women 20 and over left the labor force in September, the second-biggest decline during the pandemic after April 2020. By the end of the year, almost 2.1 million fewer women were working than before the pandemic, the analysis found.

Women gained 314,000 jobs in May. If the US continues to add this many jobs for women a month, it would take about 13 months to reach the pre-pandemic level, the NWLC said.

The Census Bureau found in August that working moms were more likely to take on most childcare and homeschooling duties during school closures. In its Household Pulse Survey in mid-July, 32.1% of women ages 25 to 44 said they were not working because of childcare needs, compared with 12.1% of men.

Though caregiver burnout is not new, Paula Davis, the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, told Insider that there’s no doubt that remote work, added care, or homeschooling had “contributed to a higher sense of burnout among people.”

“You’re talking about somebody having to almost try and do two full-time roles at the same time, and it’s virtually impossible to do both of those roles well,” Davis said. “So it’s going to be very, very exhausting for people.”

Insider spoke with Davis and five caregivers to learn more about how added care responsibilities during the pandemic had contributed to feelings of burnout.

“You’re having the two [parents] play many roles in one, which, for me, was beyond exhausting and really left me depleted.”

Shara Ruffin
Shara Ruffin.

Shara Ruffin, 35, is a licensed clinical social worker in Philadelphia who has a 6-year-old son and two soon-to-be stepdaughters. She helps others in social work pass their master’s, bachelor’s, and clinical licensing exams. Before creating her business, Journey to Licensure, she was studying for her own exam to become a licensed clinical social worker.

Ruffin was preparing to take the exam for the second time at the end of March 2020. As Philadelphia closed businesses, her contractual job at a long-term structured residential facility ended, and exam centers closed.

She began to worry more about her career and her three children who were now doing remote learning.

“My son had sometimes between 10 to 14 assignments to do,” Ruffin said. “Sometimes I would get so burned out that I just couldn’t do them. So they would pile up for, like, a day or two, and then we would knock them out.”

Ruffin said she felt as if she were “drowning in responsibilities.” She shared duties with her partner, but being at home led her to take on more of the care responsibilities. Both Ruffin and her fiancé were feeling exhausted.

“You’re having the two [parents] play many roles in one, which, for me, was beyond exhausting and really left me depleted,” Ruffin said.

When she needed a break, she would sometimes go next door to her son’s godmother’s house or to her mom’s place just for a moment alone.

Life now is completely different from 2020, Ruffin said. While balancing caregiving duties and studying “in a small, cramped apartment,” she passed her exam in November.

She said she wasn’t really feeling burned out now. Her children aren’t always at home, as her soon-to-be stepdaughters are with their mothers. Her son was recently doing remote learning at his godmother’s house or Ruffin’s mother’s place.

Ruffin, who was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at 21, was able to get a therapist to help with her mental health after applying for state health insurance last June. She finished therapy in December.

“All the things that you would normally do to kind of get support and nurture yourself I wasn’t doing for the last year.”

Susan Foosness and her son.
Susan Foosness and her son.

Susan Foosness, 40, is the associate vice president of value-based care at Quartet Health. She and her husband took their 4-year-old son out of childcare in Durham, North Carolina, in part to make spots available for children of essential workers who might not be able to take time off work.

Balancing work with caregiving duties and concerns about her family and her mom’s health during a pandemic began to affect her. She said that multitasking made her feel as if she couldn’t produce the best-quality work.

“I end up just not doing great at work, not being a great mom, feeling guilty about that, and that all just kind of spiraled into this sense of burnout,” Foosness said.

For months she felt a sense of dread about the future and thought to herself that this way of living was not sustainable. These multiple roles took a toll on her last summer when she realized that the US wasn’t really opening up and that her son wouldn’t be going back to childcare in the fall.

Sometimes in between work Foosness would drive half an hour to visit her mom in an assisted-living facility during visitation hours — only 30 minutes, outside, with masks and social distancing.

To help with childcare, Foosness’ mother-in-law has for over a year watched Foosness’ son for 2 1/2 days a week. Foosness and her husband each take one day to be “on call” for watching their son. Her son is going back to daycare later this month.

Now with vaccines rolling out and more things open, she feels that she and her family can do more to help with burnout, such as spending time with friends and other family members, she said.

“All the things that you would normally do to kind of get support and nurture yourself I wasn’t doing for the last year,” she said, “and now there is sort of light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Even if I take a nap or go to bed earlier, I’m still tired in the morning or my mind is racing in the middle of the night.”

Burnout   Business Insider   Lidia Bonilla
Lidia Bonilla.

Lidia Bonilla, 42, is an entrepreneur and relationship coach who spent the early months of the pandemic in her Brooklyn apartment. She stayed in close touch with her 81-year-old father, who was living in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and experiencing health issues.

After doctors told Bonilla that her father shouldn’t be living alone anymore, she moved to Santo Domingo in January to be his caretaker. Less than a month later, he was diagnosed with cancer. Since then, Bonilla has been by his side at home and at the hospital, all while trying to run her business remotely.

Bonilla said that navigating the medical system during the pandemic had been “nerve-wracking” and “emotionally exhausting.” For two weeks while her father was hospitalized with sepsis, Bonilla spent each night by his bedside. The day before speaking with Insider, she’d spent nine hours with her father, who’d been in the emergency room for dehydration.

As her parents are divorced and other close relatives aren’t available to help, Bonilla struggled with the duty of being her father’s caretaker, she said.

“For a while, I was resentful that I was here by myself doing this — why is this all my responsibility?” she said. “I don’t feel rested, even if I take a nap or go to bed earlier, I’m still tired in the morning or my mind is racing in the middle of the night, distracted and longing to cope.”

She recently hired a nurse to help take care of her dad, and on Saturdays she takes time for herself to go to the beach or meet up with friends. Still, she said she felt frustrated about being unable to do more for her father, while feeling as if she’s not doing enough for herself and her work.

Bonilla told Insider that though her father’s health was slowly stabilizing, she didn’t think she’d be able to leave his side anytime soon. She said she planned to stay in Santo Domingo, running her business remotely for the foreseeable future and keeping her life in New York on hold.

“I just felt so overwhelmed and so alone. You start to realize you just need a break.”

Myka Harris and her son.
Myka Harris and her son.

Myka Harris, 46, is the cofounder of Highbrow Hippie, a lifestyle brand and wellness center in Venice, California. Harris’ business, a hair salon and community space, was closed quickly in March 2020. Her 5-year-old son’s school also closed suddenly, and Harris spent the next three months with him at home.

“Trying to navigate your own stress and uncertainty while also managing a young child’s is challenging,” Harris told Insider. “I had to entertain, feed, and be with a child all day, where there’s no room for where he can entertain himself because he’s so young.”

Harris said she’d start her days early to work and research grants and loans for her business, enter “mom mode” during the day, and work again in the evening after her son went to bed.

Assuming the role of her son’s teacher was also time-consuming.

“Asking him to be focused and engaged was challenging. Mine is not one of those — he’s a very body-active child,” Harris said. “It became a battle every morning.”

After wrestling with virtual school, Harris transitioned her son to homeschooling and, later, a backyard pod with a few other families. In addition to her work, it was tough to stay on top of California’s ever-changing rules about whether her business could reopen; she said it made her feel constantly tired, sad, and uninspired.

“I remember one morning just bursting into tears, lying on the ground, and crying,” she said, “because I just felt so overwhelmed and so alone. You start to realize you just need a break.”

Harris said she’d strengthened her self-care routine with regular morning yoga and meditation and hired a nanny for a few hours several days a week to have her own time for reading, going to the park, and hiking.

“As we’ve reopened and more is happening, I’m more thoughtful about what I do and don’t want to do with my time,” Harris told Insider. “The pandemic showed me that self-care is not a luxury that we want to do, but it’s something we need to do.”

“I barely slept. I gained weight. I wasn’t taking care of myself physically.”

Jolene Delisle_28
Jolene Delisle.

Jolene Delisle (who preferred not to share her age) is the founder of The Working Assembly, a brand agency. She said the past year had been a series of highs and lows.

When her 25-person New York office was forced to close in March 2020, Delisle had to initiate layoffs, furloughs, and hiring and pay-raise freezes. Her 3-year-old’s preschool closed, and the babysitter for her 1-year-old contracted COVID-19.

“It felt like the world was crashing down,” Delisle told Insider.

Delisle and her husband, who also works at the agency, spent the next six months balancing caregiving duties for their kids while working from home.

“We’d wake up at 6 a.m. to work for two hours, trade off childcare during the day, then after they went to sleep at 7:30 I worked until 2 in the morning,” she said.

Even in the fall when business picked back up and they began hiring again, Delisle was still very stressed, she said.

“I barely slept. I gained weight. I wasn’t taking care of myself physically,” she said. “I couldn’t even see any light at the end of the tunnel. It felt like every good thing, even little milestones of my kids turning 2 and 4, felt like more of an emotional burden for me. I couldn’t even register or process what was happening.”

At the start of the new year, Delisle said, she made an effort to prioritize herself by going to therapy, working out with a virtual trainer, and going offline one day a week. “Those things have really brought me back into being a normal person,” she told Insider.

After getting vaccinated in late April, Delisle finally had “a moment where I actually breathed for the first time,” she said.

Caregivers should keep an eye on the balance between their resources and their demands.

paula davis
Paula Davis is the founder and CEO of the Stress & Resilience Institute.

Paula Davis described an equation with demands (including work or caregiving, or things that require energy) and resources (things like spending time with people or traveling).

“Burnout is more likely when your demands exceed your resources,” Davis said.

She added that a lot of the resources people used to balance these demands weren’t available during the pandemic.

Several of the caregivers told Insider they’d explored self-care practices such as exercise and meditation. Davis said that while these activities could be great mental-health and well-being strategies, “when we’re talking about burnout, we’re talking about something that is a workplace-culture issue.”

“And so frontline strategies like that are a really good first step,” Davis said, “but they’re not nearly enough to prevent burnout.”

Have you had your own experience with burnout that you’d like to speak about with Insider? Email Madison Hoff at mhoff@insider.com and Laura Casado at lcasado@insider.com.

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