Thursday, December 1, 2016

Beating the Burnout Beast

Caretaker burnout is real. It's ruthless. It's persistent. It sucks.

It didn't creep up on me as I might have expected. The onset was explosive. It first struck exactly 10 years ago. At the time I had Emily (an autistic teen), Hannah (who was 11 years chronologically but had the cognitive and self-care abilities of about a 9-month-old), James, an ADHD/dyslexic toddler (who had yet to be diagnosed and was completely out of control), and a newborn who insisted - loudly - from the moment of her birth that she would be held only by me, only in my left arm, and that she would require this treatment 24/7. I was also working 11 PM to 7 AM as a pediatric nurse.

Daniel came home one night after seeing a movie with some friends. As soon as he walked through the door I said, "I'm leaving."

"What?!" he asked, eyes wide and obvious panic in his voice.

"As soon as this one," I nodded down to the cranky, obnoxious, persnickety leach suckling at my breast, "is weaned, I'm leaving. I don't know where I'll go or who I'll go with, but I'll need a week. You'll have the kids."

I didn't leave much room for argument, but luckily I have an incredibly understanding husband who was happy to accommodate my need to flee. Roughly a year later I was, indeed, in the Dominican Republic with my sister for a week of respite...for a chance to recharge.

It was an incredibly important turning point for me. It took those 3000 miles of distance from my life to realize that I had completely lost sight of who I was. That may sound all "New Age" and "fru-fru", but it's accurate. My brain was so completely saturated with the needs, desires, preferences and schedules of the kids that everything "me" had long since slunk back to the far recesses of my mind. I had to remind myself what was important to me, what made me happy, what inspired me, what my goals were. It became obvious that my success (or failure) as a parent relied on finding those answers.

I got back home and made it a priority to devote some of my time - every day - to me. I had told myself for years that I didn't have time for it. I wasn't going to accept that excuse any longer.

It was transformative. My relationship with my husband improved, my relationship with the kids improved. I found my inner jock, quickly becoming addicted to running and Zumba. I lost 40 pounds along the way. I was reminded of my love of reading. I even published a book of my own, for crying out loud! Things were definitely improved.

But burnout doesn't disappear just because you've developed a strong defense. It lurks in the shadows, ever ready to strike and envelope you in it's dark, suffocating weight once again. The past decade has been a long, exhausting series of burnout high's and low's. I've had to learn to be patient through the rough patches and thankful when I'm feeling relatively at peace.

I was particularly worried last spring. Burnout was hitting me hard, and Hannah was finishing high school. She would now be home with me. Every day. All day.

I've now had a few months to experience this new development...and I've made an interesting discovery. Time together has actually improved my level of burnout. My school-day schedule with Hannah used to be: get her up and ready for school, put her on the bus, take her off the bus, get her changed and set up for the evening [before leaving to take Maddie to gymnastics practice], then put her to bed when I got home. Each of those encounters was nothing more than chores to be completed - chores I've grown to dread over the years. My daughter had become Hannah the diaper that needed to be changed, the medication that needed to be drawn up, the medical supplies that needed to be ordered.

Now I still have those same daily chores, but Hannah is also the random giggle from across the room, the mischievous look before she throws her star rattle into the toilet, the sound of delighted glee when she knocks the dog's water dish over. It's no cure to caregiver burnout - unfortunately, there's no such thing. But that extra spark of connection with my daughter - with my little girl - that's a mighty strong stick with which to beat back the burnout beast.