There are those mornings when you can’t think straight, when packing your kids’ lunches redlines your brain’s tachometer, and it’s hard to imagine how you’ll complete all the steps it takes to get them out the door for school. And sometimes those mornings turn into days, days full of instances where you can’t recall that detail from that work project, and jumping from one task to another goes as well as a failed obstacle run on “American Ninja Warrior,” and when ‘what was I doing again?’ becomes your constant internal refrain.
It can feel, at times, like your brain is stuck in a fog. These days, unfortunately, there is the possibility you suffer from actual ‘brain fog,’ a quasi-clinical term for various slow-processing symptoms tied to serious conditions, not the least of which is long COVID. But, just as likely, what you’re experiencing is the physical and emotional fatigue that often comes with parenting.
Call it ‘parenting fog,’ or by its more widely used name — burnout. And you probably know it by its signs: forgetfulness, trouble focusing, listlessness, irritability. It’s important to note here that these can once again be symptoms of, or precursors to, something more severe: clinical depression. But if what you’re experiencing is more of a mental rut, there are some physical, psychological, and social tweaks you can make to your routine to help get your head out of the fog and get yourself back up to speed. Here are a few to remember.
1. Identify Your Stressors
What are the things that stress you out about your day-to-day process? Identify them. Write them down. Then choose between finding ways to improve those situations, or letting go of trying so hard to make them perfect. Either way, hone in on them and decide how to approach them in a healthier way. “Because trying to tackle everything at once is even more overwhelming and it really would be to your detriment to try to figure out and solve all those things,” says Naiylah Warren, a therapist for the mental health app Real. This approach is specifically helpful, Warren says, if your fatigue is combined with irritability or a short temper.
2. Ask For Help
It’s important to identify your support system, says Warren. Ask your spouse for their input, or ask them to swap certain duties with you for a day or two to mix things up and break up the routine. If you have family or willing friends or neighbors near you, tap them in to help out periodically.
3. Stop Pursuing Perfection
“Parent burnout is very real and every parent has been there,” says Jen McConaghie, a mom of four and the founder of the parenting guide “This Time of Mine.” For parents feeling both overwhelmed and disconnected, she says it’s important to remember that parenting feels hard because it is, in fact, hard, not because you’re doing something wrong. It’s important for parents to let go of preconceived notions of perfection, both for their children's behavior and their own. “Move away from guilt and make intentional choices you can control,” she says. “For example, ‘I should stop yelling’ can become ‘I could keep yelling, or I could practice a new coping strategy.’”
4. Force Yourself to Get More Sleep
It’s easy to say you’re going to get more sleep at night, but to actually do so you just have to make small changes to your evening routine that actually get you to bed earlier — without your phone in hand. Warren says that, as much as possible, even experienced parents should try to follow the old adage for new parents: sleep when your kid is sleeping.
Mental exhaustion and so-called brain fog have physical symptoms, including inflammation that slows down neural pathways in the brain. “Exercise has been shown to have atrophic effect[s] on the brain and improve both brain circulation and regeneration of neurons,” says Dr. Maura Boldrini, director of the Quantitative Brain Biology Institute at Columbia University. Exercise has been proven to boost endorphins, too, and when those endorphins and neurons are flowing, your brain works faster and your mood gets better. It’s science.
6. Improve Your Diet
Another way to combat neural inflammation is to — surprise — eat healthier. “There are diets that are low in carbs that are supposedly also better for inflammation,” Boldrini says. Think: less sugars and carbs, more protein, healthy oils and leafy greens. Of course, such changes to your diet have wider benefits than just feeling less foggy, including improving your ratio of good-bad cholesterol and lower blood pressure, among others.
7. Socialize with Other Adults
Six-year-olds are great, and all, but Warren says it’s important to connect with other adults, too. That can be for casual socializing, but it can also be for swapping stories from the parenting trenches, which can be extremely helpful. “It is very isolating sometimes as a parent because it feels like it’s just you and your child or you and your partner trying to figure out how to do this thing,” she says. “Being able to hear about how other folks are struggling or triumphing can, I think, be really helpful.”
Remember that if you’re experiencing prolonged periods where you feel like your brain is operating slowly or you feel dull and listless, to speak with a doctor. But if these things come and go, and you’d like them to go more quickly when they come, remember that there are a range of practical steps you can take to improve your routine, boost your psyche, and help your overall health and wellbeing — and that, in turn, will help you be a better parent. Which is a good thing, because those kids aren’t going to get themselves to school, and even those banal mornings don’t have to feel only like aimless chores.