The Impact of Burnout in Immigrant Latina Moms

Parental burnout is exacerbated among immigrant moms who lack support systems and face cultural barriers to care

Parental Burnout

Credit: Ketut Subiyanto | Pexels

I am an Argentine immigrant who has lived in the U.S. since 2016, and the mother of a four-year-old boy. Since my son’s birth, hardships from each of these identities have intertwined, often converging at emotional crossroads that brought me down to what some specialists have called intense burnout. Amid relentless parental responsibilities, the prospect of escaping the confines of home alone would fill me with a sense of joy and anticipation. Just the thought of being able to walk on the street without anything other than my purse, headphones on, and the cold breeze on my face without any concern for anyone else in that time and place felt like heaven on Earth. The very definition of freedom.

One Saturday not long ago, I organized a day just for myself in a very uncharacteristic move. I woke up early, prepared lunch, got my son ready, reconfirmed with the babysitter, and waited for the time to come. He asked me to play cars with him so we did for a few minutes and then I delivered the news that I would be heading out soon. “Just for a bit, and before you know it, I will be back,” I said soothingly. My annoying Superego, as self-critical as can be, kept whispering I was the “worst mother” on Earth, but my Ego, focused on my needs, was ecstatic.

He was crying and hugging me at first like we would never see each other again. When she arrived, his babysitter picked him up and started playing finger games with him, while we all waved goodbye. It was hard, and it was sad, but it was also part of my healing process after a peak of exhaustion and an anxiety crisis. I needed to regain a sense of self that seemed to have left my body for so long now I felt completely depleted, devoured by a perpetual sadness and a constant feeling of discouragement. My strength had been eaten up by a routine that demanded delivering my energy without any space to recharge. This was a first step to recalibrating my schedule so that it could also include time for myself. It was also a necessary step to taking care of my son more healthily and joyfully.

What is Parental Burnout?

Belgian researchers Isabelle Roskam and Moïra Mikolajczak, members of the Psychological Sciences Research Institute at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and pioneers in parental burnout research, have theoretically defined this phenomenon as “intense exhaustion related to parenting, emotional distancing from one’s children, a loss of pleasure and efficacy in one’s parental role, and a contrast between a previous and current parental self,” as explained in their paper The Role of Cognitive Appraisals in Parental Burnout: A Preliminary Analysis During the COVID-19 Quarantine.

Before 2020, much had been talked about burnout at work, but less commonly had there been conversations about parental burnout, especially immigrant parental burnout. The isolating COVID crisis brought to the surface the dangers of exhaustion when parenting without a support system.

It also served as an impetus for more open and honest conversations about the contradictions inherent to parenthood, and the damaging expectations of self-sacrifice and stoicism in the name of love and caregiving. This has been particularly impactful for Latinas, for whom their underlying marianismo, so interwoven in their experiences, beliefs, and values, has upheld selflessness and renouncement as the ultimate virtues of motherhood over generations. 

Several studies have confirmed that parental burnout exists as a pathology and manifests usually as anxiety and depression, constant irritability and frustration, emotional detachment and loneliness, hormonal dysregulation caused by chronic stress – which leads to physical pains such as persistent headaches and migraines, and sleep disorders-, permanent intense physical and mental exhaustion. Additionally, it brings about apathy and disinterest in once-enjoyable activities coupled with a sense of being trapped in an unending cycle of duties. In its most extreme form, parental burnout can also result in suicidal and escape ideations, substance or alcohol abuse, and potentially child-directed physical or verbal violence and abuse.

The Struggle of Being an Immigrant Working Parent

Raising children is a significant challenge under normal circumstances, often leading to profound shifts in priorities and self-identity. The emotional fluctuations and often tremendous tiredness that can come with motherhood paired with the common stressors of the immigration experience can make someone lose the necessary resilience to power through challenges. Moving to another country only adds further complexity, intensifying the demands and pressures involved when you have to adjust to living in a new social and cultural environment typically without the network of family and close friends you can rely on.

The American Psychological Association (APA) asserts that the challenges of the migration experience and the ongoing grief it brings can act as significant chronic stressors, heightening the vulnerability of immigrant parents to mental health issues and burnout.The challenges are varied, and have different impacts on parents:

1. Learning to Parent Without a Support System in a New Country

According to Dr. Christine Rivera, a bicultural Latina licensed clinical psychologist, burnout for working immigrant mothers results from an imbalance between increasing demands and decreasing resources. “When we migrate, the extended family network is stripped away from us; our familismo — so important in Latinx communities – is removed, while new adaptation challenges appear, such as a new language to learn, a new cultural and social system to navigate. You tend to question your ability to solve everyday tasks,” she tells HipLatina.

The impact of cultural biases and the access to informal social support systems in parental burnout were extensively analyzed in an unprecedented research paper titled Parental Burnout Around the Globe: a 42-country study, which surveyed the experiences of 17,409 parents (12,364 mothers and 5,045 fathers) between 2018 and 2020. The data was collected through the International Investigation of Parental Burnout (IIPB) Consortium, set up by the mentioned researchers Roskam and Mikolajczak.

They concluded that in countries where social support networks for raising children are not as prominent, the risk of parental burnout generally increases. In the United States, for instance, parental burnout rates proved to be alarmingly high, ranging from 7 to 8 percent, while in European countries, the rates vary between 3 and 6 percent.

2. Identity Loss: “Who Am I Now, Here?”

“How do you teach while also learning?” is the biggest challenge for migrant mothers, according to Dr. Rivera. Sadness and loneliness are common emotional experiences among all immigrants, compounded by work and professional uncertainties and the fear of discrimination. These factors can profoundly disrupt one’s sense of identity, making migration often a traumatic experience.

“Every sense of self you had in your home country gets lost when you move, either it being a position, an experience, a job, a sense of belonging, a community. Everything that contributed to your identity before migrating disappears. There is a sense of loneliness amid having to reshape yourself,” Dr. Graziela Reis, a researcher at the Department of Psychiatry of the Yale School of Medicine, tells HipLatina.

Together with her colleagues Chyrell Belami, Mark Costa, and Elizabeth Brisola, a researcher at the School of Behavior and Social Sciences of St. Edward’s University, in Texas, Dr. Reis investigated the topic of mental health of Brazilian immigrants in the United States. They found that motherhood can only intensify this sense of identity displacement in an already traumatic process.

“It adds another layer of difficulty to an already fragile situation. The responsibility for a child’s life becomes a weighty burden for women, effectively doubling their mental load,” Dr. Brisola tells HipLatina.     

3. The Fear of Discrimination Leads to More Isolation

To complete the picture, there is the discrimination factor. The traumatic impact of individual grievances and multiple risk factors related to each person’s particular migration conditions intensify with what are defined by APA as structures of systemic oppression.

The think tank Think Global Health noted in a 2020 investigation on immigrant children’s mental health that “the vast majority of new immigrants to the United States are people of color, and both children and parents must navigate structural and explicit racism in the United States.”

The fear of discrimination leads to isolation almost automatically. “You start avoiding places, and people, restricting yourself from social interactions. Life in every aspect becomes undeniably more difficult,” Dr. Reis explains.

Community is the Key to Healing

The devastating consequences of parental burnout extends beyond the parents themselves, often casting a shadow over the children, who may face the threat of violence or the loss of their primary caretakers.

According to Drs. Reis and Brisola, parental exhaustion is usually overlooked and/or minimized during its first stages, which can ultimately lead to more daring consequences later on. Creativity, joy, self-love, and self-care can depreciate until mothers feel trapped in a loop with no way out.

For immigrant families whose sense of grief and loss and even material hardships endure for years, incorporating the immigration experience as part of the family’s and community’s narrative can help them cope.

“The solution is to bring back a sense of self-determination that can make mothers feel empowered and in charge of their lives again,” Dr. Brisola explains. “The key is to integrate them into a broader community, where they can rebuild a support system and rely on a network of peers,” she added. “A sense of belonging is crucial in forging a path towards healing, regaining strength and resilience, and rediscovering the capacity to enjoy life and love,” Dr. Reis emphasizes. “Mothers need to find a safe space where they can share resources and experiences.”

Consistent with this idea, Dr. Rivera shares that in her practice with immigrant mothers, she has also noticed that one of the most powerful sources of burnout recovery is sharing with others. “My job has usually been to validate their emotions, to help them see themselves as worthy of care and well-being. Migrant moms tend to put themselves last, as if not allowed to need anything,” she explains. “Women can build community so well with even the most limited resources. It has been such an honor to witness that in my work. When they connect with others going through the same, their experience feels automatically validated and it offers a significant stress release. This is even more pronounced in our culture, where community and la familia are highly valued.”

She shares a fundamental rule that emphasizes just how parental burnout isn’t just about the parent: “The best way to protect a child’s well-being is always to protect their parents.”

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immigrant immigrant experience Immigrant families latina mom latina motherhood
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