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how did the breakpoint become normal?

I was inspired to write my first novel, Breaking Point, when I heard a tragic report about a baby who had been left in a car. As a mother of four very young children at the time, I was completely terrified of the story. I understood instantly how easily this could happen. I was exhausted, juggling a career, marriage, childcare, responsibilities to other family members, commuting between cities for my job. . . I felt something like this could happen to anyone; I felt like it could happen to me. I started counting my kids every time we went anywhere in the car.

I’ve been thinking about writing a book about the pressures of modern life for a while. In 2015, I became a mother for the first time. It was a somewhat sharper entry into motherhood than usual as I went overnight from a childless woman to a woman with three children. I had a new baby and two stepchildren who were only four and five and was starting a new life with them in Galway. A year later, I had another baby. It was a whirlwind.

I specify here that I was very accustomed to stress. I handled it easily. I have worked as a journalist for most of my adult life. It’s not a casual job. Newsrooms are not places to relax. Journalists are not cold people. We like to think of what we do as life or death. Live news radio, where I also worked for many years, takes this to another level. It’s as pressurized as it gets and I loved every minute of it. I loved the timelines. I loved the cut and thrust. I loved the ticking of the clock. I thrived on stress. Surely motherhood would be child’s play compared to that?

Edel Coffey, author of Breaking Point. Photography: Brid O’Donovan

Unprecedented stress event

It turned out that early motherhood was an unprecedented stressful event. I felt like I was in a state of emergency at all times. My heart was constantly pounding, I could hear my blood pounding in my ears, I had lost so much weight because I barely had time to eat, every time my baby cried my body was flooded with adrenaline . But I’m a modern woman so I knew I wanted to keep working while being a mother. So once a week I drove from Galway, where I now lived, to Dublin where I still worked part-time as an editor. I was still breastfeeding, so I brought my three-month-old baby with me for these weekly checkups. (Of course, I was breastfeeding, because, again, as a modern woman, I truly believed that if I didn’t, I would hurt my baby and be a Bad Mother™.)

The mornings were intense. Getting everyone fed, washed, dressed and out to get the older kids to school on time was like negotiating with four extremely unstable little terrorists. I watched the other mothers arrive calmly at school with their children. How did they make it look so easy? No one has ever seemed to have trouble unfolding a double buggy. Everyone seemed to have things under control. By the time I went to bed at night, I was too wired to sleep and so I sat around, tweaking my to-do list, merging today’s unfinished items into a new super-list, which included everything from work deadlines to DIY to child vaccinations.

I was (and am) eternally grateful to be a mother, but a constant underlying question echoed with every beat of my heartbeat – how could I handle this? I felt like I was always at breaking point and yet on paper I was living the dream – kids, marriage, career.

Was everything there? Was that really the best we could do in our advanced society? Surely we could do better than that?

I felt frustrated enough to have to write about it. I saw so many people quietly struggling with everyday life, and it wasn’t just the parents either. The story of the baby dying in the car became emblematic to me of all that was wrong with this empty lifestyle. So I started writing my novel, Breaking Point, as a sort of response to how we lived. And then the pandemic hit and this experience of normalized daily stress, the pressure of juggling, was suddenly the center of attention.

Dr Katriona O’Sullivan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Institute of Supported Living and Learning at Maynooth University and she has conducted academic research on how the pandemic was affecting families .

“With the pandemic what has happened is that there has been a magnifying glass placed on this particular issue by which we have been forced to turn our homes into a place of work, a place of school and a place of family life and it brought home what we had all gone through in the background. Being able to work remotely, be online and check in at different times and use technology has been beneficial in some ways as it allows women to re-enter the workforce. But the flip side is that the pressure is there all the time. Ten percent of the mothers we interviewed and surveyed quit their jobs because the pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she says.

O’Sullivan says remote work, while making life more flexible, may not be as positive as we think. “I know there’s a lot of pressure for remote work to be the thing, but I would worry about the cost to personal life when home becomes the place where work happens. What would that do to family life? Some women I know are happy not to have to get up, dress, drive in and out, but I worry about how we separate our identities. What is the long term cost? »

Dr Harry Barry is a GP with a special interest in mental health and is the author of Embracing Change among many other books. “I would consider burnout to be almost endemic,” he says. “I would say we have low-level burnout in the population. I’ve said many times on TV and radio that we can’t keep up the way we live with this out of control speed we live in and wonder why young people are struggling. They were falling into the same trap between the online stuff that took over much of our world, travel, consumerism, all of these factors had an effect before the pandemic began.

So what does burnout look like? “Low-level burnout happens when we feel totally exhausted and become almost apathetic, like you’re climbing a mountain and every time you reach what you thought was the top, you realize there’s has another one. With burnout, we all feel tired, exhausted, unmotivated, listless, irritable, and don’t sleep well. Sound familiar?

O’Sullivan says, “There’s been this normalization of language like sanity. We reject the terms ‘wellness’ and ‘mental health’, but my experience in researching families is that there’s a lot more anxiety in people, there’s less downtime, a lot people are really tired and it’s endless.

This endless, always-on, always-connected, frayed-at-the-edges lifestyle is what I describe in my book as a new normal. And it’s not sustainable.

In April last year, Ireland published a code of practice for employers on the right to disconnect from work, ringing the opening bell for what is sure to result in legislation that will allow workers to refuse to work. execute work-related requests outside normal working hours. . France has already legislated for this. It’s even a punchline in the new series of the Netflix show Emily In Paris. But even with measures like this in place, are we close to fixing the problem?

“There needs to be leadership in these areas,” O’Sullivan says. “There are no laws around being ‘on’. I don’t even know how we would react to that as a society. Right now the successful people are the people who sacrifice and then we compare to these people like it’s the norm. I’m a manager and I say, act like I act. I don’t call you after six o’clock. I schedule email delivery during work hours. I don’t want to pressure anyone. One of the positive things that came out of the research was [during lockdown] families were forced to do things together and it was recognized that we weren’t spending enough time together. So those things are a big part of what emerged from that shift.

Pandemic Spotlight

In my novel, I happen to question those things that have become so amplified in the pandemic spotlight. I wanted Breaking Point to look at how we live now. It’s a novel about burnout. It’s about how having everything is a damaging myth. It’s about how capitalism’s co-option of feminism has in many ways crippled women and men, families and individuals, and left us all with so little choice: how many parents can allow them to make the choice to stay at home and take care of their children if they want? How many individuals can expect to be able to afford to buy their own home on a single income?

The modern phenomenon of burnout has become a global problem, and is even more relevant in our post-pandemic world where people have had to endure intolerable stresses, juggling childcare and work, homeschooling and job loss, financial troubles, and relationship issues, all of which have caused them to reevaluate what’s important to them in their lives and how they want to live. Through the stories of my characters Susannah, doctor, and Adelaide, journalist, who have both suffered the worst possible consequences of living at such breakneck speed, I hope the novel will examine how our current lifestyle has brought us to a breaking point. . . and how we might take a step back from that.

Breaking Point by Edel Coffey is published by Sphere Books.

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