Months into the pandemic and things haven't become easier for parents or kids. News anchor and mom, HLN's Lynn Smith opens up about her own experience and offers ways to help.

Lynn Smith's son cries in the car.
Lynn Smith's son cries in the car.
| Credit: Courtesy of Lynn Smith

The other day my 4-and-a-half-year-old son softly said in the back seat, “Mom, Ryder is wearing makeup.” Yes, my almost 2-year-old somehow got into my purse, opened my lipstick, dug his fingers in, and smeared lipstick all over his car seat, body, and cute little overpriced jumper that I had never put him in before. “Of course, this would happen,” I thought to myself. If it’s not a toddler smeared in pink, then it’s a toddler screaming in the background of my Zoom interviews or a cable outage when I need cartoons to babysit while I get work done. It’s 2020 and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Many of us are working from home for the foreseeable future. Many of our children are learning virtually, again, after the mess that was last school year. And isn’t it so 2020 that there were massive Zoom outages on the first day of school in some parts of the country? We can’t even cry on the shoulder of our best friends because we have to social distance. Don’t even get me started on murder hornets. If real life was a script, no one would believe it. It’s no wonder, so many of us are suffering from what’s being called COVID-19 burnout.

Sheryl Ziegler, Psy.D., psychologist and author of Mommy Burnout, told me on CNN Headline News the definition of burnout is the chronic, physical, and emotional exhaustion resulting from feeling like you can no longer do your job. She's heard friends, neighbors, and clients say, “I just can’t do it anymore.” It’s something she’s also said herself. “We are in a universal experience, and actually a universal trauma,” says Dr. Ziegler.

Take Darcy Millard, a working mom of three who speaks to the millions of us who are depleted and feel we’ve “got nothing left” after each day of juggling the impossible. “It’s trying to be a good employee, trying to be a good mom, and trying to juggle everything else that goes along with keeping a home running,” says Millard. “I feel like I’m failing at being an employee, being a mom—it’s just burning the candle at both ends. It’s a lot.”

For all that seems to be dividing us in these times, being overwhelmed is one thing that connects us. And it’s dangerous. A recent survey found 53 percent of Americans say worry and stress in these unprecedented times has had a negative impact on their mental health. Many are not doing OK, but the good news is there are ways to alleviate some of the stress.

Lean into Your Circle

A good first step is asking for help from a friend or family member. “Research finds over and over that asking for help is something that actually does fill us up when we feel like we can help people. So, ask for it,” advises Dr. Ziegler.

Get on a Schedule

Next, make a schedule. “What we actually know in crisis and in life is that we thrive off of predictability. We thrive off of knowing what’s going to happen,” says Dr. Ziegler. That’s why it’s important to try and get up at the same time every day and make sure you’re doing things you’d normally do, including taking a shower, getting dressing, and eating breakfast. “Establish a sense of normalcy so that way there is a level of control. Right now, so much feels out of our control,” says Dr. Ziegler.

Focus on Whatever Self-Care Means to You

Then there’s the buzzword many used even before we had a global pandemic: self-care. I challenged Dr. Ziegler on this because in July 2020, 30 million Americans said they didn’t have enough food to eat. With so many suffering, who has the time or money to hit the spa or take a Momcation?

Nevertheless, Dr. Ziegler makes an important point: “We have to redefine self-care. When we are in a collective crisis the way we are right now, that can just mean, ‘I’m going to turn off my screen and go take a 20-minute walk.’” Even reading a book with your kids or taking a few minutes out of the day just to snuggle can refuel you. “Parents are feeling like they’re failing everywhere and if you have a moment, a genuine moment with your kid, where you felt like you looked in each other’s eyes, you smiled together—that can refuel you,” says Dr. Ziegler.

Make Sure to Disconnect

Finally, unplug. Make a conscious choice to unfollow negative friends and limit your exposure to negative news on Twitter and on TV. Dr. Ziegler says that can actually add to the traumatic experience we are all going through right now. Take a brain break even if your children’s schooling or your job requires hours of screen time.

Fast forward to when I pitched this important story of protecting our mental health during COVID to Julia Dennison, executive editor of I was pleasantly surprised to read her out-of-office reply on a Friday: “I’m stepping away from my computer on Friday to re-up on mom points and relieve the iPad of its parenting duties (or try).” Leave it to Julia to walk the walk and I have no doubt that she is encouraging the rest of her team to do the same.

Parents has always been a place to remind us all that there are ways to recharge and reset but we have to be in this together. Remind each other that it’s OK to shut down early at the end of a hairy week and work on the only thing that will matter post-pandemic: our loved ones and our own mental health.

I often post real and raw moments of my own on social media with the hashtags #justkeepswimmingjustkeepswimming or #itsfineeverythingisfine or #hotmessexpress because there’s no longer Instagram vs. real life. There’s no way to filter real life right now. This is hard and it’s perfectly fine to admit you’re not fine. As Dr. Ziegler says, ask for help and if you’re afraid to talk to those close to you, the Crisis Text Line can help. And if someone hasn’t told you lately, you’re doing an amazing job.

Lynn Smith is the host of HLN's On The Story, which airs 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. ET.