If you talk to another mother about what you do in a day, chances are she understands exactly how much work goes into keeping your household going. From the outside, people can see the actions involved in everything you do: school pick up and drop off, laundry, dishes, cooking, Halloween costume shopping, and on and on. But there is a job that encompasses and facilitates all those actions. It’s often not even spoken about or labeled, but there is a term for it: the mental load. This “task” often falls to mothers, and it is exhausting.
What is a mental load?
A mental load is a list you keep in your head about everything that has to happen so that everyone is cared for. The mental load is not just “what is in front of me?” but also, “what is coming?” Schoolwork, field trips, appointments, play dates, early release days, purple shirt day… You name it, a mom is probably keeping track of it. Is there enough laundry detergent? When is Sally’s BFF’s birthday party; what might she want for a present? The mental load is not only having to do the thing but being the one who knows the thing has to be done in the first place.
Mothers with heavy mental loads often find it difficult to ask for/receive help. The irony is that asking for help with the mental load still requires work. How do we even begin learning how to delegate? How many times have we heard, “I would have done it if you’d asked me!”, either from a partner or as an anecdotal story from another mom? Dad might have a mental list of projects, usually repairs or improvements around the house. So how does a mom’s mental load typically differ? Mom’s list is full of daily and compounding tasks and usually longer. Most of her list is time-sensitive and can impact other items on the list. The list can become so intertwined that the idea of letting go of one thing feels like letting go of seven!
3 Reasons why mom’s mental load becomes too much:
1. You don’t ask for or feel comfortable receiving help:
Maybe you were taught by your mom who was taught by her mother that women have to do it all! Maybe all the curated images on Instagram or Pinterest make you feel pressured to make a dozen cookies for your kid’s class every Friday. Your difficulty to ask for and receive help may be caused by a handful of things; nonetheless, it is a problem.
You may feel, for whatever reason, like you’re meant to “do it all,” but that isn’t possible. Until you are able to accept that everyone needs help, and furthermore, should be able to expect it, you will struggle under the weight of trying to do everything on your own.
2. You feel responsible for everything and everyone:
Yes, if you have an infant, it is fair to argue that the mom (often) is going to be the primary caregiver the infant needs, especially if you are breastfeeding.
However, throughout motherhood, moms may have unhealthy metrics around responsibility. This is not to say, “well, just chill,” or, “just take it easy.” I know that motherhood isn’t an easy job, and you’ve probably heard that advice– “let things go”– a million times. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take responsibility for anything.
What I am asking you to consider is a belief you have that exacerbates your emotions: the belief that everything ultimately comes down to you. If you are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, let’s unpack your underlying thoughts and look at the expectations you have of yourself vs. what you expect of others. When we get to explore your belief system, we most likely will find a responsibility pie that is quite off-balance. Meaning, the things you might expect from your partner vs. from yourself most likely aren’t 50-50.
3. You are running out of coping skills:
How do you take care of your feelings? What are your go-to coping skills when you are angry, impatient, or at a loss? Do you journal, meditate, or go for a walk? I know you are probably saying, “Who has time for that?” and we will talk about how to make time for it shortly when we discuss tools. But I need you to take a good look at how you are treating your emotional and mental health.
Every house has a medicine cabinet, whether you prescribe to Eastern or Western medicine; because we intuitively know if something is off with our physical health, we need remedies at home. However, the same is often not true for our mental health. If you were feeling sad or anxious, where is your toolbox of coping skills to help you regulate your emotions? Why don’t you think you need one or should make time to use one? I know that you would probably say that you don’t have time to get sick, either. But nonetheless, the body sometimes needs to rest and fight an illness. The same is true for your mental health when you are overwhelmed, anxious, angry, sad, frustrated, and so on.
Even if you cannot begin to imagine how you would go about reducing your mental load, it is important to consider doing so. Most likely, you feel the stress and burnout of juggling too many things, but worry that if you let one ball drop, they’ll all come crashing down. The mental load involves being in a rhythm; often, you are moving at a breakneck pace that seems impossible to slow down or stop. The key is to consider the benefit(s) of reducing your mental load to yourself and your family. You deserve space and time to yourself. Your partner deserves the opportunity to participate in the goings-on of her/their/his family. Your kids deserve playtime and rest time with both parents and to see an equitable division of tasks modeled by their parents. There are ways to make a change when the mental load of motherhood becomes too much.
5 Ways to Reduce the Mental Load
Asking for help is a sign of strength, not a weakness. It takes strength to be honest and to be vulnerable. It takes strength to collaborate and organize. One might argue that part of the burden of the mental load is that there is a need to delegate, and that is true. But if you delegate correctly, you no longer have a weekly chore to remind the other person of, but instead, you have a space on your to-do list. Part of the task of delegating is having an open and respectful conversation with your partner about the way you are feeling and what you need help with. This allows for communication, teamwork, and strengthening trust, as opposed to allowing resentment to grow. Hopefully, you have a partner who is more than willing to do the work to understand all the planning and foresight that you’ve been doing and is eager to jump in and help.
2. Set boundaries:
Most often moms I work with in therapy express massive amounts of guilt when talking about saying no. They feel an immense sense of fear that they are letting others down or disappointing others. They view saying “no” as a failure but saying no is actually an act of self-advocacy.
One of the most effective ways I have been able to guide them through their guilt so they can set their boundaries unapologetically has been the following revised and updated belief system:
when you are saying no to something, you are saying yes to something else. So the next time you say no to something, remember what that allows you to say yes to. For example, if you say no to cooking a home meal dish tonight, you are saying yes to extra playtime with the kids or extra time to rest. If you are saying no to your friend for dinner, you are saying yes to going to bed early, which is important for your overall mental health. Saying no to something tends to create a fear of missing out or a sense that we are depriving ourselves from something good, like that dinner with a friend. Once you say no, turn your attention to what you are saying yes to; that way you can pay attention to what you are gaining.
3. Make time for yourself:
By the time you are finished running your household, there is likely little to no time left over for you to provide yourself with care. This is absolutely no way to live. When you feel like you don’t have a minute to spare, that very quickly becomes your reality. However, if you take some time to evaluate your tasks and prioritize them, you should be able to see where you can make space for your self-care.
Depending on how eager you are to offload some of your responsibilities, you may give your partner several small tasks or one giant task. You may also find that your partner is more than happy to do some of the things you were doing, and dividing things up goes smoothly. Commit to yourself and the time it takes for you to meet your own needs. This also means that you commit to not picking up the pieces if your partner doesn’t take up where you left off, and/or doesn’t do things the way you would have done them. Human beings need –at the very least– food, water, shelter, sleep, movement, intellectual stimulation, and emotional support. Do not feel guilty for seeking those things.
4. Create a better system at home:
When you keep the to-do list in your head, two things happen: your family has no idea how hard you are working, and they have no idea how to jump in. Creating a visual representation of what needs to be done can be incredibly helpful. For children who are old enough, you can utilize reward charts to get them more involved; they can be rewarded for everyday tasks like making beds, making sure laundry is in the hamper, etc. You might also create a system that rewards them for looking ahead and keeping on top of school functions and projects; the bake sale in two weeks, the field trip next month, that term report that is due for Science. Posting grocery lists and monthly calendars where everyone can access them is also a helpful tool. This way, everyone knows what there is to be done. It is everyone’s responsibility to update the calendar and the grocery list and to check to see how they can pitch in.
5. Practice self-compassion:
Life is hard and we are all doing the best we can. Don’t beat yourself up if you forgot that it was picture day at school and you happened to send your kids with stained Adidas shoes (true story of the time I sent my three-year-old with a not-the-most-stylish outfit for picture day). Talk to yourself kindly about your expectations, and where you got them from. You might find that you struggle to let go of the idea of everything, or even that you are hard on yourself for letting the mental load bury you for so long. You cannot change the past; you deserve to feel secure and peaceful in the present. If you struggle with perfectionism, you may want to seek services like our counseling here in Woodland Hills, where you can develop and practice ways to let go of those expectations and be more gentle with yourself.
Of course, as with everything, lightening the mental load will be more difficult if you are a single parent. You may have shared custody with your children, but no shared space to post a list or calendar in. Or you may be raising your child(ren) without the other parent’s support. It goes without saying that single-parenting is an exceptional challenge. You may need to seek the support of other single parents, friends, and family; that’s okay! Maybe you feel worried about asking for help, but chances are good that someone in your circle is more than happy to help out in some way. Your friend who loves to paint might be thrilled to help your kid with art projects. Your cousin who works from home might relish doing school pickups sometimes, as an excuse to get out of the house and see another human being. You never know where the support of your community lies until you put out a call. Regardless of your situation, you deserve to receive support from the people around you. It really does take a village to raise a child; don’t try to be an entire village, it is more than enough that you are a mother.
Other Services at Embracing You Therapy
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.