Several years back as I was exasperatedly packing the family for a trip, my partner casually said to me that he didn’t understand why I got so stressed right before we left town. All I needed to do was throw some clothes in a bag and get to the airport, right? I mean, that’s how he prepped for the vacay. I was cramping his vacation vibe. Let’s unpack that a little, shall we? Yes, all he needed to do for the trip was ‘throw some clothes in a bag’. But all the other stuff? You know - making sure the rental car could accommodate a carseat, having the hotel put a crib in the room, arranging for someone to mow the lawn while we’re gone, finding a place to board the dog, cramming my carryon with enough in-flight entertainment and snacks to keep an 18-month-old from completely losing it on a plane? Yeah, all that stuff fell to me. And it was kinda cramping my vacation vibe. Now, I firmly believe that if I had thrown my partner through the window right then and there and later explained the precipitating comment to a jury of my peers (ahem, other moms out there who have become the default parent when it comes to vacation prep for the family), I’m pretty sure I would have been acquitted.
What I’m talking about here with all that extra “stuff” is mental load. And generally speaking, it affects moms way more than dads. Mental load is all the invisible labor or cognitive work that goes into managing a household and family. It’s all the reminding, cleaning, organizing, planning, shopping, maintaining, budgeting, preventing, fixing, refilling, scheduling, and so many other “-ings” behind the scenes that keep a household and family clicking along. (Kinda makes your head spin, right?) And while many of these jobs are smallish, when compiled, the weight can be crushing. And it’s not just the doing of this often invisible work that’s troublesome, it’s the emotional burden of carrying it in your mind at all times that can be really detrimental. Bearing the mental load of your household and family creeps into other aspects of your life like work outside the home as well as mental and physical health. So if you’re feeling completely exhausted, having a hard time sleeping, feel anxious, struggle to remember things, have headaches, or just have a general sense that you’re constantly spinning plates with the same crazy intensity of someone trying to get on one of those American’s ridiculous talent shows, then maybe you need to assess the burden of your own mental load and take some steps to lighten it. Here are a few suggestions to try:
Take a few things off your to-do list
We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get everything done in a certain timeframe and to get it all done just right. But you know what? I have gone to bed with a sink-full of dirty dinner dishes (to use my husband’s favorite line, “they were soaking, alright?”), and nothing tremendously bad happened. Sure, I had to wash a pan right before I scrambled some eggs for my kids’ breakfast the next morning, but it was fine. And yes, some things like scheduling the car for a tire rotation or changing the air filter on the furnace do need to happen within a certain timeframe, but a little fudging of time isn’t the end of the world…at least I think so. I’m not a mechanic or HVAC technician but nothing’s exploded thus far.
Remember how we wrote about how kids can and should be doing chores? Well, chop chop! Get ‘em to work. Also pull your partner in more. This is one of those tricky spots with mental load because often our partners will say, “You should have asked me to help!” Welp, what makes the metal load full of invisible cognitive labor is that your partner didn’t notice it needed doing in the first place. Hopefully, by delegating more and helping others in your household see what needs to be done, the behind the scenes invisible labor will become more visible. Also, if you have the resources, maybe hiring out some help - a meal prep kit, a housecleaner, a dog walker, etc - is a good investment.
Say ‘no’ more often
Every kid activity, social event, volunteer obligation, project, and everything else comes with its own baggage that attributes to mental load. These are often all fun things and connect us more to our friends, family, and community so don’t cut them all out. But know that every birthday party means shopping for and wrapping a gift. T-ball for the kiddos means remembering the deadline to enroll, driving to all the practices and games, organizing a team snack schedule, and getting the right equipment. (Maybe on this last one. I mean, I get that a baseball glove is part of the whole costume for a ball player, but does a five-year-old really need baseball pants and cleats??? There’s a lot more playing in the dirt than actual sports going on at this age…) Point is, just know what you’re signing up for and don’t be afraid to treat your own and your family’s time and schedule with respect. Be a bouncer at the door for your schedule and for something to make it inside, it’s got to be on the list and bring its A-game.
Make a list
Granted, this is pretty much my advice to everyone regarding everything, but something about distilling a day or a week into what needs to be accomplished really helps weed out the junk and keeps you on track. It also provides concrete items that you can point at and say, “I need you to do this” when it’s time to delegate to someone else (with a smile, of course).
Carve out time for yourself
Sometimes when we take things off the list, we eliminate things for ourselves - like exercising, going for a fresh air walk, or having coffee with a friend. I fully admit to this pitfall, but then I get caught up in a motherhood martyrdom mentality in which I get spiteful toward everyone else in the house because I feel like I’m doing all the work while they all get to have fun. It’s not a good look (and not entirely true). Self-care is important to help avoid this. Make sure you are taking some time for yourself to keep up your own mental and physical health. If those aspects of your life dip, it’s hard to keep the rest afloat.
Communicate your stress
Sometimes there’s a gap in understanding. For example, my partner felt like soccer was on his plate for our kindergartner because he took him to his Saturday morning games. But I was the one who researched the program, enrolled him before the deadline, requested he be on the team with his classmates, took him shopping for soccer cleats and shinguards (and then exchanged them for a different size the following week - palm to forehead), put all the practices and games on the family calendar, signed up for our post game snack duty (and bought the snack - nut allergies!), and drove him to and from practice during the week while making sure that he had dinner early on those nights. Now, my husband’s not a jerk. And he’s our family’s primary breadwinner and works really hard outside the home which makes it more logical that I would take on more of the household and childcare duties. But the inequitable distribution of household labor and cognitive responsibilities gets frustrating at times when he doesn’t seem to see what I do. Having a really honest conversation (and probably having it more than once) about what mental load entails and feels like is a good start to bridging that gap in understanding and working towards more equitable load bearing. And solo parents feel the burden even more because managing the household and family falls entirely on their shoulders. Surrounding yourself with a supportive group of friends and family that you can lean on, empathize with, strategize alongside, or even just vent frustrations with can be a major help.
As with nearly all aspects of parenthood, lessening the mental load is an easier said than done and do as I say not as I do type of thing. But the emotional burden and potential detriments of feeling its weight warrant a close look. So maybe think about how all that invisible work and cognitive labor impact your own life and try a few steps to lessen the burden. It won’t happen overnight, but even incremental changes can make a big difference.