Postcards From The Isle of Overwhelm
98% of the Moms surveyed* feel stress from carrying the mental load, the always-on invisible to-do list, that results from overseeing ‘everything household and kids.’
When asked ‘how do you know you’ve reached a point of burnout?’ the effects are felt everywhere – from a perpetually bad mood, impatience with children and loved ones, to hives and headaches.
- 22% can tell by their change in mood
- 21% of Moms notice changes in behavior
- 7% experience physical changes as a result of mental load stress
- And half (50%) experience some combination of all three.
“I leave my phone in the fridge. I know I ate lunch- but I forgot what I ate. Wait…did I really eat lunch? I find myself more short-tempered…yelling and frustrated. I’m typically very objective and non-emotional. Essentially, I’m pulled away from the core of who I am.”
“…I have bouts of anxiety that there is not enough time in the day and I will never ever be ‘done’ with my list…the feeling of not being able to catch up ruins my free time, i.e. when my kids want me to play with them, all I think about is how I could/should be mopping, or doing the laundry.”
“(I’m) angry all the time. Usually night becomes all about personal time at the loss of sleep to do it, which turns into a vicious cycle that fuels the anger because I’m not rested. But I never feel like I have a moment ‘off’, so continue to stay up late for ‘me time’.”
Moms are suffering under the weight of the mental load and although overwhelmingly, respondents work either full (70%) or part (19%) time, nearly all feel stressed by the number of responsibilities (37%,) the stressful nature of the responsibilities (4%) or both (59%.)
Is Burnout From The Mental Load Different From Work Burnout?
Yes. Rachel Allender, a licensed therapist who works with couples and parents said, “You can change your job or career. But you can’t divorce your kids. And even if you don’t like your partner as much as you once did, you may not want to leave your partner.” She explained why this particular source of stress feels so inescapable.
Motherhood starts off for many women in a similar way. You learn you’re expecting and then, once those incredible feelings are processed, it’s all about the shift into planning mode. Planning for a healthy pregnancy and rethinking everything you consume. Planning to create space for a nursery, tell your friends, tell your boss, breastfeed or use formula… it’s such a long list to accomplish in the nine-ish months, that little thought is given to your post-baby household and new, long-term responsibilities.
No one tells you that whatever rituals you relied on for self-care and managing stress pre-kids would disappear, almost overnight.
Perhaps Moms learn to take on ‘all things household’ having watched our mothers or grandmothers live it and escape, seemingly unharmed. Most women seamlessly transition into this role – without questioning it — at least not until you feel crushed by a cycle that begins to feel impossible.
During a recent interview with trained psychologist and healthcare researcher, Dr. April Seifert, she said ‘…We ask women to do the impossible and then are surprised when they break.” Exactly!
Mom = Air Traffic Control & What’s Driving The Mental Load
Rachel agreed. “Moms typically take on all of the mental responsibility.” Some spouses and partners have that responsibility fully or share it equally. However, more often than not – even if Mom’s job is complex, she’s still ‘air traffic control’ for the household and family.”
Top 6 Drivers Behind The Mental Load*
- Household responsibilities (for 86% of responses)
- Career or volunteer roles (72% of responses)
- Family appointments (61% of responses)
- Children’s activities (59% of responses)
- Relationship dynamics with spouse or partner (48% of responses)
- Relationship dynamics with friends or other family members (36% of responses)
- 12% cited other significant drivers of the mental load: financial challenges; care of aging parents or special needs children; shouldering the full burden as a single Mom.
The invisible workload is putting tremendous strain on Moms, their families and relationships.
What To Do About The (Draining) Mental Load?
Meaningful change to the mental load comes down to shortening the list of to-dos, by a combination of outsourcing, spouse-sourcing or eliminating items altogether.
Outsourcing, is appealing for many tasks and is increasingly popular. An abundance of digital resources make finding babysitters, housecleaners, personal assistants, grocery shoppers or errand runners for the tech savvy Mom, easier than ever. However, outsourcing can become prohibitively expensive for many families – especially if you’re getting help for EVERYTHING you really need help for. Childcare, for working families, barely covers the workday hours and it’s already the largest single household expense for working US families (The 2017 Care.com Cost of Care survey found 1 in 3 working families spend at least 20% of their household income on childcare).
Spouse-sourcing, becomes emotionally expensive for many couples. Sharing the mental load goes beyond delegation. “Delegation doesn’t work,” acknowledged Rachel who often counsels couples, “Mom is still the Giant Brain.” The ongoing negotiation for partner involvement in household tasks can carve such damage in mutual trust and rapport, that it becomes the ‘simmering topic’ no one dares to revisit.
This, however, is gradually changing and in some families the ‘holy grail’ of equality has already been achieved. One Mom shared, “…my husband contributes 50% so this (stress from the mental load) isn’t really an issue for me.”
During my conversation with Rachel, she described this issue as being a hot topic for many couples she counsels. “The personal issues, many people can work through. The partner stuff is where most seek out or need external (professional) support.” As an unbiased party, she takes people through a series of exercises to help uncover the big points of difference leading to tension.
Partnered Moms were candid; when mental load inequity exists (as was the case for most surveyed) the lack of shared experience at home fuels disappointment, discord and disengagement.
“ I get very impatient and bitter toward my husband for not helping to carry the load more, and it comes out in how I speak to him.”
“I get cranky and stop playing nice with my husband.”
“…Starting to feel resentment towards my partner for not sensing my stress and asking how he can help.”
When Fun Is Not Fun
What about techniques to relieve stress in general? Don’t they help with the mental load? Rachel stated, “Exercise, meditation, walking, petting your dog… those things that everyone tells you to do are all fine. However, what’s most effective is figuring out your ‘North star’ and making choices about priorities.” I sighed, knowing that this is challenging, not just for me but also the many Moms who shared their stories.
It means compromise, not with someone else, but with yourself. It’s confronting the vision you held for your brilliant-Motherhood-without-limits pre-kids, versus the reality that unfolds quietly each day. Reconciliation of these views can be painful and many Moms in the survey expressed feeling disillusioned.
Rachel shared a personal story that resonated, “A friend once told me, ‘you know not everyone decides to spend 4 weeks designing a 3D pirate ship birthday cake with a Jello ocean. Some people just go to the store and buy a cake.’ One year, I finally went and bought a cake. My kid was just as happy and had a less stressed out Mom.” Rachel couldn’t see me during our call but I nodded my head vigorously, as someone who has cursed herself (repeatedly) while trying to build Star Wars figures out of marzipan in the wee hours of my son’s birthday.
Rachel said, “We made Gingerbread houses over the holidays for many years until it wasn’t fun anymore. Guarding it when my child was young felt important, however, I had to let it go when it became too much. We moved to making chocolate truffles – still a project, I wanted to have a special activity that we did together. But it requires less architectural work, less baking and is much easier.” Bravo!
When I asked Rachel, ‘What about loss of self? Moms already have to reinvent themselves, when does giving up activities that you love become too much?’ She said, “Is it for you or for your kid? You have to ask yourself that question and dig underneath the activity to reach the ‘why’ it’s important. The Gingerbread houses were for me.” And she realized she had to make a change, a happy one it turns out.
Good Versus Bad Stress & the Plague of Overscheduling
I asked Rachel, but what about stress that comes from being busy with the things you like? Good stress, referred to as ‘Eustress’ (pronounced You Stress) is defined by Miriam Webster as “a positive form of stress having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance and emotional well-being.”
Rachel said, “…If you wake up on a Saturday and have to be in two different places for kids activities and have a board project that’s on a deadline, your body reacts to that. Even stress caused by commitments you enjoy raises adrenaline and cortisol in your body.” She went onto explain, “Stress is stress. It’s a reaction in the adrenal system. The body reacts to everything like it’s an emergency and can no longer discern what’s desirable or undesirable.” She added, “Stress associated with fear or danger is different in some ways, but even the stress of running around from activity to activity is revving up your body.” There’s a negative impact when you can never power down.
Not surprisingly, scheduling children’s and family activities are third and fourth place for top contributors to the mental load.
A fellow soccer Mom and new friend, shared a TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal, ‘How To Make Stress Your Friend’ and it’s a fascinating presentation about her research into how health outcomes differ based on how stress is perceived. Her study uncovered important differences in how people physically responded to stress they either believe is beneficial or stress that prompts people to seek social support and connection with others. It’s definitely worth a listen.
When To Seek Help?
“When you’re more uncomfortable than comfortable. When that ratio changes.” Rachel said. She also shared that the amount of stress people can deal with is very personal. “…there are people who have chosen stressful careers, such as ER nurses, doctors or firefighters….that (work) wouldn’t be tenable for everyone.”
Every Mom I discuss this topic with, has faced some periods of despair, particularly when their children are young. In the survey, Moms were candid about how dealing with the mental load once they’ve reached a point of burnout, is causing serious depression, physical stress or prompting a shut down to all unnecessary stimuli.
“My mental self-talk becomes ‘I wish I were dead’ or I can’t take this any more.”
“…Closing myself off, inability to focus, frustration, feeling of desolation.”
“…I become very short-tempered and can’t enjoy myself even when doing fun activities.”
“…I get irritable or completely fall apart and need to take sedatives and sleep it off.”
“…lots of dread and doom, anxiety, crying, hopelessness.”
“…(I can tell by) how physically drained I feel and (when I) start to feel lifeless and depressed and hopeless..(that) I will never keep up and I am failing in all aspects of life.”
“I get physically sick, irritable with my family, and depressed. I start to feel trapped and anxious.”
The Path Forward & A Return To Self-Care
Unfortunately, regular self-care is still not the norm for Moms. Although I’ve made (many) intentional changes, including better ways to handle stress and manage my time, adding self-care more often has been part of a long process.
However, I no longer assume that ‘every moment I’m awake and not working’ should be devoted to tackling the to-do list. I’ve retained daily exercise and now carve out small, but focused, habits for self-care and personal growth.
While figuring out how to make each week and month better, I’m committed to raising my son to be a full partner in his future household. By shining a bright light on this conversation now, I hope that by the time my toddler daughter is an adult it’s different. If she chooses the path of motherhood, I don’t want her struggling in the ways I am… cleaning, scheduling and housework consuming her mental cycles and limited discretionary time; stressed out and pressed to meet every deadline late at night while her children sleep.
This deeply rooted double-standard is extracting precious energy from Moms and by extension, limiting our collective potential.
Enjoyed reading about the Mental Load study results? Then please join the mailing list for updates & to share your voice in future research studies!
Many thanks to the amazing Rachel Allender for her sage guidance & expertise!
Rachel Allender, is a licensed clinical social worker and a trained Gestalt therapist with a private psychotherapy practice in the Philadelphia area. She is also certified by ThirdPath Institute, as a work/life integration and work/family balance coach.
*Responses from 223 Surveyed Moms, ‘Weigh In On the Mental Load’ Moms Hierarchy of Needs, August 2017.