Boost Happiness & Tame The Mental Load With Radical Self-Care

Boost Happiness & Tame The Mental Load With Radical Self-Care

#MomsWeighIn #MomsSelf-Care #DitchTheInvisibleWorkLoad #Part2MentalLoadSurveyResults

Whether it’s hunched over the smartphone to block playground sunshine, pushing a stroller with one hand and fielding texts with the other or frantically muting grocery store noise during conference calls, Moms are working feverishly to fit ‘everything’ in.

Despite the slickest list-making, to-do-tackling tech out there, the volume and breadth of responsibilities that fall to most Moms – from salary negotiations to scheduling play dates — spills onto the mental list…competing with every other thought in our working memory.

The mental energy required to plan and track the logistics of modern households, drives the ‘mental load’ a persistent source of overwhelm for 98% of surveyed Moms.¹

“I’m short and snippy with others. I’m broody and just unhappy. I’m pissed at my husband and everyone around me because it’s all my burden to deal with and everyone else seems perfectly oblivious…”

“….I get sick more often….immune system starts shutting down. (I’m) cranky, yell (and) sleep is messed up. This week I slept 5 hours a night, some nights even less…”

“Tired. Just moving from task to task with no break to do anything fun.”

Outsmart Or Escape The To-Do List?

Creating daily habits, as a strategy for happiness and personal change, has a strong following among self-help experts. When Moms were asked, ‘If you could do one thing each day to reduce stress you feel from the mental load, what would it be?’ the majority (68%) want a daily dose of self-care, enjoyed alone, to (temporarily) escape the mental load’s grasp.

“Somehow find an hour of quiet time for myself where I am fully off-duty.”

“Take an hour to care for myself. Yoga…or just sit in a cafe without having to think about anything related to work or household.”

“Sleep for 9 hours!”

“Exercise…it’s the only time I get to myself.”

“Nap after work before starting my second shift (at home).”

Some would carve out quality one-on-one time to connect with family.

“Spend quiet happy time with my husband.”

“Spend time at the playground with my daughter and her friends.”

“Have 30 minutes of low-demand play time with each child. Take a walk (by myself or with one child, not both).”

Dr. Michelle Hastings, a therapist who counsels Moms and working families, is conducting an upcoming workshop about ‘compassion fatigue’. Although her talk is tailored for healthcare professionals, she encourages (and practices) daily self-care to recharge from the emotional weight of caregiving.

When we spoke, she shared how even mental health professionals, who are supposed to have their ‘sh%t together’ fall into the same patterns of self-neglect. “….I had a back injury and it forced me to rethink things, especially my health. Sometimes a negative event helps press the reset button.”

She now walks every day, before her kids wake up and prioritizes physical activity. “I realized I needed it to stay healthy. I also get 20 -25 minutes thinking time without being needed…. It centers me for the day and I’ve noticed a big difference in my morning mood.”

Nearly one in five (22%) surveyed prefer to ‘outwit’ the list with a combination of allocating more hours, getting help by outsourcing/spouse-sourcing and finding better systems to manage tasks.

“Have open conversations with my husband about what I am stressed about. Get updates from him on anything he is managing or stressed about.”

“Have someone else care for my kids and house while I get ready for work in the mornings.”

“Take anti-anxiety meds (I currently do) and have a more reasonable load.”

“Tell my husband to get off his @ss.”

“…Plan out how to split daily tasks between us and our nanny.”

“(I’d) make sure the house was in order with my husband before going to bed. Outer order = inner calm.”

Top Daily Habits To Beat The Mental Load

The list of the most desired daily activities to reduce mental load stress are primarily enjoyed solo (68%) and the most popular self-care category is exercise.

  • Exercise (36% of responses)
  • Meditation, mindfulness, prayer or gratitude (11% of responses)
  • Time alone (10% of responses)
  • Outsource/spouse-source housework or childcare (9% of responses)
  • Better to-do list/organizing strategy (7% of responses)
  • More time to spend tackling to-do list (cleaning, etc.) (6% of responses)
  • More sleep (6% of responses)
  • Learning/reading (3% of responses)
  • Wake up earlier (2% of responses)
  • More play time/quality kid time (1% of responses)
  • Alcohol or medication (1% of responses)
  • Other (6% of responses)

For some women, the idea of having a choice to incorporate daily self-care was so foreign they didn’t write anything down, one Mom states, “Sad I know, but I can’t even think of anything.”

The Self-Care Paradox

“…I need better strategies to allow myself time for me. I have great strategies to reduce load (online shopping, cleaners, schedules) but there’s just too much.”

“(I need to) Plan ahead for the month and delegate non-essential and essential tasks to other caregivers, so I’m not the only one burdened by them.”

“…Enjoying a quiet half hour after everyone is asleep. No one asks anything of me so I stop asking things of myself for a little bit. Sometimes I even daydream.”

Moms crave self-care, yet don’t prioritize it. When discretionary time is limited and unpredictable, it weakens the framework needed for new habits. Despite Moms being co or primary breadwinners in nearly 2/3 of US families, the ownership of all-things-kids-and-household continues to revert to most Moms, prompting many to spend each spare moment trying to outrun the task list.

When consumed by unending responsibilities, for many taking self-care time feels unrealistic. When asked about what she’d want each day to reduce the mental load, one Mom said “I don’t even know.  There’s no time anyway. Maybe work on my scrapbook or meditate?”

This sentiment is common among Moms. In Tiffany Dufu’s book, ‘Drop the Ball’ she shares results from a 2012 survey, commissioned by Real Simple Magazine and designed by The Families and Work Institute, “…32% responded that they often felt if they did less around the house, it wouldn’t be done properly.  During their free time, the majority of these women reported doing tasks, laundry (79%), cleaning (75%), cooking (70%) and organizing or decluttering (62%) because they were stressed about everything they needed to get done.”

The same categories dominate where Moms reported prioritizing time on the Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs survey (October, 2016).


Moms inevitably put responsibilities to others first. Self-care and self-interests are up at the top, as in Maslow’s hierarchy, before reaching aspirational needs the ‘basic’ activities at the bottom require completion.

Seth Godin describes a maximized system, “Maximized means that more demands and more inputs lead to degradation, lower output and eventual system failure.” How right you are Seth. In most households, Moms remain the ‘maximized system’, as contributing significantly to household income while holding onto the majority of household responsibilities.

The High Price of Self-Neglect

Recently, I was introduced by a friend to an Emergency Room Physician, Dr. Mary K.  When I shared results from the mental load study, especially that over half (54%) experienced physical symptoms or a combination of physical, emotional and behavioral reactions from burnout, she was not surprised.   “When people come into the ER, I often ask ‘have you had any increased stress recently?’ Some are insulted, as if stress impacting physical health isn’t real.”

Let’s get clear, stress and its direct link to physical health is well documented. When surveyed Moms were asked to describe what reaching a point of burnout feels like, the descriptions of physical changes and pain were startling.

“My heart starts racing constantly, tightening in my chest. Blood pressure goes up.”

“I pull myself away from others and have limited patience. I get frequent headaches and my jaw hurts (I clench it and grind my teeth).”

“Trouble sleeping…tightness in my back.”

“My health takes a toll, I develop neck and back muscle tension and pain, I have trouble sleeping.”

Tiffany Dufu’s book Drop the Ball also cites several studies about the physical toll the dual responsibilities of work and household are taking on Moms, including this. “…Those who report work/family conflicts are more likely to suffer allergies, migraines, fatigue, mood disorders, anxiety, hypertension, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems.”

What Do The Experts Say?

Having daily and regular self-care routines is essential, especially when tied directly to physical health like exercise and sleep. Outsourcing, spouse-sourcing and just plain letting go of items on the list are also recommended as critical to getting out from under the mental (and physical) load of unrelenting household duties.

During my interview with Rachel Allender, licensed therapist working with couples and families, she said “Do you ever notice that dogs and cats rest a lot?  They power down.  What happens to people is, they power down with drinking, watching TV, etc. and it’s not the same as moving slowly.” Amen to that! The hustling begins to feel like a requirement to keep pace with modern life, especially if that includes work.

Dr. Mary K. also shared, “Most patients that wait for hours to be seen in the ER are angry and frustrated by the inconvenience. Not the Moms, they describe the time waiting as a ‘nice break’.” 

Find Your Happy Place

When given the choice of monthly activities to reduce mental load stress, the ideas and recommendations for self-care were rich and inclusive of everything from meditation to medication, regular exercise, date nights with partners, therapy, journaling, smarter to-do lists and more thoughtful out or spouse-sourcing.

“(I would) see a therapist.”

“…Exercise, have time to journal, get 8 hours of sleep, eat healthfully, talk to a friend.”

“Have a day off from work with each child, one-on-one, that’s when we have our quality time, not when I have both of them at once.”

“CrossFit…(a) chance to completely be in the present moment and wine-because wine is my passion and it’s something just for me that I can look forward to.”

“Talk to friends, meditate, think of what I’m grateful for. Make lists!”

“Writing things down and getting them out of my head. I started journaling, including writing things down after I’ve done them and immediately checking them off. (It) also helped me realize how much stuff I am responsible for!”

“Exercise! Usually short but high intensity workouts. Helps me feel so much better and helps me manage my time. I also smoke a lot of pot.”

“Purge things from our house and life that no longer serve us.”

“Celebrate successes.”

“Try to get more perspective on the stage of (my) life outside of the day to day grind.”

“Date night with my spouse.”

Although it’s real work to restructure and make the time, there is great news, Moms are waking up, speaking out and thriving all over the place!

After a long historical stretch where Moms dutifully stepped into the roles of primary caregiver and household chief, the steady rise of women’s economic contributions, expectations and the changing configuration of families, has surfaced flaws in the gendered norms many of us grew up with.

Happy, healthy habits — not occasionally but daily and routinely, make us strong for our families, ourselves and honor the extraordinary potential within us!


What do you think? I’d love your feedback.  If you’re not already on the list for future updates, typically every week-ish, please let me know.

¹Results from August 2017 MHN survey, ‘How the Mental Load Is Affecting Your Life’, 225 Moms responded.

Special thanks to the fabulous experts who were kind to grant interviews and answer many, many questions:

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.

Dr. Michelle Hastings, Directs the Counseling Center at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy.  She also counsels women and working families in her private psychotherapy practice, based in the St. Louis area.

Dr. Mary K. An Emergency Room Physician, who works for a hospital in the greater Boston area.




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