I gave my son the same math homework twice, started my daughter’s Zoom call late and forgot to pull chicken from the freezer. That was yesterday. Because it hasn’t felt holiday-like, I forgot to buy jelly beans. Between debates about ‘carrying the one’ with my oldest and playing musical-rooms for video calls, I’ve been working at half-speed. When I spoke with my attorney, a mother of 3, to apologize for ignoring her emails, I admitted to fighting mental fog. She agreed and said, “I feel like I did when my kids were babies!” Exactly.
The mental load for Moms, from the to-do list in our heads, isn’t new. It starts when our kids are in diapers but it’s increased with COVID19. Big time. We’re relearning how to work, live and parent all at once, which strains our cognitive capacity. When the routines dissolve, school’s at home and housework multiplies, what are our options? Although we have to approach it differently, we can lighten the mental load during this surreal time.
Why we Can’t Concentrate
In most families, Moms remember the haircuts, permission slips and camp deadlines. This invisible choreography is at the heart of overdo and never-done. We tend to forget our brains have limits and it helps to understand what they are. I spoke with Dr. April Seifert, Psychologist and Co-founder of Peak Mind and she explained, “Any time we’ve got way too much on our mind that we’re trying not to forget, we experience cognitive load. Said another way, if you’re mentally juggling too many balls at the same time, you’ll naturally experience forgetfulness, mental fog and other symptoms that are typically called ‘mom brain.’” We’re all drowning in new protocols that take more brain space.
How the Mental Load Works
April beautifully described how cognitive load works and why it damages clarity. She said, “In the experimental research I did during my graduate career, we had to be able to turn off people’s ability to reason and think deliberately. The way we turned off their higher-order cognition is to put them under something called ‘cognitive load.’ Cognitive load is when people are keeping too many things in mind at the same time, eating up their cognitive ability.” Although most Moms carry the mental load for the family, social distance has erased the fragile supports that helped control it.
Cultivate a Wellness Mindset
Mental load stress was already insane and here’s what you need to know as we navigate quarantine. The best way to reduce cognitive load, is to shorten the to-do list, so there’s less competing for our working memory. Of course, this is completely inconsistent with the 3 ‘P’s’ of Motherhood — Perfectionism, Pleasing and hyper-Productivity. So, it requires a mindset shift. Women are already more prone to anxiety, depression and other stress-related illness. If you’re overloaded, keep in mind that ultimately, anything that’s bad for you is bad for your family.
Use All the Tools to Reduce Mental Load
There isn’t one solution to reducing the mental load, it’s a combination of outsourcing, spouse sourcing and setting boundaries. Under normal circumstances, we can also gain efficiencies with productivity hacks like: creating habits, ruthless time blocking, to-do list mastery and time-batching (i.e. move activities that require focus, like creative work, to when your energy is highest.) During lockdown, not all of this is doable, so consider the following strategies.
Moms shared in a previous survey that carrying the mental load damages relationships with our partners, kids and careers. Right now, a lot of added strain is beyond our control, so reassess priorities to protect that mental energy.
- Eliminate anything non-essential from the to-do list for at least the next 6 weeks. Anything. Yes, that means let go of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘nice-to-haves’ if you haven’t already. Focus only on what absolutely has to be done. This might mean setting different personal boundaries at work, home and honoring only the values you hold most dear.
- Build new (temporary) structure. There are countless examples of leaders who wear the same outfit or eat the same meal to save mental space. Because habits and routines reduce cognitive work! As Dr. Nichole C. Brathwaite, Psychiatrist and Entrepreneur shared, they also support mental health during uncertain times. She said, “Set a time to wake up every morning and eat at scheduled times. I ask my patients, ‘did you brush your teeth today? Did you shower today? Are you still wearing the same clothes you were wearing 2 days ago?’” Build a shelter-in-place schedule that incorporates frequent breaks for you and your family.
- Include daily self-care (even if it’s less than what you’re used to.) Self-care has changed for everyone and the adjustments depend on the ages of your kids, what you enjoy and the resources you have at home. However, there is something you can do to protect your physical and mental health each day, even if it’s a short breathing exercise or socially-distant walk.
- Revisit household roles. In most families, Moms still do more housework and childcare than Dads, a source of tension for many couples. However, even when Dads are hands-on partners, Moms typically own the invisible planning. If you weren’t happy with the divide before COVID19, you’re likely more distraught than ever. Getting equal-partnership at home doesn’t usually happen fast but some Moms, pushed past their dish-and-laundry-limits, are renegotiating. Brigid Schulte, Author of Overwhelmed, How to Work Love and Play When No One Has the Time, writes, “The question of who does what and who should do what is probably coming up organically as the lines between work and life have blurred in such an unprecedented way.” Although constructive dialog won’t work for every quarantined couple, periods of change can help with resets and the Better Life Lab now posts weekly experiments to ease conversations about equity at home.
Be Patient With Yourself and Others
Let’s remember to draw upon our inner-reservoir of kindness, empathy and self-compassion. We’re experiencing this crisis in different ways. For those who have lost loved ones, it’s a time of unimaginable grief. For first responders, essential workers or those with family at risk, it’s a time of intense vulnerability. For those living in small space, working with family everywhere-you-turn can be difficult. If your kids are under the age of 10 the stressor are different than the families with teens missing proms, graduations and other rites of passage. Small business owners and people working in hard-hit industries may face financial devastation and millions have lost jobs.
We are, however, incredibly resilient and will continue to help each other through this pandemic.
Share your experiences of how life has changed during social distance, it’s quick and the results from this study will be used to advocate better support for parents.
Employers, let us help you transform your workplace into an environment where caregivers thrive. Learn about Allies @ Work.
Many thanks the talented doctors, Nicole C. Brathwaite and April Seifert, for their expertise!
Dr. Nicole C. Brathwaite, MD is a Board Certified Adult and Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. She has significant clinical experience with adults, children, adolescents, transitional and college aged youth. After graduating from University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, she joined the Adult Psychiatry Residency Program and then completed fellowship in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship at Massachusetts General/Mclean Hospital. She is the former Medical Director at Riverside Community Care – a large community mental health clinic. She is the Co-Founder of SecureMeLink, a safety app to support the health and safety of clinicians and medical staff. You can follow her great adventures on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and her Website.
Dr. April Seifert is a Cognitive Psychologist, runs a data science consultancy and is the Co-Founder of Peak Mind, the Center for Psychological Strength. She also hosts the weekly Peak Mind podcast with stories focused on building the psychological skills that promote resiliency and well-being. Follow April’s latest adventures on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or sign up for regular updates from AprilSeifert.com.