Our Invisible Burden: The Mental Load of Moms

The Mental Load of Mom
The Mental Load of Mom | Cedar Rapids Moms Blog

If your ‘mom brain’ could talk, would it sound a little like this?

…Let’s seeeeeee… soccer practice is at 4:30, so we need to be rolling by 4:10 or else we’ll be late. I’ll bring my laptop along so I can finish that report for work while I’m waiting in the car. Oh, and I need to wash uniforms so they’re clean for tomorrow’s game. Wait–did I include laundry detergent on my Target curbside pickup for later? What are we bringing for birthday snacks at school on Friday? How many students are in his class again? I think the kids are due for dentist appointments next month; I need to set a reminder to schedule those. Is that issue with our dental insurance resolved yet? Did I sign up for a volunteer shift this weekend? Where did I put my phone?…..

Our mom brains are tired, and for good reason, ladies. These examples and thousands more are part of a phenomenon called mental load. Even if you aren’t already familiar with the label, I’m guessing that the heavy feeling of an overloaded mind constantly churning with the lists, schedules, needs, and general well-being of your loved ones isn’t new to you.

I mean, you’re a mom after all. That’s just what we do… right?

As its name indicates, mental load is not tangible, but instead takes place exclusively in our thoughts. For example, it’s not the physical acts of shuttling kids to activities four nights a week, cleaning the house, or doing the laundry that are the problem; it’s the thankless, energy-sapping mental process of ensuring that these tasks and chores are managed, delegated, and accomplished on a regular basis.

Motherly tendencies for bearing this invisible burden stems from our society’s assumed gender roles and expectations. It’s not surprising that mental health experts suggest that today’s faster-paced, ‘always on,’ social media-fueled existence is only intensifying the problem for moms.

But meanwhile, to our partners, mental load is very often a completely foreign concept.

Think about your own partner. If you asked them right now about mental load, would they even know what you’re talking about? (Mine didn’t either the first time I brought it up with him.) It’s hard to work on a solution together if one-half of the people in the relationship don’t even know a problem exists.

“There’s a lot of anxiety wrapped up in motherhood, and the topic of mental load and mental labor is rooted very deeply for so many women,” says Melany Forbes, a marriage and family therapist at Cedar Rapids Counseling Center. She sees clients every day who struggle with this and other anxiety-related topics.

So… what can we do about it? How can our reeling mom brains somehow find a balance in bearing the mental load of our households? It’s a sprawling topic, but Forbes distills it down to three key takeaways.

1. Choose what’s important to you.

Forbes brought up the well-known analogy of filling an empty jar with rocks, pebbles, and sand. The big rocks represent the things that are most important to us– perhaps family time, a career, faith, or the values by which we live our lives. The pebbles represent parts of our lives that also matter but to a lesser degree, such as activities that fill our schedules. Finally, the sand represents the minutiae in our lives, the inconsequential details that just don’t matter that much in the big picture of life.

“If we put the sand in the jar first, we’ll quickly run out of room for the things deemed more important. But if we prioritize filling the jar with the biggest rocks first – the things that matter most – they create a foundation on which everything else rests,” Forbes says. Applying this analogy to your own life is one approach to assessing what really matters to you, helping you prioritize where your mental energy is directed in the first place. “It’s possible,” Forbes says, “that all the things you’re carrying around aren’t really necessary, or aren’t necessary right now.”

2. Learn to identify what you need help with, then ask for – and accept – the help.

Forbes suggests that a ‘brain dump’ of all the things that are weighing on your mind will help you visualize specific areas where you need help from a partner. Then, she says, “Ask for their help, and accept it without critiquing how they go about getting the job done.” Forbes notes that it’s common for moms to fall into the trap of feeling that they’re the only ones who can complete a chore or task The Right Way, a classic control issue.

For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with all the meal prep for your family and the messy kitchen and pile of dirty dishes that inevitably result from it, ask your partner to take over this chore on a certain night (or nights) of the week. Then step back and let them do it, right down to the weird way they load the dishwasher afterward. Focus on the end results: your family is fed, you didn’t have to prepare it, and if the dishes end up clean, does it really matter how they’re loaded in the dishwasher? Your job is to relinquish the need for control over the task you’ve already delegated. Start small and build trust.

3. You cannot change your partner, but you can change yourself.

“Your partner may never understand why you think it’s your job to carry all the mental load, that a mental load even exists, or that they should participate in any way to help you,” Forbes says. No amount of sharing, crying, begging, or nagging will help them understand. But you can change YOU, including identifying the things that get your energy first.

Forbes suggests changing your systems or routines to make things easier. For example, schedule the next dentist appointment before leaving the current visit, so then it’s done. Set up reminders on your calendar app alerting you of not just the daily stuff, but also more significant dates, freeing your mind from carrying those burdens every day. You can also change whom you ask for support. If your partner can’t or won’t be helpful to you, perhaps you have a good friend or a circle of other moms who can. “In the end, you get to change the underlying anxiety, control, perfectionism, or fear that may be impacting the intensity to which you feel the mental burden.”

So what’s your experience with mental load?

Do you have a partner who recognizes it? Have you taken steps to find a balance that feels fair to both of you? Share this post with another mama who needs a reminder that even if her brain feels overloaded right now, she’s still doing an amazing job.

I mean, she’s a mom after all. And that’s just what we do.

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