Doesn’t every mother feel it – that mental fatigue from keeping the entire family’s calendar of to-dos and places-to-be in their heads? “Mother’s mental load” is a real thing, and if you haven’t reached that level of mental exhaustion yet, we salute you! Of course, we’re not just talking mothers, but anyone who finds themselves in the role of marshalling children through the challenges of daily life while balancing work, home and other duties.
As the story goes….
It was a hot day in the summer of December 2018 when we’d found a brief moment to sit together for a farewell coffee before my Editor headed off for a year-long, overseas adventure with home-school ‘tween in tow, when the request: “can you please write an article on the mental load of mothers” was first made. In recollection, I could swear I heard something in my brain snap and likely I responded with a slightly too high-pitched laugh.
At that time my first kid was about to start Prep, and in preparation I’d spent 18-months researching school commencement, which school he’d attend inclusive of feeder school criteria for his future high school, and of course, monitored his socioemotional and academic readiness. No less, I’d researched lunch box types more than the family home we’d bought. And of course, I’d done this in addition to my side hustle, which featured: paid employment, raising another kid, navigating a separation, forming a new relationship, managing new pets, buying a house, moving house, career progression, small business management, attempting to be a good friend and family member, attempting to lose my baby weight (my ‘baby’ is 5-years old), supporting my spouse, running a household, and clearly – because I felt I needed something else – developing an urban farm? (don’t ask).
Imagine the surprise (and the frustrations of said Editor), 18-months, one resignation, a Kindy change, a Prep graduation, a small business launch, five million extracurricular runs, a stint of home schooling, endless dress-ups, birthday parties hosted, cake maker extraordinaire attempts, generally keeping everyone alive, and a first wave and a second wave pandemic, isolating, not isolating, supporting retired neighbours, teaching my kids (#neveragain) and a garden – I’m struggling to write an article on the mental load of mothers!!! (**Read in a pitch so high that only your neglected dog can hear).
Mic-drop equivalent: Pens down. If that doesn’t write the article by itself, I don’t know what can?
I don’t even need the consensus validation to know that all I’ve done so far is describe your life. Maybe the demands are different, but right now, the one thing I’m confident of is: the mental loads of mothers have never been greater.
Recipe for an increasing mental load
We don’t need proof, but for funsake’ let’s look at some of the data:
- Over the past 4-years the percentage of mothers entering the workforce has increased from 46.1% to 53.4%
- The number of mothers that are employers or self-employed during that time has also doubled 
- More families now include two parents working full time 
- Despite this … (any surprises?), full-time employed mums appear to continue to manage most of the household and child raising
I could go on, but we all get the point.
How has COVID-19 impacted mother’s mental load?
In sum: overwhelmingly.
Whether you isolated, self-isolated, essential worked, home schooled, focussed on survival – the impact of a pandemic escalated mothers’ toppling mental load to a critical allostatic load. Allostatic load refers to the physiological burnout when the demands on our internal resources (such as decision making, responsibility, caregiving, energy, sleep, etc.,) exceed our physical capacity , with obvious increasing stressors and impacts on mental health needs of all mums (trying to achieve pregnancy, pregnant mums, birthing mums, new mums, single mums, FIFO mums, mums of one, mums of many, all of the mums!).
What can be done to ease mental load
So it is important to real talk about how we can manage this.
1. Realistic expectations
Importantly, it is just not possible to do everything, to perfectionist levels, all of the time. This unrealistic self-expectation often forms the background of others’ expectations on us and is a recipe for burnout.
Instead: Try this at home:
Draw up two columns that look like the example below:
For example, at the moment my priorities, based on my personal values, are to be a ‘great’ mum, cook, and gardener (don’t ask!), a ‘good’ partner, a ‘good enough’ employee, I clearly ‘need help’ with my editorials! (Thank you, patient Editor) and at the moment I’m a below average exerciser, and I’m not doing any major house cleaning – so forget about that.
However, that is just an example.
For this activity, your values are not the values of others and I refuse to let others’ value shame you! Your values are also likely to change across time and circumstance, so it is important that you complete this based on your unique self and circumstance. At times, our jobs demand more, or our partners need us, or our babies are young and require more. And remember; every Attachment Therapist will remind you that you only need to be a ‘good enough’ parent 50% of the time to raise great, secure, happy kids – something I’ve quoted a thousand times in therapy . Lastly, if you have a supportive other (partner, spouse, friend, parents, sibling, etc.), doing this together can help to bring balance to expectations and roles within families.
2. The myth of motherhood
Instead of pretending we can do everything all of the time, let’s help to bust the Motherhood Myths (there are hundreds). This might include talking openly about the parts we are struggling with, or acknowledging our children in the workplace, or knowing and accessing our rights and entitlements – like Feeding Leave (I’m never calling ‘Paid Lactation Leave ’ by the way; all mum’s have the right to feed their child if they want to), or making space for ourselves. This might also include a change in narrative to our daughter away from “you can be anything you want to be” to “you can be anything you want to be, but not all at the once.”
3. Practice saying ‘No’
No surprises, easier said than said! At some point during childbirth, I apparently gave birth to a ‘yes’ machine that would work to exhaustion to please everyone including my kids, forever more. We can lose perspective in the constant ‘yes’ and become really stressed trying to achieve this. For example, honestly, schools – do we need this many dress-up days? No, we don’t. In the big scheme, will my kid’s academic picture change if he doesn’t dress up for ‘Talk Like a Pirate Day” – no, it won’t.
But also, true friends understand the ‘no’ – While it’s really hard to say: “I know I said we’d be there, but we really can’t make it”, your friends will understand.
Establish a family ‘No Quota’, which relates to the amount of “no’s” that you give yourself permission to make every week.
4. Outsource and delegate
Is there anything in your current mental load that someone – anyone – else could do for you?
Here’s something interesting; during my role as a guidance counsellor I became aware of two competing statistics – more mums are becoming primary earners, more mums are become single mums, yet approximately 98% of all mums listed themselves as ‘Primary Contacts’ on the enrolment forms. Essentially, all these working mothers had ticked a box to say (to the effect of) “on top of everything else I have to do today, please make sure you increase my mental load by calling me first at work if I happen to have forgotten Emily’s lunch, or if Jack shoves Levi in the playground, because I will really appreciate that enhanced feeling of parental failure.”
Research also shows that mums (yep, mums) by far, make all the decisions about their kid’s schooling . We likely also make all the medical decision related to our kids.
I know myself that by Friday night, I suffer what I refer to as: ‘Decision fatigue’ – if I have to make one more decision this week, I start screaming. So I’ve learnt to switch out “what would you like for dinner” to a stern “you organise dinner, I don’t care what it is.”
For some of us (i.e., based on the 2% divorce rate in Australia; Hi! I’m in this statistic too, or those who choose to parent solo), we have limited choice but to be the Everything Mum, but hopefully some within this statistic have supportive family or friends.
But for many mums, we continue to position ourselves as primary decision maker within our families. Can we hand the reins over for some things? Presumably, for those who remain in relationship – we married our spouses because at a baseline, we considered them also competent?
In either case – is there anything that you can delegate out from your mental load? An hour of paid cleaning? A meal service? Meal exchange with friends? Car-pooling for drop offs? Shared soccer runs? Anything?
5. Don’t forget how important you are
The old metaphor ‘remember to fit your oxygen mask before helping others’ is more important now than ever. Mums, you can’t keep giving without replenishing yourself. Whatever that is (call me crazy, mine has become gardening – I needed to grow something positive this year), make it a priority: A walk, a coffee, a chat, a bath, a hot meal, a reprieve, a decision making vacation – I look forward to hearing your ideas on how to manage your mental load.
If this article resonated with you, check out these articles about women’s health.
*This editorial appeared in our print issue 42, October/November 2020.