The Mental Load – Why Mamas Are Burning Out

The Mental Load – Why Mamas Are Burning Out

Mamas worldwide can relate to having a constant stream of to-dos and don’t forgets running through their heads.

It’s the never ending internal dialogue of motherhood.

The mental load is taking its toll on modern mamas.

We strive to have it all, and do it all – all the while making sure our children are at the top of our list.

Did I sign the permission slip for the field trip?

Do we have all the ingredients for dinner tonight?

I need to get the kids’s costumes ready for Book Week.

I have to find time to do those reports for work tonight.

I really need to wipe the baseboards by the shower.

Am I packing enough vegetables in their lunches?

I really need to call the teacher about his reading report. 

Shouldn’t the baby be crawling by now? Should I get her looked at?. Oh great, how can I fit in another doctor’s appointment?

The Mental Load – Why Mamas Are Burning Out

The mental load alone is draining – never mind what we’re doing physically, as well.

A French artist, known as ‘Emma’, recently went viral with her relatable cartoons that depict the massive mental load most mothers carry.

Why Do Mothers Carry A Large Mental Load?

Being a parent is hard! You’re now responsible for another human being. If you ask nearly any mother, she’s constantly thinking about something on her to-do list, something related to her child’s development, and probably a million other things.

Perhaps you completely relate to Emma’s ‘Mental Load’ cartoons. Or perhaps you think they’re too stereotypical, too feminist, and just not something you agree with.

I’m not sure where I land. What I do know, like many other mothers, is my mental load is heavy enough to make me feel burned out.

I can completely relate to an older article – a post that went viral in 2014. It was written by a busy mama, M. Blazoned, who shared her thoughts about her role as the default parent and the stress she was feeling.

In many cases, even when mamas have partners who are incredibly supportive and helpful, they still find the bulk of the mental work related to organisation, wellness or medical care, nutrition, and education falls on them.

My husband is incredibly hands-on. He’ll contribute in any and every area. However, when our daughter had some red flags for a health issue related to her head, he replied, “She has a head, she’s fine!”

It was obviously sarcasm (he really does care about our children’s health), but it properly illustrated our roles, in terms of mental load. I am the parent who stresses, worries, and spends hours reading about conditions and specialists.

He’ll help, by making a call to a specialist, and he’ll take time off work for important procedures or appointments, but the bulk of it is usually added to my mental load.

Here’s the most important thing. In general, I don’t blame dads for the mental load mothers carry. There are many factors involved in what makes mothers take on so much stress, worry, and responsibility.

What Is A Default Parent?

M. Blazoned started her article with a question:

“Are you the default parent? If you have to think about it, you’re not. You’d know. Trust me. The default parent is the one responsible for the emotional, physical and logistical needs of the children. Spoiler alert: It’s typically the one with the uterus”.

Who is allergic to what? Who has library on Tuesday? Who do the kids ask for help when both parents in the room? Who knew all the answers on the back-to-school forms?

Typically, it’s the mother. Now, this isn’t necessarily wrong or a bad thing, but it needs to be acknowledged.

If you’re the default parent, you need support, and you need self-care.

If you’re not the default parent, it takes less than you think to support your partner in a genuine way, and make it possible for her to carry the mental load and reduce her chances of feeling burned out.

Why Do Mothers Carry So Much Worry, Stress And Responsibility?

The mother-child relationship is an important one. Mamas essentially make and nourish their babies. As the relationship grows, it makes sense they often remain the default parent.

Even when a mama becomes a mama by means other than pregnancy, she still often falls into the role of initial primary caregiver. This isn’t always the case, but it’s common to many families.

All of this doesn’t discount the stress that non-default parents also experience.

But we need to acknowledge the load default parents carry in order to learn how to support them, to understand self-care, and to learn more about balance.

We live in an era where women are raising their children and conquering the workforce. They also feel pressured to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ in their social lives, and provide Pinterest level snacks for every special day under the sun.

As mothers, we read up on child development as much as we can. The problem is, many of us have fewer hours than ever to be hands-on with our children.

We think constantly, we move constantly, and we feel the expectations on us are higher than ever, in a world of constant connection and comparison.

Sure, our mothers faced judgement and comparison, too. But there’s something about the added component of social media that makes us think, every day, about controversial parenting topics.

There are times I spout off specific instructions and ‘must dos’ which need to be perfectly executed before we leave the house. My husband, always so relaxed, will say something like, “Does it really matter? Why do you care what anyone thinks?”

I try to explain, but it isn’t easy to articulate. To be an amazing father, all he has to do is show up. It’s easier for dads to meet expectations, when society as a whole hasn’t raised the bar quite so high.

Mothers must be on their ‘A game’ constantly. And, as if that weren’t enough, we can’t be just mothers. But if we work, it’s a case of  ‘Do you even care about your children?’

And then Sally needs to be in ballet, and soccer, as well as a variety of academic enrichment programs, if she’s ever going to be successful in life.

But then, ‘Be sure you’re not over scheduling her because not giving her enough free play will ruin her creativity and mess with her emotional wellbeing’.

As far as modern society goes, it feels like mothers can’t win. Perhaps we’ve created the problem. Perhaps we all feed into it.

Whatever the cause, modern mamas are feeling burned out!

But What About Dads, Don’t They Work Hard Too?

My husband is the Energiser Bunny. Seriously.

I have no idea where he finds the energy to work, coach soccer, teach Sunday school, and still manage to cut the lawn, cook dinner and more.

So I’m certainly not suggesting fatherhood is a breeze, or men in general don’t work their tails off too.

But the mental load isn’t just about working hard. In her blog post The Default Parent, Blazoned humorously explained why some dads, however wonderful, might not carry the same mental load of parenthood:

“And by the way, this blog is in no way a competition between husband and wife for who has it worse. My husband is the default earner, the default lawn mower and the default spider killer, which all come with equal stress and dissatisfaction that he is welcome to blog about. He’s also incredibly helpful and an awesome husband and parent. But, in my defense, the lawn and spiders don’t say “mommy” a hundred times a day, and his boss doesn’t come on vacation with him. Just sayin’.”

Dads can, and by all means should, share about their struggles and stresses, and what their partners can do to help support them. Sharing about the stress of motherhood and our needs, is in no way a dig at fathers.

What Do Burned Out Mamas Need To Do?

The mental load is heavy and it can get tiring. So what can we do? Should we lower the bar? Should we stop the information overload of researching every aspect of parenting?

As a parenting writer and someone who researches random medical journals whenever my kids have a sniffle, I’m probably not going to suggest we stop learning about parenting.What I do suggest is we stop striving towards being the mythical perfect mother.

I think as default parents we need to:

  • Really and truly practise self-care daily. Even if it means locking the bathroom for a 10 minute shower, please let’s do something every day to meet our own needs.
  • Perform ‘big acts’ of self-care – like getting away for an evening, a day, or even a few days.
  • Have realistic expectations and grace for ourselves. You aren’t a perfect mother because you aren’t a perfect person. However, you’re the right mama for your kids, and you’re absolutely enough.
  • Prioritise things in our lives. What’s really important? What isn’t important? Competing and comparing on social media? All the extra curriculars? Never ending enrichment activities? Worrying about what others think of us?
  • Organise ourselves in a way that makes it possible for others to help us. Write things down, keep a synced calendar, and be okay if help looks slightly different from the way you would do it yourself.
  • Realise not every parenting decision needs to be over researched. Certainly, some decisions require research, but you might be surprised how spot on your intuition can be.

Want to know the reason motherhood is so hard, and the reason our mental load is so heavy? Mamas rarely get a break.

Sure, dad helps a ton. Sure, grandma comes for a visit. But as mamas, we don’t get to shut off our brains. There’s always an appointment to remember, a paper to find and fill out, and a looming parenting decision.

We might really enjoy our Mother’s Day massage, but we’re probably still thinking about whether or not Sally finished her book report due the next day.

That’s why it’s so  important mamas really find time to recharge – internally and externally.

Be sure to read What Is The Secret To Resilient Mamas? to learn more about recharging during motherhood.

How Can Dads Support Mamas?

Perhaps, as a dad, you’re thinking, “I’m hands on! I’m willing to do anything. I do a lot. How can she still feel so overwhelmed?”

Many partners really are hands on and defy the stereotypes in the media. Sure, there are still some dads out there who drop the ball (just like some mamas) but for the most part, many parents share the load and work hard (inside and outside the home).

But the reality for most mamas is we feel overwhelmed by the mental load of motherhood. Why? Because it’s never ending.

So, what can you do to support your partner, the default parent?

Perhaps you could:

  • Simply acknowledge how much she does. You’d be surprised how far, “Thank you” – for making sure they have a good diet, helping them with homework, going to work after being up with the baby – can go. A little appreciation goes a long way (for both partners).
  • Complete a task she typically does without asking questions; sometimes that’s huge! Take time to chat with your partner about tasks you can help with (or even take over) and learn about them so when the time comes, she doesn’t even have to think about it.
  • Encourage self-care. Not just logistically; also reassure her it’s okay to have a break.

Many of us fell into our ‘default parent’ or ‘support parent’ roles because it logistically made sense. So even if you can’t change the mental load, simply understand and acknowledge the stress that goes with it is huge.

Validate how challenging the mental load can be. When she’s tired, or feeling crazy, remember she isn’t just enough – she’s more than enough. She’s struggling through modern motherhood, and through all the comparisons and crazy expectations, in a society that is actually crazy.

And mamas, remember his load can be heavy too, even if it’s different. The roles of mother and father will look different in each home. The best way to balance them is for both of you to be open, communicate your needs, communicate the support you need, and understand the importance of self-care.

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Maria Silver Pyanov is a mama of four energetic boys and one unique little girl. She is also a doula and childbirth educator. She's an advocate for birth options, and adequate prenatal care and support. She believes in the importance of rebuilding the village so no parent feels unsupported.

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