Even in families where the division of labor and tasks is pretty even, an invisible burden often falls to one parent. It’s called the “mental load” of motherhood, or the “invisible work,” and it’s a concept that many of us are keenly aware of, but don’t quite know what to do about it.
The loving burdens we carry do not always just apply to mothers, of course. However, in today’s world, the mental load still rests with the “default parent.”
Table of contents
- The Modern Mental Load
- Visible vs Invisible Labor
- 8 Tips to Manage the Mental Load of Motherhood
- Lighten the Mental Load
The Modern Mental Load
There is no norm when it comes to parenthood as in our grandmother’s time. Modern households have many variations of working parents, stay at home parents, or single parents. And in general, dads are much more involved in the care and attention of children today.
Yet, so much of what existed for our grandmothers when it comes to household labor still falls mostly on mothers today. The laundry, cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and other household tasks.
The division of labor inside the home has been a topic that has been discussed for generations, and while some homes have more balance, others don’t. What about the management of these tasks?
This is where the mental load of motherhood comes in. No matter which parenting style you embrace, mothers are still the primary managers of children and the home.
A study from Bright Horizons Modern Family found that women in heterosexual relationships are three times more likely than men to carry the mental load. This was the case for women who were the breadwinners in the family.
They also found three in five working women report being distracted or thinking about their household tasks while at work. And overall 69% of working moms say their household responsibilities contribute to the mental load and 52% of them feel burned out.
Visible vs Invisible Labor
There are ways a family can try to balance the visible labor imbalances that take place within their home. A chore chart can help to divide tasks among the family members and kids can help, too.
But how does this work when it comes to emotional labor? Who plans the child’s birthday party? Who will remember all of the little things like the whole family’s birthdays, as well as purchase and send birthday cards out on time?
Who plans the vacations, holidays, and meals, and who is going to what activity at what time (after researching and scheduling said activity)?
Who keeps up with the child’s lovey or favorite toy?
Who shops for school supplies, makes sure the kids’ coats fit, makes the vet appointments, and worries about what condition the house is in when hosting a playdate (after scheduling said playdate)?
The modern family’s routine can widely vary, and the person handling all of these examples of the mental load isn’t traditionally the same person from one family to the next. But, more often than not, the burden of the invisible labor still falls to Mom.
The Pay Gap Contributes
Women tend to make less money than men, especially during childbearing years. It’s still common for households to rely mostly on the male partner’s income, making Mom the default parent whether she works full time or not.
If someone is going to sacrifice job hours and require more flexibility due to the unpredictable nature of kids’ schedules, when they get sick, their activities, and school days off, it’s usually Mom. Especially if she makes less money.
This contributes a lot to the mental load of motherhood. Add in some work stress, lack of childcare, or not being able to work in the capacity she may want to, and also the regular mental load to top it off, and you’ve got one stressed-out Mama!
In many places, it’s common for the schools to call Mom first if a child is sick, for Mom to attend the field trips, help in the classroom, and communicate with the teachers about any issues that may arise.
School emails? Mom’s job.
Daycare is closed? Mom.
Does kiddo need a new set of extra clothes at school? Mom makes sure it’s packed in a ziplock baggie and in their backpack.
The young school years are full of unpredictability, and Moms are the first line of defense so no one else has to juggle, alter their day, or modify their schedule. She takes the pay cut, the stress of missing work, works with her child by her side or only chooses a job that is flexible.
Impact of Mental Load on Mothers
All of the work described above is a great example of the mental load a Mom often carries so men or other partners won’t have to feel that stress themselves. She intrinsically placates everyone, to keep everyone else’s lives manageable.
The impacts on a woman or the default parent under these conditions vary from person to person. These are a few ways that the ongoing stress of bearing all or most of the emotional labor of parenthood can affect mothers (or others):
- sleep deprivation
- excessive worrying
- feeling isolated
- feeling disconnected
- feeling misunderstood
- memory gaps
It is so important to support whoever has ended up the default parent and do everything that can be done to balance this type of inequality in a parenting relationship.
8 Tips to Manage the Mental Load of Motherhood
1. Explain the Mental Load to Your Partner
It is most important to bring this issue to your partner with honesty. Use “I” statements to avoid defensiveness, and know that it may be a process as things shift. Be open and clear about the ways carrying the majority of the invisible work has impacted you.
Some examples of explaining the mental burden to your partner are the emotional tasks of researching, preparing, organizing, and managing all of the things that aren’t seen with the naked eye.
The act of anticipating needs is not inherently only in women, yet it mostly falls to us to balance all of the things so raising children can go as smoothly as possible. Is it a smooth process for Mom? Not always, and that can take a toll.
Explain the added mental load of planning and managing your partner to get them on the same page as you. Making the list, filling them in, asking them to “help”, or being their task manager and having to delegate and explain what needs to be done can feel exhausting.
This graphic called You Should Have Asked is a perfect example to share with your partner that explains the mental load really well!
A great way to boost communication skills and understand each other better is to hold a weekly State of The Union meeting between the two of you. This is a wonderful process to increase the connection between you and your partner, and a great way to give space for sharing the mental load when it gets too heavy.
2. Make a Division of Labor Plan
Before the emotional labor of parenting can be more balanced, have a meeting to check and plan the best division of visible labor when it comes to regular household and parenting tasks.
This area should be running smoothly first and now is the best time to have a clear plan.
Make sure you are both comfortable with the division of labor when it comes to cooking, cleaning, bathing the kids, keeping up with the meal plan, and any other daily parenting tasks that don’t fall into the invisible work category.
Once this is established, this plan can be adjusted to account for the mental load once the invisible labor is added to the list of who does what.
3. Prioritize, Minimize, and Simplify
Make a list of everything that you do, or needs to be done. It’s likely pretty long! That’s the whole point.
This might feel like a big task in itself, but don’t leave anything off. This step alone can be cathartic!
- Email the teacher back.
- Help your child write their Valentines.
- Cut out hearts for their party since you told the teacher you’d help. What day are those due back? You’ll have to check the class calendar.
- Don’t forget you’re out of tape for the hearts! Note to self: get tape next time you are at the store.
- Find a good spring soccer program BEFORE they fill up, and register for the spring ballet performance.
- Once those are established look for summer activities because we all know they’re full by spring break!
- Oh yeah, and make sure you get the tickets to the ballet performance in June, so save that email and ask everyone on both sides of the family to see who wants to go before you buy them. But then don’t forget to buy them or buy them too late so you can all sit together. Set a reminder for that. What’s the last day to buy them? Check back in the email they sent.
- Which reminds you her dance tights have holes and probably aren’t the right color they require for the performance. You will have to look up the color and find the link to the $8,000 tights so you can check to see if Target has dupes. If not, where? You’ll have to look. Everywhere.
- Try on their cleats and ballet shoes from last season to see if they fit and get new ones if they don’t.
- Search several stores for the right size cleats and ballet shoes, find none, search online, do detailed foot measurements, order several pairs of each, and hope one fits. Make sure to do this soon enough so there is enough time to repeat the whole process if none fit. Make sure to also ask around for used ones.
- Don’t forget to return the shoes that don’t fit, possibly all of them.
- Oh yeah and you’re running low on your daughter’s hair bands now that you think about it, she will need some for soccer and ballet and probably even sooner, because: LICE has hit the classroom.
- Remember to convince her to wear her hair in braids every morning, with all of your extra time and energy even though she hates braids. You know this is less time and energy than dealing with lice, so it is worth it but still a struggle since your daughter has not yet internalized the importance of not getting lice. Daily braids: check.
- Don’t forget to search high and low for a child-size hair net, do it now before the ballet performance so the stores aren’t all sold out!
This list can literally just keep rolling! Write all of it down. Don’t skimp!
Now, take a hard look at your list. What is most important? Who will suffer if some of this stuff doesn’t happen? Probably no one, but that’s for you to decide what is the most important, and what is survivable to miss. This is a big-picture question to ask yourself.
In the long run, will your daughter know that you did or didn’t cut out those hearts for the classroom? Probably not. But will she remember your mood and how you handled stress? Most definitely yes. Skip the hearts and protect your peace.
Maybe ballet and soccer don’t need to happen in the same season and choose one. Maybe have a lazy, activity-free summer.
Maybe it’s totally ok that you just send the ballet performance link to family members and let them purchase their own tickets. Even better, maybe it’s ok that you don’t all sit together.
Don’t skip the lice prevention though, that one is worth it!
4. Weekly Family Planning Meeting
Once the priorities are established, have a weekly planning meeting. Do you have to come to this meeting prepared with what is and isn’t prioritized? Absolutely not. It is not only your burden to bear.
This can be an information-gathering meeting with you and your partner, and even tweens and teens can be involved. Find out what everyone’s needs are, what the possibilities are, and prioritize together.
Make a process of delegation between you and your partner and even your older children. If you need to make an extra trip to the store after work for toothpaste and hair bands to prevent lice, someone else can plan and make dinner while you do that.
I personally love including my teen boys in our family meetings. It teaches them to communicate their needs, to plan ahead, and to know where they can step in for me when I need it.
As a single mom, I hope to send my boys out into the world knowing that the mental load is also theirs and hopefully, it will feel lighter for everyone in future generations.
5. Use Family Planning Tools
Once you have the planning process established, there are so many useful planning tools. Shared calendars are great, I really like the Raft calendar.
Add your partner to the text messages for reminders about planning play dates or social events. That way you are not always the one expected to communicate and remember to text back and plan everything.
Shared grocery lists and a “things to manage” lists are also helpful. You are, after all, NOT the manager of everything! This is a shared life, so sharing the mental load only makes sense.
6. Set Boundaries on Your Mental Load
It’s ok to set boundaries on what you are willing to accept into your mental load. Some things might not get done, and that’s ok. Give yourself grace and be willing to protect your peace.
Learn how to say no. Those Valentine’s hearts for the classroom? They’re not necessary, really. You’re peace, however, is necessary. The next time the teacher asks, say you don’t have time. It’s the truth!
Prioritize yourself, and your family’s peace. That’s what boundaries and saying no to taking on too much are doing in this instance. It will teach your kids to protect their peace, too.
When you reach your capacity of invisible labor, bring it up to your family at your weekly meeting. If you’re overwhelmed, move some need-to-dos to your partner’s weekly list. If something falls through the cracks, embrace the imperfection and know that you’re not the only one to blame.
Or, save it for another week and forgive yourself.
7. Surround Yourself with Support
Community is a factor in blue zones (areas where people live a long time). Build your own community of parents. Talk about the mental load of motherhood with friends. Be open about protecting your peace, and I guarantee you it will resonate with other mothers, teachers, and even soccer coaches!
Sit this season out, and cut you and your kiddo some slack. Nobody’s going pro this year. Take some downtime and do nothing.
There is nothing quite like finding other people who prioritize their family’s peace because they always understand when you say no. They are great friends to have over when you just want your kid to keep busy so you can talk to another adult even though your house is a mess.
8. Self-Care isn’t Selfish
While you plan with your partner and family, make sure you add your needs into the mix. Healthy boundaries are essential. As you share the mental load, you need time to take care of yourself and decompress.
Take an hour before bed to read a book. Sit with a glass of wine while someone else cooks dinner. Have a weekend day to yourself, and don’t feel guilty about it!
It doesn’t have to be extravagant, I always feel it’s the time I take more than the action. So plan this time each week.
Self-care isn’t selfish, everyone needs a brain and body break to recharge. The mental load of motherhood can and should turn into the mental load of parenthood.
Taking time for yourself isn’t even a break, it’s a necessity. You need to bring your best to what your actual priorities are, and you can’t do that if you are burned out.
Lighten the Mental Load
These tips can be used in any order depending on what works for your family. As someone who has been an only parent, a married stay-at-home mom, a married working mom, and now a single working mom who co-parents, I can tell you this is not always a clear-cut process.
The mental load of motherhood has impacted me in each of these parenting scenarios, and it still does. I have learned to accept imperfection, a new way of doing things, and put my own and my kids’ peace at the top of the priority list.
These are great lessons for kids of all ages, as they learn through us how to take care of themselves. How to say no when necessary, how to address their mental health, and how to balance gender and family roles within our homes.
Most of all, how to accept themselves exactly as they are: humans who are not expected to do all the things!