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'I Can't Do It All': When the 'Mental Load' Is Too Much

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Neha Pathak, MD - Blogs
By Neha Pathak, MDBoard-certified internistJuly 12, 2019

By the time the school year came to a close, it was clear that I was in full-on parenting burnout. In one week alone, had managed to bring my older daughter an hour late to her final soccer game (leaving her in tears as she watched her friends celebrate the end of their last game with ice-cream and trophies) and missed the kindergarten registration sessions for my younger daughter.

Then, this week, I got an email from a summer camp I thought I had booked for them: “Due to your failure to pay the registration fee on time, your daughters no longer have spots in this year’s camp.” I rifled through my workbag and found the check and registration forms, still in the envelope (stamped and ready to go, but just never dropped in the mailbox).

One parenting fail after another… even after I had spent so much time multi-tasking and “multi-planning.”

Beyond actually doing the tasks that keep our households moving, a lot of us, especially women, find that we have a non-stop, unacknowledged role in planning when and how these tasks actually happen. It’s the infamous “mental load” – keeping track of all the logistical details, not only for our own activities and wellbeing, but for the activities and wellbeing of every member of the family. According to the 2017 Bright Horizons Modern Family Index (a survey commissioned by the Bright Horizons chain of childcare centers), 69% of working moms feel burdened by mental load, with 52% feeling burned out by their household responsibilities. In my case, my mental load had turned into an overload, creating an impending sense of doom from morning to night as I kept dropping the ball.

But a funny thing happened as the balls started to drop. We realized, as a family, how to support each other through disappointment and how to work through a major problem (like no childcare for a week). We all also realized that I really can’t do it all – which is difficult to say, but incredibly freeing. Our parenting fails helped us reorganize the invisible planning that I had been doing on my own for years.

Here are some of the ways that we have changed to handle the mental load of managing a household:

Written lists, not mental ones:

When I felt it was my sole responsibility to keep our ship afloat, I carried all the tasks in my head. It seemed like more work to write out all the tasks down versus just juggling them in my mind. Now my husband and I spend one night a week writing everything down on sticky notes and grab the tasks that we each want to manage. Dividing and conquering makes everything much easier, and now I can delete a task in my mind once it’s been handed over, which frees up some mental space.

Realistic lists:

It does no good if we take on more tasks than we can handle. Some days I have more time and some days my husband does, so we really aim not to overdo it with our daily to-dos. Seeing it written out in the number of stickie notes also helps us make sure that the stack of tasks is not too high for either of us.

Remove guilt:

This one is really hard, but trying to model positivity for our kids has helped us find more constructive ways of dealing with the strain of our household responsibilities. The feelings of guilt and frustration didn’t help us get past the obstacles or cheer our daughter up on the soccer field. If our “fails” have shown us anything, it’s that when things go wrong, the problem is usually “fixable” or as we’ve started to call it with our kids… “a learning opportunity.”

Working with my husband has also helped remove some of the “mom guilt,” or the feeling that I should be able to manage it all… very clearly, we all need to help out.         

Acceptance:

I find that my mental load self-talk is not going away any time soon. Even with our new strategies, I am constantly thinking about the next task that needs to be done for our family. I still feel the responsibility of “captaining the ship” and that’s ok with me, as long as I have a space to talk through the most pressing priorities and share the responsibility of planning more tasks.

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About the Author
Neha Pathak, MD

Neha Pathak, MD, is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and part of WebMD's team of medical editors responsible for ensuring the accuracy of health information on the site. Before joining WebMD, Pathak worked as a primary care physician at the Department of Veterans Affairs and was an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University in Atlanta.

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