Here’s a small sampling of the questions that go on in the brain of a parent each day (best read without pause as stream of consciousness): I wonder if my kids’ socks still fit? Do we have enough formula to last the month? I wonder if my code for the formula discount still works? When is picture day again? Oh, sh*t, it’s tomorrow — okay, what is my child going to wear? Wait, I’m down to just a couple of diapers? What time did my son wake up? And when does he need to go down for a nap again? Ugh, why isn’t he napping? Is he going through a leap? Do I need to shift his bedtime because he didn’t nap? Wow, is it time for wine yet [clock strikes noon]? Ah, the mental load of parenting.
To be honest, I had no clue there was a name for this feeling until I was experiencing shortness of breath and having trouble sleeping. I told my therapist about my symptoms, and she mentioned the phrase “mental load of parenting,” to which I said “what?!” She calmly explained to me that it’s like keeping an ever-running list of things you either have to buy, tick off your to-do list, prepare, tally, and make note of, mainly having to do with your children. It usually falls onto one parent in a co-parenting situation.
After hanging up with her, I went downstairs and promptly asked my husband, “Do you ever wonder if Sandro’s socks or shoes fit?” to which he replied, “No, never.” Riiiiiiiiight, because I do. Gotcha. And that is how you find out who is the mental-load bearer. It’s that easy.
I don’t even know how I got to be the mental-load carrier. Maybe it’s an automatic maternal thing in a heterosexual marriage, but I do know that there is one in every household; otherwise things wouldn’t “magically” just get done. I also don’t know how to feel like my calm self again. I messaged my parenting go-to, Dr. Becky Kennedy — a child whisperer with a PhD in clinical psychology from Columbia, a mom of three, and founder of Good Inside — for some pearls of wisdom and guidance. She came through like I knew she would.
“Constantly thinking of what needs to be done, purchased, refilled, signed up for, and what school forms need signatures — this is exactly the definition of the mental load,” says Kennedy. “And it’s all invisible, but it is so real and feels so heavy and it takes up space in our brain, and there actually is a finite amount of space.” This means that the other things you might want to do — like read a book for yourself, or even just take a walk — are actually all dependent on how much energy you have left for yourself.
In a male-female partnership, it’s definitely common for the female-identified partner to be carrying around more of that mental load. If you were pregnant with that child, there may even be a biological element to it. “When mothers give birth, there is such an experience and tie to it that the spouse or father hasn’t had,” explains Nancy Close, a PhD in developmental psychology, assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center, and clinical director of the Parent and Family Development at the Yale School of Medicine. “All of the little kicks and all of the things that happened to a woman’s body, for example, really connect you to the baby differently than the partner.”
So, if it’s so ingrained in us, how can you lessen the mental load? There are a couple of ways, but first, we have to break down how a task gets executed. Kennedy recommends starting with Eve Rodsky’s book called Fair Play, “which offers a system that highlights how there are three parts to any task: conception, planning, and execution.” She uses taking your kids to a soccer class as an example. The conception would be the start of the idea: What is my child going to do on Saturdays? Planning asks: What does said child need for this activity? (Answer: Research local soccer programs, sign up for one, provide health forms and payment, purchase shin guards, uniform, cleats.) And finally, execution: Actually taking said kid to soccer class on Saturday morning.
But here’s where Kennedy says the issue occurs. “Let’s say you do the first two parts, and then your husband takes your kid to soccer,” she says. “You’re kind of feeling like, while your partner helped get your child out the door, you’re mentally exhausted with the invisible parts that you did, the conceptualization and planning.” If you feel unappreciated for the “invisible work” leading up to the execution, or your partner didn’t execute in a way that was in line with your conception and planning, this can lead to resentment. Cut to: one of the most common fights that many couples have, usually ending with you saying, “Fine, I’ll do it myself next time.”
The solution, Kennedy says, is to include your partner the first parts of the task when you can. “If they knew more about the conceptualizing and planning parts, they wouldn’t have to ask where the field was for soccer or where the equipment is,” she says.
1. Use your words.
There are a couple of things that you can do when you recognize the problem — and they all involve talking about it. Kennedy says that the key is to define the issues with language without sounding shame-y or blame-y, which can automatically lead to defensiveness. Try talking through the work that you’ve been doing behind the scenes, so your partner can clearly understand all that you do to get to the execution stage. Finally, if you’d like your partner to help you more, say something like, “I would love if we come up with a system where the conceptualization and the planning is a little more balanced between us.” Rodsky also says in Fair Play that this doesn’t have to be 50/50, but it probably does have to be redistributed if one parent feels overwhelmed and resentful. “Ask for help from them, explaining that it’s me and you against the problem, not me against you where you are the problem,” Kennedy explains. “Because you have to see your partner as your teammate instead of against you; otherwise, you’re just going to be going at each other.”
2. Acknowledge, validate, permit.
If the mental load is making you feel overwhelmed, anxious, or otherwise out of control, Kennedy recommends a technique to regulate your emotions called AVP: Acknowledge, Validate, and Permit. Acknowledging is naming what’s happening — i.e. I feel really overwhelmed by all of the things on my brain. Validating is to prove the truth of that statement using terms that make sense, like, there are a lot of things I’m thinking about and planning and that makes sense that I would feel really overwhelmed. Permitting is allowing yourself to feel this way — it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person or bad parent, this feeling is real and I’m allowed to feel this way. “The more we truly go through that process of regulating our emotions, we are able to talk to someone from a more grounded place because we’ve done the work of grounding ourselves,” she explains.
The above is also crucial because kids can be really trying and it’s not their fault — they’re just new at life and figuring things out. Which is why it’s also important to remember that development is also a dynamic, ever-changing process. “You can feel like you’ve got it one day, and it feels really good, and then you don’t feel that way the next day because maybe your child has regressed,” Close says. “And then you can feel like, ‘oh no, where do I go from here?’ The stress is very real.”
3. Ask for what you want.
“I wish people were taught is to ask for what they want,” Kennedy says. “At worst, the other person might be a little annoyed by your request.” In other words, we are allowed to speak up for what we want and other people are allowed to feel inconvenienced by it. “We all shift gears for the people we love — it’s not the process of taking in your partner’s feelings, it’s the process of recognizing those feelings and appreciating what the other partner is doing for the family,” Kennedy says. (Shoutout to my husband, Gio, who actually does this brilliantly and helps me process and regulate my feelings instead of being a combative partner.)
Close agrees that “taking time to reflect on what's hard for you and why it’s hard for you and how to navigate it is really healthy to do — even if it’s just talking it out with your partner.” And, if you do blow a gasket on your partner or child (it happens!), says Close, “Acknowledge your frustration and anger, and then take a minute to recompose yourself and say: ‘Mommy’s gots some big, mad feelings and in order to settle myself, Mommy needs to settle down.’” That way, you’re taking ownership of your feelings and not putting them on your child. You’re also modeling self-regulation.
4. Seek out a support system.
It’s also important to talk about these dynamics with other parents. “When you have outside support and you need to have a chat with your partner, you literally feel like you have six other friends right next to you saying to you, ‘You’re allowed to ask for this,” Kennedy says.
While it’s not a bad thing to be anxious, if we feel like it’s interfering with your parenting, it’s important to get help — and that doesn’t mean you’re failing as a parent. If talking to your friends and your partner aren’t helping as much as you’d like, therapy can be an excellent tool. (I speak from experience.)
I was in the car driving back from New York City one afternoon and started listening to Jay Shetty’s breathing techniques. At that point, I had been having trouble sleeping, my mind wouldn’t turn off, and I was experiencing shortness of breath often. But during that car ride, I did all of his breathing exercises and instantly started to feel lighter. By the time I got home an hour later, I felt so much more relaxed and even slept soundly that night. Since having kids, I’ve been watching a lot of Daniel Tiger and one of his sayings goes, “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breathe and count to four.” And since Shetty reminds us that our breath is the only thing we can truly control, I highly suggest you use it to your advantage when dealing with parenting. I definitely have.
6. Remember the good stuff.
There will be times when your kids are listening and the mental load isn’t so heavy, and it’s important to remember those moments. “We call them ‘gem’ moments and we keep track of them,” says Close.
Nancy Close, psychologist, assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center, and clinical director of the Parent and Family Development at the Yale School of Medicine
Resting Mom Face is a bi-monthly column from Romper’s beauty contributor, Carly Cardellino.