5 Ways the Mental Load Impacts Moms' Health and How to Ask for Help
"I skip meals, miss workouts, and lose sleep," says Priscilla Broomall, stay-at-home-mom to two small boys living in Silverthorne, Colorado. "There's just so much to do so I put myself last a lot. The kids consume your world and I find myself moving on autopilot so much that I make not so healthy decisions for myself. I don't regret it though. It just comes with being a mother."
Broomall's story isn't uncommon; It's become the norm as mothers deal with the mental load, most often regarded as the behind-the-scenes work of household management that helps make the family click.
On that list of tasks includes things like making sure the toilet paper supply doesn't get low, taking the meat out of the freezer for dinner, laundry, checking the kids' homework, and scheduling everyone's doctor appointments. Rarely does that list include self-care and time away for Mom. Add in the challenge of virtual school coupled with limited resources for an outside release due to COVID-19 shutdowns and you've got the perfect recipe for a mommy crisis.
And it's not just doing the tasks that becomes a lot; it's constantly thinking about them, especially for moms who work. About three in five working women say they think about their household tasks while at work, according to the 2017 Bright Horizons Modern Family Index. It makes sense then that 69 percent of working moms say their household responsibilities create a mental load, while 52 percent of them are burnt out from the weight of it all.
What's worse: The overbearing mental load can lead to a variety of mental and physical health symptoms—and the connection is often missed. Here are five ways the mental load creeps up on a mom's health and what to do about them.
Ways the Mental Load Impacts Mom's Health
Anxiety and Depression
Juggling family issues, personal matters, and also work can be overwhelming and stressful. "It can become a serious problem," says Nicole Avena, Ph.D., author and professor of health psychology at Princeton University. "We're overworked at our jobs and at home."
Not being able to step away, adds Dr. Avena, can lead to mental health issues. Some of the most commonly reported ones include anxiety and depression. Women are almost twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders. And one in 10 women, mothers included, experience symptoms of depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Moms of multiples like twins or triplets are at a higher risk for depression.
Some say sleep deprivation is a right of passage for new parents. However, the sleep deprivation can continue long past the newborn phase ultimately affecting other areas of life. According to a survey by the National Sleep Foundation, 74 percent of stay-at-home moms have felt symptoms of insomnia.
The lack of sleep is often fueled by the demands of motherhood exceeding a mom's mental and physical threshold, as well as the overwhelming feeling of mom guilt. Unfortunately, the tiredness can lead to other issues, such as irritability, weakened immune system, and disconnect with family.
If you can't seem to remember that your lost glasses are actually on your head and you constantly forget your weekly conference call, you aren't losing your mind. You're just losing your memory thanks to your mental load.
After giving birth, moms can suffer from something called "postnatal depletion," a term coined by Oscar Serrallach, MBChB, FRACGP, a doctor of functional medicine. It's defined as a "physical and mental deterioration" that can occur from losing nutrients like iron, zinc, and B12 following childbirth. And that depletion can sometimes last for years later due to the stresses of parenthood. "What happens over time is that mothers take on more of the mental work when raising children, thus leading to 'mommy brain' and easily turning into a more serious issue of postpartum depletion," says Suzie Welsh, R.N., MSN, and co-founder of Binto, a women's health company providing supplements catered to personalized needs.
Women who experience this feel constant fatigue that isn't fixed by sleep. It leads to a difficulty concentrating and poor memory.
You aren't imagining it—chances are you really are experiencing more headaches than your male partner. Hormones and stress levels result in women being three times more likely to experience headaches than men. The lack of sleep, anxiety, and burnout associated with the mental load can all lend a hand to frequent headaches.
"Stress and the mental load of a mother can wreak havoc on the body, releasing chemicals causing the body to react, going into a state of fight or flight," says Jaclyn Fulop, board licensed physical therapist and founder of Exchange Physical Therapy Group in Jersey City, New Jersey. "The body cannot distinguish between an actual threat or the stresses of daily life. If this cycle repeats itself, it will affect the central nervous system and the brain causing pain signals in the body, which can ultimately lead to triggers in the body."
And keep in mind, the body is all connected. If the muscles in your neck and upper back/shoulders get tight because of stress, they can pull on the back of the skull causing tension headaches, explains Fulop. Often trigger points in one area can impact the way you feel in a completely separate area of the body.
In some cases, the stresses and emotional burden associated with a heavy mental load can lead to the use of substances, such as alcohol. An occasional mommy wine-down when relaxing is fine. However, when the use of drugs and alcohol leads to impairment, disconnect from family, and the inability to tend to normal daily responsibilities, you may have a substance abuse problem. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 5.3 million women suffer from alcohol abuse disorder.
"Alcohol is no cure for stressors of motherhood," says Dr. Avena. It can actually worsen symptoms associated with mental disorders.
How to Ease Your Mental Load
When the problem is that moms are simply doing too much, the solution is for moms to stop doing so much. That can be easier said than done since asking for help doesn't always come easily for moms, nor do they always have someone to ask. But there are ways to manage the mental load.
Moms can help themselves by saying "no" to things that don't align with their needs or that they simply don't have the capacity to deal with. Recognizing limitations and refusing to force yourself into situations is important to managing the load and having the ability to carve out time for yourself and your health.
Moms also need to learn not to suffer in silence before the load becomes too much to bear. Assign tasks to your partner if you have one, give your kids age-appropriate chores, and even ask a friend for assistance when needed.
If there's no one around to delegate to, get some help from technology. Put your toilet paper and diapers on a subscription, add reminders in the phone for the plant watering schedule, automate your bills, utilize a meal plan company like Every Plate or Hello Fresh, and have your child's appointments programmed into your calendar. Doing so helps put some responsibilities on autopilot and eliminates some mental burden by turning things you have to remember into tasks so you free up more time and mental space for yourself, says Dr. Avena.
Make time for yourself
Managing the mental load well means finding the time to cater to your needs and putting yourself first when you can. "Take even just 5 to 10 minutes a day to do something that grounds you, like walking, meditating, and breathing," says Welsh. These habits can also help manage those brutal stress-induced headaches, points out Fulop.
Don't forget about a power nap. "Twenty minutes here and there when you feel like you might crash is better than actually crashing," says Welsh. She also recommends moms try and get on an 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. sleep schedule if possible.
Get outside help when needed
Of course, all these solutions may only be putting on a bandage. A mother's mental health affects everything from how she manages her daily routine to her physical health and needs to be addressed as often as possible. Sometimes outside help is needed and that's totally OK. Every mom has her moments, but never wait until your feelings become so extreme that they affect your daily life, suggests Dr. Avena. Opt for outside help, whether from a licensed professional or a local or virtual mommy support group.
Ultimately, it's time for moms to normalize taking breaks. After all, children need a happy and healthy mom more than they need a perfect one.
Read more of Parents.com’s special report on the mental load of parenthood here.