5 Ways the Mental Load Impacts Parents' Health

The mental load is a heavy burden that can affect a parents' health. Luckily there are ways to prevent that from happening.

The mental load is the behind-the-scenes work of household management that helps make the family click. Rarely does that work include self-care and time away for parents who carry this burden. And, unchecked, it can negatively impact a parent's health. Setting boundaries, delegation, and asking for support are ways to offset the mental load.

On the mental load 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.

"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."

It's not just doing the tasks that becomes a lot; it's constantly thinking about them, especially for parents who work. Read on for five ways the mental load creeps up on a parent's health and what to do about them.

stressed mother with one hand on head and holding baby with other hand on a color gradient background of medical icons
Illustration by Francesca Spatola; Getty Images (2)

Ways the Mental Load Impacts Health

The mental load disproportionally impacts women. According to the 2017 Bright Horizons Modern Family Index, women in heterosexual relationships—even those who are their family's breadwinners—are three times more likely than breadwinning men to carry the mental load.

In addition, about three in five working women say they think about their household tasks while at work. It makes sense then that 69% of working moms say their household responsibilities create a mental load, while 52% 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.

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 of What to Eat When You're Pregnant 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. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, women are almost twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders. And one in 10 women—parents included—experience symptoms of depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Parents of multiples like twins or triplets are at a higher risk for depression.

Sleep Deprivation

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 the Sleep Foundation, women lose over an hour of sleep each night after becoming parents. And parental sleep patterns don't return to pre-pregnancy levels until a child is around 6 years old.

The lack of sleep is often fueled by the demands of parenthood exceeding a parent's mental and physical threshold, as well as the overwhelming feeling of parent guilt. Unfortunately, the tiredness can lead to other issues, such as irritability, weakened immune system, and disconnect with family.

Memory Gaps

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, parents can experience "postnatal depletion," a term coined by Oscar Serrallach, MBChB, FRACGP, a doctor of functional medicine and author of The Postnatal Depletion Cure. The term refers to the deterioration—physical and mental—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.

People who experience this feel constant fatigue that isn't fixed by sleep. It leads to a difficulty concentrating and poor memory.


If you have higher estrogen levels, you may experience more headaches. The fluctuation of hormones can can lead to chronic headaches and migraines. According to Northwestern Medicine, this might occur before your period, during pregnancy, after childbirth, during perimenopuase and menopause, or while taking hormonal birth control. It can also occur while receiving gender affirming care, like hormone therapy. The lack of sleep, anxiety, and burnout associated with the mental load can all lend a hand to frequent headaches.

Stress from a parent's mental load can wreak havoc on the body, releasing chemicals causing the body to react in 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 and 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.

Substance Use Disorder

In some cases, the stresses and emotional burden associated with a heavy mental load can lead to the use of substances, such as alcohol. While an occasional glass of wine when relaxing is fine, overuse can become problematic. Some signs that indicate a substance use disorder, include:

  • When the use of drugs and alcohol leads to impairment
  • Disconnect from family
  • The inability to tend to normal daily responsibilities

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 5.5 million women have an alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol is no cure for stressors of parenthood according to Dr. Avena. In fact, it can actually worsen symptoms associated with mental disorders.

How to Ease Your Mental Load

When the problem is that parents are simply doing too much, the solution is to stop doing so much. That can be easier said than done since asking for help doesn't always come easily for parents, nor do they always have someone to ask. But there are ways to manage the mental load.

Draw boundaries

Parents 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. Healthy boundaries also allow you the ability to carve out time for yourself and your health.


Parents 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 ask a friend for help when needed.

If there's no one around to delegate to, get some help from technology. Some ideas include:

  • Putting your toilet paper and diapers on a subscription
  • Adding reminders in the phone for the plant watering schedule
  • Automating your bills
  • Utilizing a meal plan company like Every Plate or Hello Fresh
  • Having your child's appointments programmed into your calendar

Putting responsibilities on autopilot eliminates some mental burden by turning things you have to remember into tasks. That way, 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 five 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 parents 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 parent's mental health affects everything from how they manage their daily routine to their physical health. Sometimes outside help is needed and that's totally OK. Every parent has their 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 parent support group.

Ultimately, it's time for caregivers to normalize taking breaks. After all, children need a happy and healthy parent more than they need a perfect one.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles