How to Get a Break From the Mental Load of Motherhood
I recently polled a bunch of friends on Facebook about what they wanted for Mother's Day, with a caveat that they couldn't give me any cutesy replies, like "Oh, just a handmade card and time with my kids." I wanted real, honest answers.
Their wildly different responses were funny, sweet, and inspiring. But ultimately, every mom had one wish in common: they wanted to be free of stress, guilt, and worry. They wanted their spouses to just "handle things" at home for One. Single. Day.
I was surprised. I don't know all of their husbands, but the ones I do know are healthy, capable, loving guys. They're good fathers and husbands. How is it possible that so many of them are dropping the ball? Are they really that unhelpful or clueless? Not only did these moms desperately need a break, many of them didn't even think it was possible.
Maybe someday, they sighed wistfully.
They're not in the minority: Everyone is talking about the mental load right now, and how it's a burden that mothers alone are carrying. In order to keep our families afloat in the age of modern parenting, mothers have to remember a mind-boggling catalog of stuff, 365 days a year. This means that everything from when the school bake sale is to how much toilet paper is stockpiled in the basement is our responsibility. And if we're not remembering it, it's not getting done.
That's a problem. Expending so much mental energy on anything—especially something as busy, chaotic, and confusing as raising a family in 2018—is exhausting. I know, because I used to carry our family's mental load all by myself, too. It was taxing, physically and emotionally, and I felt like I would never be able to get away from it.
Maybe someday, I thought. Meanwhile, I was being crushed under the weight of my own motherhood.
When my third son was born, I had had enough. I couldn't remember everything and I certainly couldn't do everything, either. So I tried something strange and a little scary. I handed some of the mental load over to my husband. I passed it right along like a hot potato. Here, honey! This has gotten pretty heavy. I'm going to need you to hold some of it.
That makes it sound super easy, but it actually wasn't. It was a process, one that started with me admitting something major: that I couldn't carry all this responsibility by myself. Even if I could, I didn't think I should have to. We were in this family thing together; why was the mental load exclusively mine?
Then I had to admit something else kind of major: that I was partly to blame for how much responsibility I had taken on. My husband always wanted to help more, but didn't really know how—sometimes, I refused to ask for what I needed (because I thought he should "just know"), and other times, I wanted to be the one in control. I was used to running the show, and it was hard to let my husband do things his way.
So I swallowed my pride on both counts and started asking for more help. 365 days a year, too, not just on Mother's Day. The trick was asking for the right kind of help: Rather than serving as a family micromanager, doling out random tasks left and right, I asked my husband to take on certain responsibilities as his own. Can you be in charge of remembering this thing? Can you be responsible for keeping an eye on that? Can you put a reminder in your calendar to check on that every Wednesday?
Engaging him in this way meant that I didn't always have to remember to ask for the help I needed (which only adds to the mental load). But it also meant that my husband had the opportunity to really understand the dynamics of our household and step up to play an equal-sized role. He wasn't just checking off boxes on a "honey-do" list and then never thinking about them again. He was involved in our day-to-day functioning in a way he had never been before.
The result was remarkable. My husband started seeing what needed to be done with his own eyes. It started with external stuff, like chores: grabbing that load of laundry in the hallway on his way to the basement, washing the lettuce for our salad at dinner, sweeping up the Cheerios under the kitchen table. Eventually, his help changed over to more "internal" things: handling all the scheduling for our son's occupational therapy appointments, telling the kids to come get him if they needed something (instead of interrupting me while I'm working), offering to attend a parent-teacher conference during his lunch break so I didn't have to arrange childcare at home.
He was anticipating our family's needs and how he could contribute to them, and I didn't even have to ask anymore. Our kids began viewing him as a valuable source of assistance, someone they could go to to solve their problems or meet their needs. I felt my mental load start to shrink a little.
Now, three years later, there are things I almost never have to think about because they're part of my husband's mental load—not mine. He pays attention to what's running low in the house and adds it to the grocery list. He figures out what the kids can eat for snack or lunch on the weekends and takes the initiative to make it. He's in charge of emergency supplies in our house: everything from batteries and flashlights to first aid kits and bottled water.
Every once in a while, I remind him how helpful these things are; I reinforce how nice it is to have a few less things to worry about. Like most men, he may not totally "get" the mental load, but he likes understanding—in concrete ways—how he's contributing. In that way, this change has benefitted him, too. He's more confident in his role as husband and father. He thrives on knowing he's helping me in a truly useful way. He doesn't bat an eye when I say I need some time to myself, and I take that time without any stress, guilt, or worry.
I know asking for help is hard, and asking for the right kind of help is even harder. But most of us are married to good men who want to help. We just don't know how to explain the help we need, and they just don't know how to offer it, not in ways that actually alleviate any of the pressures of modern motherhood. We have to tell them. We have to show them. When I handed some of my mental load over to my husband, he finally understood how heavy it really is—and I haven't had to carry it alone ever since.