Martorella: Mental overload

Quick, answer these questions:

What are your children’s clothing sizes? Who is outgrowing their shoes? Where do you get new swimsuits? When are camp forms due? Hot lunch or home lunch today? Where is the lunch menu? Does anyone need a snack? Does anyone have a field trip? Did you sign the permission slip? Is it gym day or library? Do they have their sneakers or books? What are the schedules after school? Does everyone have a ride?

Is it your day to drive the carpool? Where is their gear? Is their uniform washed? What’s for dinner? How much milk do you have? What are you doing this weekend? Do you need a babysitter? Did you make reservations? What will you wear? Do you have cash to pay the sitter? Who is taking medication? How much? What time? Is it time for a refill? Which pharmacy do you use? When is the next doctor’s appointment? Did we get to the dentist recently?

Where is the baby’s lovey? Is your phone charged? Where is the charger? When is the end of school party/field day/presentation/graduation/show? Wait, did you sign up to bring something? Oh, where is that email…? Do you have a teacher’s gift? Whose birthday is coming up? Did you put the laundry in the dryer? Are any bills due today? This week? Did you renew the library books? Did anyone walk the dog? Are you running out of pet food? What time does the bus come?

This is a sample of the many questions that come up in an average day for an average family. Add to this work and volunteer responsibilities, vacation plans, and extended family needs and you can see why many of us feel our minds are exploding.

French artist/author Emma, recently published a comic entitled “You Should Have Asked” illustrating the realities of this “mental workload,” which can be more strenuous than any physical job. She sums up what I believe is the hardest part of motherhood: “The mental load means always having to remember [for everybody]…. It’s permanent and exhausting work. And it’s invisible.” And it never ends. There is always another thing to do, to get, to remember.

Though I try to resist generalizations and stereotypes, study after study has found that women do the majority of the housework and childcare whether or not they work outside the home, and the bulk of the “mental load” is also borne by women. At work, roles are often split — “planner” or “executor.” At home, a mom is usually both.

This can easily become overwhelming and create resentment within our relationships. One partner can have the best intentions, asking “How can I help?” but when they don’t address the mental burden of anticipating the needs and planning the solutions, the other still holds the responsibility of always knowing what needs to be done, when, and how, so their load isn’t lightened.

For example, here’s a typical “crazy morning” conversation –

Dad: “How can I help?”

Mom (hesitates): “Can you make the kids’ lunches?”

Dad: “Sure!” …. “Where are the lunch bags?...What should I pack?...What else do I put in there?...Do they get a drink?...Dessert?”

Mom (sighs angrily): “Never mind.” Packs lunches, likely thinking,“Figure it out!” in her head, while trying not to scream it into her partner’s face.

We may think, “Nobody taught me what to do, so why does he need detailed instructions?” Truth be told, we women likely were taught more about house and childcare than men - even indirectly: in our childhoods, through targeted women’s magazines, television shows, and social media sites (Pinterest anyone?), in Moms groups, and even via the most casual social banter. We watched our mothers balance the mental load and so did our partners. It’s no wonder we all still assume “mom knows best”.  

But it is frustrating to be the source of all the answers, especially when we are then expected to bear the responsibilities for their consequences (forgotten items, unappreciated dinners, disliked activities, rain/traffic/illness/acts of God).

What’s the solution? You can make To Do lists and chore charts (for partner AND children), packing lists, a calendar listing activities and items needed, and instruction sheets for repetitive tasks such as laundry. But this still sets expectations that you are the source of information and direction.

I have learned through personal burnout that if you really want to reduce your mental load, you have to let some things go. Skip tasks (no Christmas cards this year!), lower expectations (leftovers for dinner!), delegate both the task and the responsibility for it (you’ve got bills and soccer practice!), and accept that some things may be done differently yet still be done.

I’m still working on putting some of these tactics in place. I’ll let you know how it goes. Or maybe my husband will.

Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at