It’s invisible and, at times, all-consuming. Mothers call it the “mental load”— the work of managing the sometimes-overwhelming stream of responsibilities and obligations for her family and household. This “mental load” often includes scheduling doctor’s appointments and parent-teacher conferences, signing up for camps, filling out forms, remembering birthdays and more.
According to Dr. Amber Salvador, clinical psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, this type of mental labor isn’t necessarily new. Gender roles date back to prehistoric times of hunters and gatherers, when men served as providers and women stayed closer to home taking care of the family. Though gender roles have evolved significantly, women often still bear the bulk of their household duties.
“Although the traditional role of women has shifted over time, it may be generational patterns of women taking on this position — daughters watching how their mothers manage a household — which influences the ‘mental load’ phenomenon to this day,” says Salvador.
However, she warns that carrying the heavy load at all times has its downsides, including:
- Low energy, motivation and libido
- Anxiety or anger outbursts
- Feelings of isolation
- Lack of self-care
In addition, the increased demand can impact the immune system, causing health issues, including headaches; head, neck and shoulder tension; back pain; and gastrointestinal distress.
“All of these can affect relationships, causing tension and conflict between partners, particularly if a woman does not feel as though she has enough support,” says Salvador.
So can the mental load be shifted? “Yes, but it has to be intentional,” says Salvador. “A woman has to be willing to let go of some of the responsibilities and delegate them to others in the family, if available.”
Salvador adds that women’s expectations may also have to adjust, meaning things may not be completed exactly the way she would have done it.
In addition to letting go, Salvador says coping with responsibilities requires self-care and support through family and friends.
“Self-care is often put on the back burner for many parents, and that leads to running on fumes from an empty tank,” says Salvador.
Salvador suggests getting proper nutrition, daily exercise and adequate nightly sleep as part of a self-care regime. In addition, asking friends or family to help so parents can have a date night or take a brief vacation can be helpful.
“Mother’s guilt is far too common, especially with the pressure to be a perfect mom who can do it all,” says Salvador. “Challenge unjustified guilt and ask for help.”