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Sharp Health News

A mother’s mental load

Aug. 16, 2017

A mother’s mental load

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. In ordinary times, this “mental load” often includes scheduling doctor’s appointments and parent-teacher conferences, signing up for camps, filling out forms, remembering birthdays and more.

During the current "new normal" of COVID-related quarantine and social distancing, the "mental load" can shift to homeschooling duties, grocery delivery orders and managing communication with friends and family members.

According to Dr. Dara Schwartz, a 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 Schwartz.

However, she warns that carrying the heavy load at all times has its downsides, including:

  • Exhaustion
  • 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 Schwartz.

So can the mental load be shifted? “Yes, but it has to be intentional,” says Schwartz. “A woman has to be willing to let go of some of the responsibilities and delegate them to others in the family, if available.”

Schwartz 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, Schwartz 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 Schwartz.

Schwartz 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 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 Schwartz. “Challenge unjustified guilt and ask for help.”

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