Do you feel fatigued from all the decision making, the need to remember all those items on the endless to do list and the weight of parenting and household responsibilities? There’s a term for this experience – “The Mental Motherload”. The mental motherload is a reality for many modern women where gains have been made in workplace participation and freedom to make other life choices, but despite these added responsibilities, women are still completing the bulk of all the childcare and household responsibilities. For many women, this results in feeling fatigued, anxious and unable to fulfill their own potential. To eliminate this burden, we need a shift in societal expectations in what both genders ‘should’ be doing and cultural changes in workplaces to make it easier for both men and women to access family friendly arrangements. I can’t fix these systemic issues but as an Occupational Therapist, I know some other tricks to help ease that burden, also known as cognitive load.
I’m not talking about strict routines where things must be done in a particular order at a particular time. Some people find rigidity comforting but most people find strict routines stressful or limiting. But a loose routine for various times of the day and week, removes decision making, leverages the power of habits and reduces the need for willpower – all wins for the brain!
A lot of clients ask me what the perfect routine is, but there is no single formula. Your routine will depend on the various factors in your life such as whether you have a partner, number and age of your children and whether you are in paid employment. It can be helpful to make sure some self-care is part of one or two daily routines.
Examples from my own life include:
- Wake up: Make bed, put exercise clothes on, make cup of tea, read for 30 minutes then exercise
- Once our son wakes: Unload & hangout nappies from the washing machine, eat breakfast together, prep dinner
- Sunday mornings pre COVID-19: Go to the market, have brunch there, complete food prep / cooking for the week when we get home
It’s okay to say no
Many women struggle to say no. This is in large part due to the subtle and not so subtle messages we receive about the need to ‘do everything or be a ‘good mother’. The good news is that if you struggle to say no, this is something you can learn and get practice at. Start with the small, inconsequential no’s and build up to the bigger no’s such as declining additional responsibilities in the workplace or a request from an influential family member. If you really struggle with saying no, despite your best efforts, it’s worth getting some professional help on this. Leaning to say no to things you either don’t have the capacity to do or don’t want to do will help provide more mental capacity to do the things you value.
It’s also important to note here that it’s good to reflect on why you want to say no. If it’s no to a promotion or big lifestyle change that is driven by fear in your own capability, such as the all too common imposter syndrome, that’s a whole other story. Managing all the other legitimate no’s will help with your capacity to see the yes in these circumstances.
Utilise technology and automation
If you have a task that needs doing repeatedly, why not see if it can be automated. This reduces the load on what is referred to as your prospective memory – the part of memory responsible for remembering future events and tasks. It also reduces some of the decision making in many instances. Things that you can automate through various technology can include:
- Finances: Consider if using direct debit to pay regular bills, and automatically scheduling depositing transactions for savings will work for you
- Shopping: Perhaps you would benefit from having your basic groceries and household supplies delivered on a set basis. There’s also a range of subscription options now from a range of products from ethical toilet paper to coffee and children’s books.
- Calendar: My full utilisation of my Google calendar recently led me to reflect on the need to find a backup for all this data. Everything is in there. Pop in birthdays and tick the ‘annual’ box so you don’t have to go through the process each year. Tick a reminder a few days prior and you won’t forget to get organised in time, or a reminder a month or two earlier to buy a present.
- Environment: Do you want to foster a particular atmosphere in your household at a set time? The rise of smart technology enables this. Despite being a busy toddler in the household, our evenings feel generally Zen. At a set time, the lights change to a soft warm glow thanks to Smart LED globes, the heating turns on to combat the Melbourne winter, and on weekends we add music to the mix. This results in what Occupational Therapist’s call an external cue. It drives behaviour and as a result, your mood.
- To-do lists and meal planning – programs like Trello can really help with efficiency and reduce our need to remember what we need to do or what we like to cook.
- Passwords: They keep our information secure but with the number the average person needs to remember for various accounts and the need for a different one for each account it is getting out of hand. A password manager is a great solution to this. I use LastPass but there are many on the market.
Optimise your environment
As Occupational Therapist’s we are highly trained in looking at the impact of people’s environment on how they manage their occupations (day to day tasks). For your brain to function optimally, it needs a physical and social environment to support it. A home free of busy visual clutter enables better focus for most people. This is easier said than done when you have small children but ensuring you don’t end up with too many toys and having good storage for toys to live in will go a long way. If you want your child to have access to a range of toys, a toy library can be a great option to reduce the clutter.
An organised home also helps reduce the mental burden of managing a household whilst living a big life. It doesn’t need to be Instagram worthy to be effective, but a place for everything and a few systems in place can do wonders for your cognitive functioning.
Our social environment also plays a large role in how our brain functions, including our mood, our optimism and mental energy. When you find yourself repeatedly drained or flat from contact with another person or people, perhaps it’s time to reflect on whether it’s appropriate to either reduce contact or remove them altogether.
Divide and conquer
In a similar vein to the social environment above, our relationships with a partner are going to greatly impact the amount of mental load we are under. In Australia, women in heterosexual relationships still do the bulk of domestic duties, including childcare, even when they are also in full time paid employment. One of the biggest things you can do for your own wellbeing and mental capacity is to work out a division of labour in the household that works for both of you. What this looks like is different for every relationship but it’s important that you are not automatically the default person for all thing’s children and housework. If you have a partner that is respectful and also takes responsibility for getting things done, it can be worth making sure you are not doubling up on tasks that just need one person. It’s the classic divide and conquers strategy. This will free up mental capacity for both parties as you know exactly who is doing what. For example, in our household, we have recently divided up present purchasing into yearly quarters and take turns each quarter. I don’t need to wonder if he’s organised something for an upcoming friend’s birthday or birth because it’s already been delegated. We do share Christmas shopping though because that’s like a hobby for us!
Evaluate your self-expectations
Sometimes our mental load is enormous due to an imbalance in relationships, but our expectations of ourselves can also contribute to an unnecessarily high mental burden. Now let me qualify this by saying I support high expectations of ourselves. I don’t subscribe to the ‘crummy mummy’ type ideologies, and the bulk of my clients are women who have high expectations of themselves and what they want to get out of life. But in order to achieve in meaningful ways (which looks different for everyone), it’s important to assess which areas of your life deserve your full efforts and attention and what areas don’t bring added value. Many of our self-expectations are internalised ideas of what modern and historic culture has implied what a good woman should look like. This can make it hard to reflect on what truly matters to you and where you want to spend your mental energy. Hopefully, the reset forced on us by the pandemic has given you some capacity to reflect. If you’re still not sure, perhaps an honest conversation with a partner, trusted friend, or even a Psychologist or Occupational Therapist might help give you the clarity you need to make decisions that support your brain and ultimately your happiness.
Hopefully, you have picked up an idea or two to help reduce that Mental Motherload. It’s important to acknowledge that there are some big, cultural factors at play but there are definitely small steps you can take to help regain some brain capacity and allow yourself the mental space to live the life you aspire to.
Emma Diepenhorst is an Occupational Therapist who helps women to identify personalised strategies to build a meaningful life that fosters both physical and mental health. She enjoys using science and research and translates them into practical strategies that work in the real world. Emma holds a Masters in Occupational Therapy Studies, a Post Graduate Diploma in Psychology and Bachelor of Science (Psychology). She founded Elevation Women’s Health following the birth of her son after realising the disconnect between physical and mental health guidance for new parents.