You know that thing, where a phone is running hot and the battery is draining quickly, and they tell you to close the hundred programs you didn’t realize were always running in the background?
That’s my brain. Except I can’t close the programs or my children die homeless, naked, and hungry.
That phenomenon is known as the mental load. It’s the invisible work that makes up the position of Family CEO, because it entails all the management of being a CEO, without any of the pay or recognition. This is also the only CEO position filled almost exclusively by women.
Hang on, I hear the dryer ending and I need to change over the load from our camping trip so we have clean towels before I start the dinner I prepped days ago that will expire tomorrow. BRB.
So how do we declutter our minds? We can slow down and simplify this mental space just as we have our homes and our schedules.
After the birth of our first child I was having a breakdown trying to get the diaper bag packed before we left. My husband responded in characteristically supportive fashion with, “Just tell me what to get and I’ll get it,” which sent me into a near homicidal rage (I’m exaggerating).
This formative conversation did help me to see this phenomenon of the mental load, which I had never experienced before becoming a mother (housework had always been equitable in our modern feminist household).
Just as importantly, it helped me articulate it. “The weight that’s crushing me isn’t the task of grabbing a diaper, it’s the responsibility of always anticipating and planning for every potential need for each outing.”
Now, that one conversation didn’t eliminate the burden of the mental load from my mothering life. It’s an ongoing balance that we revisit regularly as our family and life evolves. But it’s a part of the conversation in our marriage and that makes all the difference.
To delegate is to entrust a responsibility to another person. What a perfect definition for a conversation around the mental load. Entrust responsibilities (not tasks).
There’s an over-functioning/under-functioning dynamic that a lot of partners find themselves in where one leans so far forward that there is no space for the other to do anything but lean back. To break out of this cycle, you have only to stand up straight.
Send your partner the link to this comic explaining the mental load, make a list of all your invisible responsibilities, and invite your partner to choose some. Now here’s the part that is going to be the hardest for you: let it go. Don’t remind, criticize, or check. Let natural consequences happen. Be truly okay with your partner’s version of completing the tasks associated with that responsibility.
For me, it feels like juggling, and when I invite my husband in to take over a responsibility, I visualize myself passing him that ball – I let it go.
Then revisit seasonally and make adjustments. Have a date night in which you go out to dinner and talk about what you’ve learned, what’s working well, what could be changed, and how you can function more fairly and efficiently.
If you have taken the Bucket System class, then you are all too familiar with this concept in the context of leaning back so your children can grow into this space of intrinsically motivated responsibility. If you haven’t, then I highly recommend it.
Children want to participate in the work of the home to grow in their competence and feel valued. It starts young when they are 2 years old and want to cook and when they are 3 years old and want to choose their own clothes. If you honor the independence they reach for, it will blossom. Entrust them with responsibility.
It won’t be perfect. In fact, it’s guaranteed to be messy. But the gains are immense. My kids do their laundry when they anticipate needing clothes (yes, I find lego minifigures in my dryer). They add ingredients for meals they want to cook to the grocery list (yes, sometimes we have mac n’ cheese and baked beans for dinner). When I say yes to the independence they want, I end up with less mental load down the road.
Delegating also includes outsourcing. This means asking friends and family or hiring help when you need it. Someone comes to deep clean our house once a month so I don’t have to worry about the quality of cleaning that happens as a team effort on a daily basis. I don’t think about the deep cleaning of the house and that is where I get my value on those dollars spent – the lightening of my mental load.
I would include Sage Coaching in this category too – you give me the weight of your family’s challenges for a month and I lighten your load moving forward.
If you’re frugal like me, this can be a tough one to pull the trigger on, but it can also really help. You know I say to put your money into your values. I only get my hair cut once a year, I never get my nails done, I can count the number of pairs of shoes I own on one hand, and I do not shop for sport. I say no to a lot, so that I can say yes to a monthly housecleaning.
According to one study on the inequity of women’s responsibilities managing the household, we are the “unofficial keepers of where the entire family needs to be and when, and perpetual guardians against anything falling through the cracks.”
Even in a consciously unbusy family, an immense amount of mental energy goes into managing our time and energy. Perhaps even more since our life is not bogged down with routine commitments but instead novel, flexible, and experience rich. Some families make choices once a year when they sign up for a school, math tutor, dance class, and soccer team. Every week is different for us, which we love, but also requires a lot of managerial decisions within a variable schedule.
If we were hanging out and you asked me what I was doing in 2 days, I would tell you, “I have no idea, but I can check my calendar.” Our family google calendar is my sanity-saving life line. I put everything in the calendar and release it from my mind. It’s like an external hard drive for my brain.
If I notice a kid is needing more outside time, I pick a cool nature spot and put it in the calendar. If we need to return library books, I add it to the calendar. Travel, friends, appointments – it’s all there. The calendar is how we hold the space for our priorities. I don’t have to remember any of it. We live by the calendar like a bible.
One key feature of our calendaring system is that it syncs automatically to every family member’s devices. This means that everything doesn’t have to run through me. If your friend calls and wants to know if you can see a movie together on Saturday, you just check the calendar and either say no or add it in. If my husband’s boss wants him to fly out of town, he need only go to the calendar right there in his phone for availability and scheduling. We all have access and we’re all on the same page, literally and figuratively.
After my family members and my calendar, my Notes are my most essential strategy for mental decluttering. That little notes app on my phone is where the bulk of my mental load lives outside of my head. Remember that juggling metaphor in which I handed some balls off? This is how I set some balls down. Wow that is a lot of using the word balls. (I started with, “I put my balls in someone else’s hands,” but decided against it.)
Write it down, let it go, attend routinely.
My lists below are all verbs and are based on things I found I was often trying to remember. But I encourage you to start your own notes, right on your phone, based on the thorns you find sticking in your mind.
Do: This is my to-do list, which includes Present and Future. Present tasks are things like “schedule dental cleaning” and future tasks are things like “record audio book for Sage Homeschooling.”
Buy: This is my list of things we want or need to purchase, in order of priority, pending funds availability and waiting period (to avoid impulse purchasing). For example, larger socks for Bay is above larger capacity hot water heater. I also have my kids’ and husband’s names under the main list, where I jot down things they mention wanting, which I then pull from for gift giving.
Watch: This is my list of films or shows that I hear about and want to watch. It may seem silly, but trying to remember the name of a documentary is a ball I will juggle until I see it if I don’t write it down.
Read: This is my reading queue – the list of books I want to read, in order of priority.
Adventure: This is my list of adventure ideas that people mention or I see online that pique my interest. Once an adventure is planned, it’s in the calendar, but before then, those ideas live here. For example, horseback riding was an adventure 2 of my 3 kids put on their experience list during our seasonal bucket system collaboration and it sat here on this list while I asked around and googled and called to find the right opportunity. Things finally came together right in time for Sky’s birthday and as soon as I made the reservation and planned the trip around it, it was deleted from this list and put in the calendar.
Heal: This is my list of issues I’m keeping an eye on and/or that I need to bring up to various health professionals. I have each of our names and a list of things I notice or need for each. For example, questionable mole on a kid’s back. The next time that kid was at the doc’s, I asked her to check on it (it was perfectly fine).
Eat: This is my list of anything helpful that I want to remember around food. It might be a restaurant we all like with a Sunday kids eat free night or an instant pot meal someone recommended. If it’s official meal planning, it goes in the calendar, if it’s still in the inspiration stage, it lives here (and doesn’t take up precious real estate in my mind).
If you read my morning routine post, you know how I start my days, but the first thing I do after the end of that routine, is sit down and address my to Do list. I might, for example, have “schedule doctor’s appointment for Sky” on my present to do list, so this is the time when I call and make that appointment, and I might write “get albuterol Rx refill” from the Sky Heal list in the notes for the appointment in the calendar, then I delete those things from my lists.
When the kids ask to get or do things, I jot them down here and they know that if it’s written down on the list, I’m working on it. They don’t have to harass me because they have learned that they can trust that if it’s here on a list, I’m taking care of it.
We live in an attention economy, which means that your attention is being pulled from every angle. One place where most people have room to simplify the mental clutter is by automating more of those mundane, repeat tasks.
Money is automatically transferred to a lot of things that we have consciously chosen on the first of each month, reducing loads of time and mental energy spent on transferring to savings and bills. Even something like grocery pick up, which may add a few bucks in tip money, reduces all the time spent and choices required wandering through grocery aisles (and all the money spent on impulse buys). Look around for things you can automate and you will lessen your mental load.
I would include the Minimalist Wardrobe class in this category as well. My wardrobe was a stress point that siphoned significant mental energy before I overhauled my approach to shopping and getting dressed. Now it’s basically automated.
Mom brain is a real thing! But it’s not an inherent deficiency of biological motherhood – it’s a sociological condition that we can work to improve by sharing the mental load, pulling things from the abstract into the physical realm by writing them down, and improving efficiency with automation. These 4 steps can drastically reduce the crushing overwhelm you might be experiencing from carrying the weight of the mental load: delegate, calendar, list, and automate.