Project Mental (Un)Load: We Need to Talk About the Unspoken Burdens of Parenthood
If you haven't heard of it, the "mental load" is what we talk about when we say that moms sometimes do a lot more parenting than dads without even realizing it. It’s that endless to-do list that floats around in the back of your head: "I should call the pediatrician," "I have to hire a babysitter," "Is my child falling behind in school?" Even with good dads and partners, the mental load adds up. But why? Studies show that the burdens of parenting often fall on moms. A recent report from Bright Horizons Family Solutions found that working moms are three times more likely to manage the children’s schedules and household responsibilities than working dads.
Even when fathers want to be equal parents, the pressures and patriarchal expectations of corporate America often push them to work harder outside of the home—leaving more of the unpaid labors of parenting on Mom. And the missing narrative around the LGBTQ parenting experience leaves a big gap in access to parenting resources for all. When we do frame the mental load as a "mom issue," it's important to still acknowledge that the weight falls differently from mom to mom, too. Households with two moms might have to navigate finances in a unique way, moms of children with special needs may have added worries about planning therapy interventions, and Black moms are often forced to have tough conversations with their children that other parents won’t ever experience.
If the weight of the mental load wasn't already felt heavily enough, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, we watched it add pounds on parents' backs. And again, society expects mothers to bear the brunt of parenting burdens even more. Statistics show that navigating remote learning, child care, and upcoming education decisions fall on moms, even when both parents work full-time.
It’s time to listen to the stories families are ready to tell. We need the paradigm to shift in parenting so families can have the resources they need to thrive.
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Where can weary mothers go for rest? Priscilla Blossom, a Latinx mom in Colorado, wants to know.
“I feel like I can never keep up because I don’t get breaks or have enough support. Part of that is just the current dynamic in my household. [The rest] is that my partner doesn’t realize just how much work I put in,” said Blossom, who believes receiving regular acknowledgment might make a difference.
Like many U.S. moms, she’s the primary caretaker of their son and doing what she can to grow her career while supporting her husband through an unstable job market.
“Sometimes, I end up being almost apologetic when I don’t get around to everything—including not reminding my husband of things that he’s responsible for even when he doesn’t ask that of me.”
Blossom is convinced that despite effort, she’s inherited the same mental load and labor she witnessed growing up in her immigrant home. Like her mother, she’s managing a sea of overwhelming responsibilities—and knows that list will only get longer.
“Although fathers’ contributions to child care have increased in recent decades, mothers continue to spend more time with children and take on more of their basic needs,” says Kelly Musick, a professor of policy analysis and management and sociology at Cornell University, noting how these differences continue to inform gender gaps in work and earnings.
In her study, How Parents Fare: Mothers’ and Fathers’ Subjective Well-Being in Time With Children, Musick, suggests gender differences in parental well-being—mothers are less happy, more stressed, and with more significant fatigue in time with children than fathers—reflect the kinds of things mothers and fathers do with children.
Mothers spend more time with children in relatively onerous activities like basic child care, managing child care decisions, cooking, and cleaning, whereas fathers spend more time in activities high in enjoyment and low in stress, like play and leisure, the study reads before noting that mothers spend more time alone with children and have less leisure time.
Her research joins a 2016 study evaluating the impact of narrow gender roles on mother’s experiences of work-family guilt and work-interfering-with-family guilt.
“These findings push us to think through how the social pressures of intensive parenting differ for mothers and fathers," says Musick. "Ultimately, they can help us think through how we might shift parental roles to allow both mothers and fathers more flexibility in their time with children.”
A Shifting Landscape
As the dynamics of U.S. motherhood shift rapidly, Blossom wonders why it’s still so hard to see herself reflected in the mothering conversation. She’s a queer, first-generation Latinx working mother of one.
Mothers are more educated than ever and often employed—occasionally even as the primary breadwinner. Information from Pew Research Center notes that women are more likely to become mothers than ever before. And nothing—including having to delay their plans—is stopping them.
The origin story of U.S. families is also shifting. As the ethnic makeup of the United States continues to diversify, so does the number of Americans with immigrant mothers. Similarly, class and discrimination barriers, age, relationship status, gender, or sexual orientation don’t prevent individuals from creating families on their terms thanks to resources like Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) and egg freezing. (Although class barriers and discrimination remain.)
The demographics of motherhood has changed, but its portrayal hasn’t. Too often, motherhood is synonymous with martyr, wealthy, and white. In a post by Nora Doyle, an assistant professor of history at Salem College, she writes that a simple Google search will show you images of moms who all look the same: "She is almost uniformly white or light-skinned, young, attractive, healthy, and her clothing and surroundings (not to mention the time that she has to dedicate to her children) suggest a comfortable, or even affluent, economic status." She adds that these portrayals emerged in magazines and books printed as early as the 1830s. This stagnant depiction of mothering is a grave disservice to an ever-shifting society. And a sizable portion can be credited to us not having the right conversations.
We should be having an explicit conversation on how perceptions around identities—namely gender and race—disadvantage all who mother, albeit to varying degrees. Instead, we’ve packaged the stressors of mothering as a prize—complete with proof that women are pre-programmed as nurturers and caretakers with the inherent skill of family management.
This truth is visible in our obsession with research that documents the physiological shifts following pregnancy—and the irreplaceable act of mothering—while society refuses to develop infrastructure that makes it possible to meet those demands without strain. Researchers at Louisiana State University even went as far as comparing oxytocin levels in the brains of male and female mice to conclude that female brain cells are involved in inducing maternal behavior. The result of this and other bodies of research ultimately suggest mothers are made for struggle although society isn’t made for support.
In the face of so much research and so little change, one must ask two core questions: How do we spend less time demystifying the science of motherhood and more time creating support networks that lessen the mental load? And how can we facilitate this conversation to reflect a continuously evolving parenting landscape?
Starting The (Right) Dialogue
“[It] includes remembering the Zoom calls for each child, remembering to confirm the dental appointments in two days, buying a gift for her partner’s mom’s upcoming birthday, asking her partner to call the plumber for the leaky sink, remembering to cancel her subscription later in the week before her card is charged,” says Lockhart.
The more marginalized identities that one holds, the more substantial the load.
“The biggest stressor for me is the true lack of quality time I have for myself,” began Tonya Abari, a Nashville-based Black American who homeschools in addition to her career.
She lists the usual things—school, cleaning, meal prep, and errands—that rob her of much-needed quiet time. Yet, she knows her husband faces his own struggles as a first-generation Nigerian-American, so she often swallows her frustration.
While Abari is happy to instill cultural pride and self-love in her daughter, she admits the necessity of lessons on race can be exhausting. “Not only am I contending with parenting and schooling, but the emotional labor of having to explain racism and microaggressions when there’s no way to implement proper self-care is taxing,” she says.
“When you look out into the world, Black moms have such negative perspectives thrown at them that they spend most of their time as mothers navigating between trusting their own identity and being judged for either fitting or not fitting into the boxes people have placed them in.”
Marginalized mothers are working to blend societal expectations with a culturally reflective style of mothering.
“It’s having parents who sacrificed so much for us to come to a nation that frequently seems to hate them, and trying to explain to them that this place isn’t all they thought it would be, while also having to appear grateful for all we have and were given,” says Blossom of the stress of being first generation.
The Effects of Stress on Mothering
Lockhart says the mental load isn’t just mental—it’s physical, too.
“When a mom is going nonstop, her immune system and physical health can be significantly depleted.” She also highlights the perpetual cycle of overwhelm and doubt.
A 2010 study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that women were more likely to report physical symptoms of stress, such as headache and upset stomach or indigestion. We also know that chronic stress increases the risk of biological aging and other chronic health issues, like hypertension.
Previously it was believed that the value of intensive mothering—a term coined by sociologist Sharon Hays, Ph.D., to describe a “child-centered,” highly sacrificial method of parenting—for children’s well-being would offset any consequences faced while mothering. Musick reflects on previous research and questions the truth of these beliefs, as fathers reported less strain, but valued parenting equally.
The study asks how stress and fatigue impact the quality of mothering and questions the impact of mothers following fathers’ model and using time for more enjoyable activities in exchange for less time overall. The feasibility of this isn’t simple, yet the questions push us towards equity with the health of the entire family in mind.
Samudio says it’s necessary to diversify our dialogue on mothering to break past the racial and gendered assumptions—if we want change.
“No matter how much information is out there—if different identities and voices aren’t represented, then we haven’t changed much," Samudio says. "We need to systemically change the way parenting is discussed—move it away from the parent being the sole person who must learn parenting skills and open it up to community resources that support families from all identities.”
Let’s start the conversation.
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