There were so many parts of early motherhood that, while difficult, I at least knew what to expect. The sleepless nights and the constant feeding were never pleasant, per se, but after reading endless baby books, they hardly came as a surprise to me, either. Instead, the element of parenthood that gave me the biggest shock crept up on me over time.
I first began to feel it in earnest once my daughter had begun sleeping through the night, and I continued to feel exhausted despite finally getting some more shut-eye. I would soon learn that what I was feeling was a common phenomenon, something often referred to as the invisible labor of motherhood—often also called the mental load.
Learning About the Invisible Labor of Motherhood
I first heard about the idea of invisible labor when I learned about the book Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live) by Eve Rodsky.
The book outlines a system for couples to divvy up chores and responsibilities, written in response to Rodsky’s realization that she had become the “default parent” in her relationship. Rodsky realized that she had taken on the invisible labor of the household, creating an unequal balance in parenting duties.
Learning about the invisible load of motherhood was like a lightbulb going off in my head, helping me better understand my complicated feelings over my daughter’s life. You see, while my husband is a genuinely wonderful person and dedicated father, our year and a half of parenthood left me feeling more worn down than he seemed to be. Prior to learning about the invisible load of motherhood, I had chalked this up to him simply being a more adept parent than I was. Perhaps he had taken to fatherhood more quickly and comfortably than I had motherhood, and that was why I always felt tired and at my wit’s end.
I realized my constant sense of being overwhelmed wasn’t due to becoming a mother, per se—it was due to the extra jobs that I had taken on in addition to it. My husband and I never had conversations about who would be in charge of planning out her meals each day, figuring out her sleep schedule, doing the laundry, and other household tasks. Whether it was due to my “it’s-just-easier-if-I-do-it” personality or something else, these were all roles I automatically took on at the onset of motherhood.
“Just Tell Me How I Can Help” is Not Helpful
When I spoke with my husband about all of this, his response was well-meaning and infuriating: How can I help? He, of course, meant this with the best intentions, hoping he could help take some of the strain that I had felt on my life out of my hands and head. But here’s the problem: Telling him how he could help was just giving me one more thing to do. I truly believe that one of the hardest parts of invisible labor is grappling with the fact that it can often feel like it’s easier to just do something yourself than ask for help. After all, asking someone to help me do the laundry or reminding them to make a meal is just adding more for my brain to take in, and at least getting the task done will give me a scrap of dopamine.
But this also left us at an impasse—how could I get help if I didn’t have the mental capacity to ask for it?
Ways to Lighten the Mental Load
Here’s the thing: A year and a half into motherhood, I still haven’t figured out how to deal with this problem, and I know it will only grow with age. However, while I haven’t gotten to a point where everything is figured out yet, there are certain things I’ve found that have helped.
Write down what you do
In other words, make the invisible labor visible. I went through the exercise of writing down everything I do in a day, and I’ll admit I was kind of shocked at everything there was. Writing everything down and seeing it physically in front of you is sometimes the kick you need to realize you do have too much on your plate. It also helps to have it laid out to discuss with your partner.
Manage expectations with your partner
On that note, speaking with your partner about what your day looks like and having a list can help to manage expectations on where they can help. Instead of asking for help on tasks throughout the day, going through a list of items one by one and assigning responsibility can immediately help to even out the labor.
You can do this on a weekly basis, a monthly basis, or even a daily basis if it’s easier. However you choose to do it, speaking with your partner and evening the responsibilities can make a marked difference in your life.
I can’t speak to whether this applies to every woman, but I know it applies to many that I know. Despite being overwhelmed with work and tasks, it can still be hard to release control and let someone else handle things. Even though my husband is fully capable of doing everything my daughter needs, I still sometimes find I need to stop myself from giving suggestions or trying to take over. Perhaps it’s just my personality, but realizing I needed to release control to be able to lighten the mental load was a pretty stunning discovery.
Find emotional support
On that note, asking for help is also key. Whether it’s from your partner, family, friends, or anyone in your life you trust, having moments where you can vent or just speak to what’s on your mind can make a huge difference. The invisible labor of motherhood can seem like a pretty daunting and lonely road, but it doesn’t have to be when you have others who can commiserate.