Easing the Psychic Burden of Motherhood

I’ve had a blog post draft in my Google Drive for over a year now about anxiety. It started out talking about my trials and tribulations of living with anxiety. It then meandered over to all the irrational fears I feel as a parent (trees limbs crashing through the roof–that sort of thing) to the rational, albeit largely uncontrollable, fears (injuries, illness, child predators) we face as parents. Then I dropped the rhetorical bomb: the anxiety of being a parent of a child with multiple food allergies, that invisible life-threatening enemy advancing from every surface. I even dug out an old New York Times Magazine article to quote (like pulled out the actual paper issue because I had, for some strange reason, saved it). But I haven’t been able to finish the post. And now it has occurred to me why. My anxiety is not the most draining aspect of motherhood, as I proposed in that draft. It’s something different, something far heavier. Something that wears down all of us mamas in this 24/7 roller coaster gig: the psychic burden of motherhood.

I read a story in the New York Times magazine some years back (because let’s be honest, we only get the Sunday Times for the magazine) about gender equality in parenting and it referred to the “literal and mental lists” parents keep, and the author, Lisa Belkin, quoted a couple who said the keeper of said lists is “the defacto C.E.O.” of the family. I started thinking of the keeping of those lists as a psychic burden. In a follow-up to that article, Lisa Belkin writes: “…even when they are not with their children, today’s mothers are, arguably, more likely to be thinking of them.  As Ms. Konigsberg notes: ‘Time diaries don’t take into account the stress women feel from being household managers.’” I am certainly that: our household’s manager, the keeper of the literal and mental To-Do lists. I am so tempted to add McPherson & Son, CEO, 2012 – present, to my professional resume.

Have you ever stopped to think about your daily personal To Do list? Like really deconstructed all the steps involved to get on with each and every day? Parenthood aside, my daily personal to-do list sometimes feels insurmountable. Sure, for most of us these routines are rote, and we have mastered ways to do them quickly, even efficiently (by brushing your teeth in the shower, say). But take just a minute to think about all the steps involved in getting out of the door on a work day.

First, you have to remember to wake up in time for work (thanks alarm clock, dog nose, and/or screeching child). Then you have to drag your half-asleep self out of bed, or hit snooze until you are freaking miserable and running very late, which only makes you frantic and miserable. If you are the fit type, you have to step into some exercise clothes and propel your body around the block for a jog. If you are the hygienic type, you have to drag your zombie self to the shower, turn it on, disrobe and step into the (hopefully by then) warm spray. While wet, you soap up, rinse down. You force yourself out by giving the faucet an “off” countdown like it’s New Year’s Eve. Once out you have to dry off and tend to your daily primping. All systems have to be accounted for: body, hair, teeth, bowels, bladder. There is the applying of deodorant, skin care, hair product, makeup. There is just so much to deal with. You have to pick out an outfit for your day’s adventure, appropriate for where that adventure takes you, and said outfit should be appropriate for the weather. Dressing involves layers! Underpants, overpants, socks, tights, ties. Oh and you have make sure your pants don’t still have that same dang stain on the thigh that you only ever notice at 3 PM. Once you are exercised, showered and/or dressed, you have to move to another room in your house (unless you live in the West Village) to break the fast with food and beverage, which involves getting out dishes and utensils in addition to the food and beverage itself. Then you have to consume it without soiling your outfit. And if you are a real go-getter you CLEAN UP after nourishing yourself. Before you walk out the door, you have to remember your keys, your phone, your transit card, your butt. I mean, how do any of us ever leave the house? And seriously, all that just to leave the house? I think I need a nap from just typing all this out. Oh wait, I am a mom. I can only nap when my child naps. (Wait, isn’t he napping right now? Of course he is–when else would I find some writing time? Waa-waah, sorry mom nap, it wasn’t meant to be today.)

Another article I read many years ago in the New York Times Magazine about decision fatigue (I swear I read other publications) validated a phenomenon I chalked up to being an indecisive individual. Making decisions makes us tired. Decision fatigue is, indeed, real. The more decisions we face in a day, the more exhausted we become by the small, seemingly insignificant decisions and the prospect of making any decision at all, big or small.  Take another minute to think of all the decisions you make for yourself in a day! I mean, I can’t even… Part of the heaviness of parenthood, the psychic burden, is all the decisions we have to make to keep another human being alive. Not only does the psychic burden of your own decisions pull you down on a regular basis, but as a parent you also have another set(s) of decisions to make for your opinionated, volatile, moody, stubborn–er, I mean delightful–child(ren).  A lot of our time as parents is spent bargaining and convincing. This alone wears on you (Fine! Wear your pj top in the tub and take that ball of Play-Doh with you! Just please get in the tub so I can wash the cheese out of the folds of your neck!) and it especially wears on you when you are the sole caregiver for 12 to 14 hours of the day, five to seven days a week. Add compounded decision fatigue to the constant bartering, and zzzzzzzz.

I am a stay-at-home mother and housewife to the letter. And not because my husband is unwilling to take on his share of our household’s psychic burden. I admit that I am a bit of a control freak who has trouble trusting that things will be done to my standard (also addressed in Belkin’s article). I am working on this. My husband’s main domestic job is the kitchen. I help out when I can do so without having to pull my son out of the dishwasher or out of the butter tub in the refrigerator. Our gendered imbalance of domestic chores is more because we play to our strengths in our division of labor. I happen to be very good, even in the face of my maternal depletion (our brains actually shrink, people!) at remembering to do things. I also have more time, albeit with a toddler in tow, than my husband with his 10-hour workdays and three-hour commute. So I happen to pay the bills; reconcile and plan the budget (we both approve it before it’s live); shop to stock the house; plan and cook all the meals (we used to eat out all the time before we found out about our son’s food allergies); wash, dry and fold the clothes; straighten the house nightly; gather the trash (my husband takes it out more often than I do); keep the boy clothed, diapered, fed and entertained; and I run most of the errands. I am the keeper of the literal and mental to-do lists in our house (though we have both taken to writing our to-do lists on our respective bathroom mirrors in red dry-erase marker). Managing the house and serving as the primary caregiver for our son is my job now, and I accept it as such, but that fact doesn’t make it any lighter. It is still a lot to shoulder. The psychic burden of motherhood is just that–a burden.

All this comes from a conversation with a friend over lunch where I tried to sell him on the idea of hiring a housekeeper for his wife, a fellow stay-at-home mama with two children under four, and hairy pets, and a big house in which they entertain often. He wasn’t buying what I was selling. I think my pitch was missing this crucial point: the psychic burden of housework. “I have to clean” nags on you at every mess, I mean, turn. And yes, they tell you in parenting class to let all of that chore nagging go. Just enjoy your time with your child, nap when he naps. But seriously, toilets don’t clean themselves. And laundry doesn’t wash itself. A housekeeper, even if she only comes once a month or every two weeks, alleviates a small piece of a mama’s psychic burden. That I don’t have to worry about polishing the front of our stainless steel refrigerator or vacuuming under the bed lifts a surprising amount of psychic weight.

Mamas are notoriously bad at asking for help. Especially us stay-at-home moms. Listen up: WE NEED HELP. To be the best mama we can be. Whether we have one delightful, funny, quiet-in-public child or four under four. I am saying this again on behalf of all the mamas I know: WE SERIOUSLY NEED HELP.

I recently cemented my stay-at-home mom status by acquiring an electric Shark carpet sweeper and accepting a position as a volunteer blogger for a group that supports our local library. Before either of those things happened, I was trying out a mama’s helper with the goal of having her come weekly so that I might pick up some freelance work and ease myself back into some truly resume-worthy activities. Then the volunteer opportunity popped up and it happened to be a ridiculously perfect fit. Because of another New York Times magazine article I read (and recently reread) that pointed out that women who took advantage of volunteer opportunities had an easier time re-entering the workforce after a mommy break, I nabbed the blogger gig (read my first post here). So I get to do something I love for a place that I value, but I have to pay for it. Like actually pay for it. Because I have to pay my mama’s helper to come once a week for two hours so I can have time to research and write, and do all of the other household chores, and make sure my son lives to see another day, and make sure my husband remembers his butt and his pants before leaving for BART. When we sat down to do the budget this month, I felt guilty earmarking four weeks worth of childcare funds for time to work on my volunteer gig. At first I only put enough money aside for three weeks, but then I changed it to the amount to cover four weeks, thinking that it would be good for my son because he has a lot of fun with my mama’s helper and it would be good to give the mama’s helper, a college student, steady income. Nuts for nuts! It would be good for ME! (And now I can officially delete that blog draft about SAHM guilt.)

The antidote to the sometimes crushing psychic burden of motherhood is self-love and self-care. Care-giving is exhausting. It depletes one’s reserves (however deep) and somehow those reserves need to be replenished. It has taken me two years to lighten my load. I’ve done it in small ways: an online class called Abundant Mama, pedicures, therapy with my kinesiologist, walks with my neighbor, a cupcake here and an eclair there, and now the loosening of our purse strings for me to sign our son up for two classes a week (until we start preschool) and for that mama’s helper to come once a week.

I am bone-tired by this parenting gig and I only have experience with one delightful, funny, and easy-going child (though God forbid you try to make my delightful, funny and easy-going child do something he doesn’t want to do). The more children you have, the more self-care you need. I think of this as a child to self-care ratio. It should be 1:2–for every child you have, you should give yourself twice the self-care. Maybe that’s too idealistic. Maybe a more realistic ratio is 1:1. But that’s the very least it should be to ease the psychic burden of motherhood.

Before I became a mother, I thought I would be a good mother because I am attentive, good at figuring things out, and a good teacher. Early on, I picked the brains of my early childhood educator friends for curricula that I could apply to my son’s days. For a few months, I gathered his toys into themed bins and gave him a choice of what bins to play with each morning. The bin prep each night eventually wore me down but I do continue to try to meet all the touch-points the early childhood curricula emphasize: choice time, outside time, group time, meal time, nap time. We work on learning, problem-solving, creating, exploring in a multitude of ways. I find myself saying “let’s investigate” or “let’s compare” a lot.

As my son gets older, I find I have lowered my daily bar. I would now describe myself as laid-back mother: I am fairly flexible, very forgiving, and I have a high tolerance for obnoxious behavior. I do pick my battles deliberately (the advice we all get but few of us heed). I tend not to structure my son’s days much–I usually only have one reasonably attainable adventure planned. I let him lead our daily adventures. We only keep themed bins for storage purposes. If we laugh, and learn at least one thing in a day, it is a good one. Lowering the bar lightens my psychic burden just a little bit.

I am learning now, and only now two years in, that what truly makes me a good mother is how loving I am to myself. And isn’t that the best thing I can teach my son–self-love? It’s so much more important a lesson than memorizing his ABCs or handling conflict in the form of a foot in his face at the stairs of the jungle gym.

Take just one more minute to think how can you help ease the psychic burden of motherhood for yourself or the mamas you know and love. Because lightening the load, even in small, seemingly insignificant, ways, will give her the space she needs to take care of herself; it will give her time to indulge in her brand of self-love. When mamas nurture and nourish themselves, we all win big.