Podcast: The mental load of parenting

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Most weeks I plan to post a discussion thread dealing with the topic we covered in that week’s episode. Most likely Sarah will too in the future,* so feel free to comment either place.

This week we discussed the mental load of parenting. Kids involve many logistics, from the mundane (do their shoes fit?) to the more profound (does my kid have a developmental issue that requires therapy? If so, how do I navigate that system?) For whatever reason, in many families that are relatively committed to equal parenting, mom still winds up shouldering much of this. As someone described it once, both parents might take turns calling babysitters, but someone knows that a babysitter needs to be called.

The issue is that the human brain can only ruminate on so many things. As I said in the podcast, time spent constructing our fall activity schedule is time not devoted to figuring out how to promote my next book.** Your brain could be pondering whether you got all the school forms signed, or how to reach out to that new client. Over the long run, time spent on the former, and not spent on the latter, contributes to inequality in the work force.

So — given that the school forms do need to get signed — how can we deal with the mental load of parenting? How do we compartmentalize it, or minimize it, or delegate it, or sometimes revel in it?

I have a few thoughts. First, protect your most productive time. You can sign a form and put money in the school lunch account at any point. If your peak productive time is, say, 9 a.m. to noon, then do those things at some other point.

We talked about Tiffany Dufu’s book, Drop the Ball, and how she made a list of all the tasks associated with caring for their kids and running the house. The initial take-away was that her husband was doing more than she thought (and indeed, was doing things she hadn’t even thought of — we all have blind spots in this regard), but once stuff is listed, it can be assigned to one party or another. This is how her husband wound up being the playdate guru in their house, and also the person who found sitters.

It can also be assigned to a third party. I was relieved to find, upon coming home from bringing my 5-year-old to gymnastics yesterday, that G (nanny) had supervised the boys’ instrument practice and homework. That’s stuff I didn’t have to think about.

It can be assigned to no one. Very few things absolutely have to happen in the sense of catastrophe ensuing if they don’t happen. It’s just a matter of whether you’re willing to deal with the consequences. If you don’t sign up to bring snack, other parents might be annoyed. Or they might not be. Hard to know.

We both recommended lightening the load by putting things on the calendar for the exact time you need to do them. As long as you are fully committed to checking and following your calendar, this gets things out of your brain and into another storage system until they can be acted upon. For instance, my kids will want to be in the Christmas pageant at church again this year. The deadline for signing up is November, and the church secretary doesn’t want me asking about it now, so I put it on the calendar for a day in the beginning of November. I know, on that date, I will deal with it. So now it’s out of my brain until then.

So, a few questions for the discussion. First, when I say “mental load” of parenting, what tasks come to mind? What are your least favorite tasks? How do you deal with mental load tasks, in terms of minimizing/delegating/sharing? Please share any great hacks too!

In other news: I’m running a 168 Hours Time Tracking Challenge next week. I’ll be posting my time logs on this blog. If you’ve ever thought “hey, I’d like to try tracking my time for a week!” this is your chance. You can sign up here to get motivational emails through the week, and you will know that several hundred other people are tracking along with you.

*This week she’s dealing with Hurricane Irma preparations and a likely evacuation — all very stressful. Please send good thoughts her way.

** Of course, the fact that I’m discussing my activity schedule on a podcast that is partially about reaching new audiences means these two aren’t really mutually exclusive in my case. But for most jobs, the overlap is more narrow.

11 thoughts on “Podcast: The mental load of parenting

  1. This episode was so great — I put this over on Sarah’s blog, too, but the one thing that really stood out was Sarah’s answer to the listener question, advising her to “spend out” on extra help during a short-term crunch. I’ve never considered thinking about it that way, and need to. Even things like extra childcare for the early years — like you talked about last week — could be considered spending out for the short term.
    It’s so much more doable to think about spending out when I know it’s temporary (I’m an underbuyer, in Gretchen Rubin’s parlance). My husband is in the army, and still leaves frequently for months at a time, and I have always had a hard time letting myself get extra childcare because I know the kids miss their dad, and don’t want to leave them with another sitter, but I could easily spend the extra money to fly my parents here, or for us to do something special. They’re also now at an age where getting a babysitter is fun, so I’m going to make sure I remember this advice.

    1. @Meghan – I am an underbuyer too, but it’s all about learning to view money as a tool. I have some friends who made a very specific calculation, the year they had twins, that they were totally willing to work a year longer in their 60s in order to have enough help to maintain their sanity (and marriage, and careers) that year. You don’t always want to be borrowing from your future self, but people like us do a lot for our future selves. Sometimes it’s OK to do something for your current self too.

  2. I have my husband screen au pair applicants so I only have to interview the finalists. I mention this because hiring the nanny seems to be a task that falls disproportionately to the women, and our experience has shown that it doesn’t have to be that way. And no, my husband does not just select attractive babysitters so he can sleep with them, which several people have asked me about.

    The other thing I do is give myself essentially unlimited slack when I am post call. I am not responsible for anything on those days including my daughter’s dinner or bedtime, and if I can avoid it, will not do any extra work. My brain is just usually so messed up I have difficulty with even basic decisions, so I don’t even try. I let my husband take care of everything and feel no remorse whatsoever.

    1. @Omdg – imagine, men can screen for caregivers in a rational and professional manner! But yes, it does normally fall to the woman. In my case this makes slightly more sense as I’m working at home so I’m the one who has to be around the person all the time. It matters a lot more if I like her (or him) — but in many families, it really could be anyone. If a guy can hire an employee at work, he can do so at home too.

  3. This is all fascinating to me. I am in my early 30s and have a 10 month old. Now that I’m sleeping again for some stretches I’m looking forward into what the future will bring with activities, school, the whole shebang. Thanks for the ideas for the future. I work 24 hour shifts (I work in a hospital) and DH works from home, so we have a babysitter for a few hours when I’m on one of my long shifts to help DH out. I admit that sometimes it overlapped and was nice! The mommy guilt wasn’t too bad and reading your blog has helped me reconcile that some.

  4. I’m better at planning but my husband is better at events, so I plan and fill out all the forms, but put him as the contact person 🙂

    1. @Emma- smart. Of course, I have heard stories of women putting down their husbands as the first contact and *still* getting all the calls and emails. It’s like people don’t actually believe it.

  5. Hello Laura – I was introduced to you via Sarah – and have LOVED your writing and the podcast ever since. Who knew there were more of us!? 😉 I asked a similar mental load question on Sarah’s site. I am a business owner in the finance industry – and solo parent to a daughter. I adopted last year – a dream come true. I’d love to contribute to the conversation from a solo standpoint. It is so powerful to share and hear stories where we can all say “me too!” Thank you – and Sarah – for the work and time in this podcast!

    1. @Kristen – thanks for listening to the podcast and checking out my writing! I really appreciate it. And congrats on your new addition! That’s wonderful. I know we would love to include stories of women doing it on their own — we are slowly building up our topic list.

  6. another great episode! I totally agree you need to have a system that you trust and put things in your system. I use a tickler file at home to keep track of the things I think of now but that don’t need to be done until later. Interesting note – last year the school volunteer times didn’t work for me and I suggested my husband come in as he primarily stays at home and we got a lot of push back from the teacher. Thanks for reminding me about Drop the Ball I read it in the spring and have wanted to revisit it with my husband. I’ve been trying to be more conscious of the things he is doing.

  7. I really loved the point about TAKING ACTION on that thing you’re ruminating about instead of just letting it take up brain space. It reminded me of one of the ‘core values’ type things that tech companies talk about a lot – a “bias for action”, where they say they want you to just do something instead of discussing it ad infinitum.

    I absolutely LOVED Drop the Ball, though it did make me feel guilty for not having such bold career aspirations as the author (who overlapped with me at UW though I did not know her).

    Regarding the school volunteering stuff (bringing snack, etc), I’m finding that it’ll eat up all your free time and energy if you let it. There is *always* something that needs to be done in my daughters’ classrooms and I could literally spend all my time “helping out” in various ways. I feel for the teachers as there is so much admin-type stuff to do that has nothing to do with *actually* teaching, but I can’t take that on as my unpaid job. I’m willing to put in a couple of hours per week since I’m not working but am closely managing that time.

    Google Calendar is great for the ‘mental load’ stuff as you can have multiple calendars. So we have a ‘family calendar’ for the events and things we share, but I have a separate calendar for myself to remind me to do certain things in the future. All of it shows up on my phone. I can even get it to send me texts and email reminders if needed.

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