How To Make the ‘Invisible Load’ of Motherhood Visible to Your Partner
Moms know doing all of the things can feel overwhelming, well … all of the time. Dealing with your kid’s schedule (or multiple schedules), managing the household, and supporting the emotional needs of your family are only a teeny-tiny number of the tasks your Mom-mind juggles constantly.
The mental and emotional load you carry might look invisible to the outside world, but it’s there in your brain and body — and studies show women who carry the bulk of the weight for their family can feel negatively impacted. This can be even more significant if your partner has a hard time “seeing” your unseen pressures, leaving you to handle them alone. So let’s make the invisible visible, shall we? This way you and your partner can work together to share the parenting load, and you can feel lighter and more supported in the process.
Finding words to describe the invisible is a tall order. Seriously, it’s not like Wonder Woman is asked by her super friends to give all the particulars about her Invisible Jet, so why are super moms asked to provide proof of their invisible multi-tasking powers? If you’re looking for the words to explain all you do, Dr. Katie Smith, a licensed clinical and child psychologist, explains a mother’s mental load like this: “If you think of a family as a functioning system, a mother’s mental and emotional role is pervasive within the system. She impacts — or more importantly, manages and oversees — nearly every aspect of the system.” This includes supervising functions like feeding, clothing, socializing, educating, and scheduling. You know, #doingallthethings.
One reason it’s challenging for a partner to understand the unseen labor a mama gets done is that mothers don’t always talk about it. Megan B. Bartley, mental health and mindfulness coach, and founder of The Mindfulness Center, says moms don’t think to speak about their mental load because they’re more focused on accomplishing it and oftentimes don’t want to add more to their partner’s list. Whether you’re just trying to get the kiddos to bed on time or hoping to help out your spouse, Dr. Smith does add here, too, that mothers also assume they should be able to handle doing everything, and therefore don’t bring this up to ask for help.
With societal beliefs, how you were raised, and even anthropological instincts influencing expectations you’ve set, it’s no wonder you feel a strange and unresolved pressure to keep your home (and everyone in it) running smoothly. In certain situations, when the pressure builds and you find yourself venting to your significant other, the frustrations can increase because it can be hard for partners to empathize.
“Partners, especially males, often cannot relate to the assumed role of women,” Dr. Smith begins, “in many cases, they weren’t raised (and society does not expect them) to assume the role of managing the family system and all its related facets.” So, let the experts help you make your unseen mama mental load seen and supported by your partner. Here are three ways to start.
Talking together as a couple strengthens your relationship and increases feelings of support. Bartley reminds us that our partners aren’t mind-readers, nor should we expect them to be. She encourages you to discuss all the behind-the-scenes work you do and suggests you schedule this talk and give these chats a time limit. Scheduling a conversation lets you both be emotionally prepared, and setting an agreed time limit allows you to stay connected in the discussion.
Next, Dr. Smith says to identify what you see as your role in the family — and then explain this to your partner. This will help your partner understand all you take on and the mental labor (planning and prep) that goes into your work. This can be an enlightening conversation for your spouse because, Dr. Smith says, partners are often surprised to hear that women have such an overwhelming role within the family system. Talking with your loved one creates space for you to be heard, and then balanced solutions to be reached.
Draw it Out
According to one survey, 76% of American use to-do lists as a visual aid to stay organized. A good to-list helps a mama’s mental load feel lighter, but did you know a visual list can aid your partner when explaining the invisible labor you get done?
“Moms can describe and list their various roles and responsibilities in a systematic way,” says Dr. Smith. Visual aids can make concepts more clear and easier to understand, so take a minute for both you and your partner to create a list of your duties: “Then couples can discuss any inequities and ways that a partner can share or take over some of the responsibilities.”
If list-making isn’t your jam, Bartley invites you to get out your colored pens and markers. “Having a visual picture or pie graph works because it’s a clear representation of what you’re doing,” Bartley says. According to the National Library of Medicine, 65% of the population are visual learners, which means making your invisible labor literally visible can be a game-changing tool. Drawing and writing can help you and your partner see the bigger picture, says Bartley.
Establishing a consistent time to check in as a couple can help you connect and communicate more deeply. Bartley reminds moms to use this time to talk through what you need. Do you need help at bedtime? Do you want help with meals? Be specific with your requests. Bartley says, “The best thing a person can do when listening is to mirror back exactly what their partner is saying.” Start with the phrase, “What I’m hearing you say…” and then repeat what your partner said. This technique creates connection and validation when talking through potentially tense and/or emotionally charged subjects.
After you’ve gotten your asks out, “Partners can offer to take over some of the mom’s responsibilities,” Dr. Smith begins, “or at the very least, they can check in about some of the responsibilities and offer support.” Support goes a long way to helping overworked moms feel appreciated, and Dr. Smith reminds us that in this space, partners can (and should!) express gratitude for the job of the mother in the family and encourage moms to make time for their own self-care.
The unseen mental and emotional load you carry as a mother is so very real. From being your child’s personal dresser to tackling weekly meal planning assignments to remembering to sign your kiddo’s homework, your brain is so packed it can be hard to find the words to explain it all. Taking the time to make the invisible way more visible to your partner (or trusted loved one) can help validate your experience — and get you the support you deserve.
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