Every parent wears many “hats” and performs many roles as a part of the parent identity. Specifically, in regards to motherhood, anecdotal and empirical findings reveal that the mental load of the family typically lies on the mother’s shoulders. How many “hats” do mothers wear? How extensive is the list of roles, duties, and responsibilities regarding the identity of being a mother? Whenever I work with mothers, we often process all the “hats” mothers wear, and the seemingly insurmountable, overwhelming pressure of the role of “Mom”. Being a mother is a beautiful blessing that comes with various, unexpected and “expected” jobs, duties, and pressures. As a mother, you are also everyone’s (AND – we can’t forget – your own): personal chef, toy repair expert, potty trainer, taxi driver/chauffeur, housekeeper, laundry machine operator, teacher, play-date coordinator, birthday/events director, bodyguard, stain-removal expert, vacation coordinator and tour guide, mediator/therapist, etc, etc. Giving, giving, giving all your energy until there is barely anything, often nothing, left for yourself…how can we help support mothers? Let’s recognize the emotional and psychological experience of mothers, and see how we can help better support mothers who give the world to their loved ones everyday.
“The well-being of mothers is the fabric from which the cloth of the future of our society is made” – Dr. Oscar Serrallach
In a study of 393 mothers (Ciciolla & Luthar, 2019), married/partnered mothers, mostly of upper-middle class backgrounds with dependent children at home, results showed that a “majority of women alone report that they assume responsibility for household routines involving organizing schedules for the family and maintaining order in the home. Some aspects of responsibilities related to child adjustment were primarily handled by mothers, including being vigilant of children’s emotions, whereas other aspects were shared with partners, including instilling values in the children. Responsibility was largely shared for household finances. Feeling disproportionately responsible for household management, especially child adjustment, was associated with strains on mothers’ personal well-being as well as lower satisfaction with the relationship.” (Ciciolla & Luthar, 2019). This pressure and weight of responsibility majority on the mother’s shoulders is incredibly heavy to manage.
With all of this on mothers’ shoulders, it makes sense why most mothers, on top of the pressures of day-to-day expectations, experience varying levels of anxiety, depression, and associated mental health concerns as a result of the role of mom. The role of a mother is incredibly demanding and takes a huge, constant amount of energy from herself, which often results in chronic, long-term feelings of depletion. Chronic feelings of depletion can occur at any stage within the motherhood journey; whether one is a new mom, or they are a mother of teenagers.
What exactly is postnatal depletion?
As explained by Dr. Serrallach, there are 3 primary factors at play contributing to feelings of depletion:
Overall, there is a “mismatch between expectation and support, stacked on top of nutrient depletion”, which leads directly to mothers feeling overwhelmed. Dr. Serrallach explains that postnatal depletion isn’t just about physiological changes and factors, it is also about how and why mothers don’t get the emotional and social support they need when they need it the most. This phenomenon of depletion worsens as the mental load of motherhood goes unaddressed and unacknowledged. Post-natal depletion and depletion are used synonymously because this experience begins in new mothers and can even continue several years down the line for mothers as the mental load goes unaddressed.
There is a slight difference between depletion and depression. Both can be intense and debilitating; both include the symptoms of: sleep disturbances, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, inability to think clearly and concentrate, and/or significant weight change up or down. What makes depression distinguishable from depletion is the presence of anhedonia. Anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure from things that previously would bring pleasure and joy in the past. In depletion, life still feels good despite feeling dreadful and stressful, and one is able to still experience the pleasure and enjoyment in motherhood. In depression, there is no joy in the motherhood experience nor other activities that would have usually brought joy in the past (Serrallach, 2018). It is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of both; either way, though, acknowledging the mental load of motherhood and working to empower the mother and provide her resources will increase her resilience to overcoming mental health concerns. Overall, as a society, and as loved ones, we need to figure out how to lighten the mental load, and possibly show and teach the mother how to share the load that is so automatically placed on her shoulders.
How can we help mothers through this?
The hardest, most difficult thing for a mother to do is acknowledge that they don’t necessarily have to do it all. As a society, we need to help mothers feel empowered to ask for help, while encouraging her to express the depth of the emotional weight and overwhelm. The pressures of motherhood are placed silently and automatically on her shoulders, which is why it is so difficult to acknowledge the overwhelm. The automatic and silent weight of the mental load has been greatly created by society, leading to a mother to possess and experience extremely rigid and unrealistic expectations that can be debilitating to her mental health. The process of ascertaining strategies to help the specific mother should and will be unique to her and her experience; there is not a one-size-fits-all management strategy.
How you can begin to support the Mother in your life, whether she is your partner, friend, or family-member:
Keep an eye out for the mothers in your life, and reach out to connect with them, offering an empathic and listening ear. It is also helpful to be aware of the causes and effects of the emotional symptoms of motherhood depletion.
It takes a village. It truly needs to take a village support system to share the mental load, so mothers don’t feel alone. Mothers should not feel they have to bear the weight alone, even if they happen to be the only parent in the picture. It is absolutely normal and expected for all mothers to experience these feelings and experiences in varying degrees, and there are many strategies to consider in working to manage the feelings of burden and overwhelm. Mothers should not feel alone when figuring out how to help manage the stress of the mental load; empowering a mother to get connected with a mental health professional is a great place to start, too.
One of my favorite reminders to share with mothers is a lovely quote from Motherly.com:
“You were someone before their mom – and she still matters”. This highlights the importance of acknowledging the dissonance experienced as the identity of Mom is integrated for the woman, while she is juggling all the hats and all the things. Let’s join together to empower, listen to, acknowledge, and ameliorate the mental load experienced by mothers. We are the village that needs to show up and share the weight of society that is too automatically and erroneously places on a mother’s shoulders.
Ciciolla, L. & Luthar, S. (2019). Invisible household labor and ramifications for adjustment: Mothers as captains of households. Sex Roles, 1-20. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-018-1001-x
Serrallach, O. (2018). The postnatal depletion cure: A complete guide to rebuilding your health & reclaiming your energy. For mothers of newborns, toddlers, and young children. New York, NY: Grand Central Life & Style.