As most primary caregivers know, providing quality emotional support for kids is exhausting. We are tasked with teaching these future adults how to be productive members of humanity (aka: how NOT to be a-holes). It’s constant:
“I see you’re upset that your sister chooses not to share right now. Instead of hitting her and screaming in her face, let’s play with something else.”
“I’ve answered your question with a ‘no’ a few times already. This isn’t what you want to hear, but the answer will not change.”
“I’ll help you find your book/sock/dress/pants after I help your sister go potty for the 345th time this hour.”
“When both of you scream your demands at me, I have a hard time understanding. Please take a few deep breaths and use your calm words.”
“This is the only dinner I’m making today. We talked about how much you wanted macaroni and cheese before I made it, which is why I made it. You can choose to not eat it, and I can choose to not make more food.”
OK, that last one is a bit harsh, I see that. I fully expect my kids to be the masters of sarcasm soon due to the way I respond. After a full day of emotionally intelligent responses, at some point the facade cracks and my tired self begins to ooze out. I forget things from one room to the next. I have half-thoughts and incomplete sentences.
Also, my productivity is sub-par, and as a business owner, this is a recipe for disaster. That potential client call? I wrote notes on a napkin that I then had to search the trash for because my three-year-old cut the pages of my notepad into thousands of little pieces. The request for a consult? Written on the back of an envelope and then sent by email to myself as a reminder, though I may or may not have an opportunity to sit at my desk to review it later the same day.
There are brief moments in a day when I feel like I can breathe and the weight of responsibility isn’t overwhelming. Usually, this means my children are playing peacefully together or sitting in a zombie-like state on the couch watching Masha and the Bear.
The respite is always short lived because someone touches the other one, someone is “starving” after eating five snacks, someone needs to have a light on in the bathroom, someone needs something at the same time as the other. There will be whining. There will be screaming. There will be pouting. There will be meltdowns requiring alone time, though it’s a good chance I’m the one having the meltdown.
(Side note: it’s taken me three weeks to write this, because every time I sit down, aforementioned behaviors erupt, even if my husband is in the house trying to keep them occupied.)
Then comes the guilt. Am I spending quality time with them? No, because I’m too spent from the first half of the day to want to sit on the floor and play with them. Should we leave the house and go to the park/zoo/DoSeum/somewhere? Ugh, pass—I’m tired just thinking of all the preparation needed to leave the house. You see, as primary caregiver, I’m also the ringmaster.
As such, I manage my business, coordinate the meal planning, household duties, and maintenance, and handle school logistics. I’m the life scheduler, planner, and executor of ALL THE THINGS. My spouse works full-time (pretty sure he works at Stargate—I’ll never know for sure) and arrives home in time for dinner and the start of the kids’ bedtime routines, often falling asleep while reading bedtime stories. Weekends are when the adults want to do nothing and the kids want to do everything. Well, that’s not entirely true. I want to do things; I just don’t want to do ALL THE THINGS. Thus, I carry the bulk of the mental load for our family.
Some days are easy. Some days are hard. And the hard days…they are the days when my kids ask why I’m not smiling or if I need more hugs. A big part of this is because of my introverted tendencies: overstimulation leads me to shut down verbally and emotionally, much like Oscar the Grouch.
On one such bad day, I sat at the kitchen counter, watching them while they ate a much-negotiated dinner of whatever they felt like eating that day, and I felt like I was moments away from exploding, possibly of my own making. I was tired and needed an Easy Button to make it as a non-a-hole for the remaining hours before wrangling them to bed. As dramatic as that seems, it made sense at the time. I grabbed a pen and scribbled my thoughts down on a page of the New York Times:
For now, I am the sun.
I create a force of gravity that has three celestial bodies in my orbit.
In every moment it is as if I am never moving; it is only they, who dance and turn,
tugging against, pulling at my center.
The two smallest ones require the majority of my energy to remain on their path—as if they are spooling me around them tightly and will one day spin free and away at maximum velocity.
The other, the largest, moves patiently, cautiously, as if unsure of the tug,
unsure if getting closer will burn. It, too, pulls from me, at me.
We are our own universe, and I am at the center, trying not to Super Nova.
Poetry it isn’t. But it felt good to let my brain out for a few seconds. And yes, sometimes it feels like decisions can’t be made without me, though I don’t want that to be the case. Sometimes I can’t breathe because there are at least two extra bodies within a foot of me who will follow me wherever I go, needing to be near me so I don’t run away. And as every primary caregiver knows, even going to the bathroom isn’t safe.
Everyone has tips and ideas on how to alleviate some of the load. I’ve tried various methods to help manage my mental state: waking early for alone time (it worked once), making to-do lists (but then I lose them), reducing my expectations (clean house is a must, clutter is OK), letting kids watch a movie—or three—in one day (they end up fighting over who gets to sit on my lap), delegating to my husband (which often requires explicit directions), creating quiet activities (that get blown off), and embracing the crazy (which is likely the title of my memoir). And yes, I’ve asked for help. Often. And provided reminders. However, sometimes asking for help requires even more give, such as when you must anticipate the information needed by the helper (usually a spouse) to provide assistance. Sometimes, after investing so much effort and energy into this brainstorming of needs, doing it yourself just seems easier than letting someone else “help.” And we’re back to square one.
There is a lot of chatter and opinion about what “mental load” is and the impacts of it. Taken from The Guardian, this illustration, which discusses household management as part of the load, is my favorite. We can all agree that mental load should be an equal responsibility among the household adults. We just can’t always find an easy way to make it fair.
I know I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the mental load of parenting and adulting. I don’t have any solutions to offer myself or to you. This is just a reminder that we are not alone, and that it’s OK to freak out and hide in the bathroom with cookies while queuing up a fourth movie for the kids on Netflix. ‘Tis the season, y’all.