Today I wanted to explore the concept of a mother’s invisible list – it’s that mental load we all carry – and I want to dive into how we can better manage it.
I was coaching a client the other day and she was telling me how exhausted she feels. While her kids, husband, and home continue to operate, her invisible list of to-do’s feels never-ending, like it’s always there, looming over her shoulder. This invisible list – this mental load – is all the things she does and all the information she holds to manage her family and keep things running. You have one, so do I, and its A LOT! It’s often the unnoticed, but necessary stuff we do every day to keep everyone and everything going.
As moms, we know where the snacks are, if we have zip ties, where the single soccer cleat is – allllllllll the things! We know where everyone needs to be, what everyone needs to bring. Often we don’t even grasp the number of things on our invisible lists. My friends, you aren’t imagining this and you aren’t crazy! You’re doing a ton. If you’re anything like me, you probably haven’t spent time to sit down and truly evaluate the mental load you carry. You just find yourself always on the go and exhausted, still feeling behind.
In and of themselves, all these things we manage may seem like little things. But when you add them all up, you’ll realize that you’ve got a heavy workload! No wonder it can feel like the weight of that invisible list of to-dos is too much. No wonder you feel exhausted, maybe a little underappreciated, or like you can never get it all done. It takes an incredible amount of time and energy to be keeping all of the gears turning. So, it got me thinking – what gives? Is there a way we can better manage our invisible lists?
I came across this study by the Working Mother Research Institute that surveyed more than 1,000 working parents in dual-income families and discovered that household chores are still divided by gender. Women are still typically in charge of household and childcare duties, while the men lead with outdoor projects like mowing the lawn. Guess what else? The study showed that if the couples outsourced some of the chores, they were much more likely to hire someone for the traditional “male tasks.”
Now, this isn’t a matter of keeping score about who’s doing what or who has it worse or is working harder. I’ll even take a moment to brag on my husband here for a minute. Thankfully, Jeff does so much around the house! Between the two of us, he’s the orderly and clean one. He’s the one with the neat closet and the clean car (granted the kids are rarely in his car!), and he’s the one who does most of the laundry and dishes. Maybe that’s true for you too. Even so, like most women, I’m still responsible for the majority of the “invisible tasks.”
Here are some of the things usually taking up space in the mental load we carry as moms:
- Appointments (checkups, dentists, haircuts, vaccines, etc.) – these are the ones that come to me at 2am!
- Research! How much have you read about your kids’ physical milestones (especially when they were little), their nutrition, finding the best childcare or schools, researching the best gear – car seats, strollers, sports equipment, etc.?! I mean how many times have we Googled whatever we’re dealing with in the season we’re in? I often Google HOW MUCH SCREEN TIME WILL ALLOW ME TO KEEP MY SANITY WITHOUT RUINING MY CHILDREN FOREVER?! 🙂
- Buying gifts and managing celebrations. So many gifts – birthdays, friends’ birthdays, extended family’s birthdays, holidays – not only remembering when they are, but that they’re acknowledged! You’re the wrapper of gifts and the planner of parties.
- Stocking the fridge and pantry. You carry a running grocery list in your head at all times, right?! You plan the meals in advance, get the groceries, calculate when everyone will be home to eat so you know what time to start cooking.
- Homework, oh the homework! You’re the one who knows which words they need to know for the spelling bee, which math skills they’re working on, what tests need to be studied for. You remember to sign the permission slips and ask if they’ve started working on that project due next week. Even though they’re responsible for getting their stuff done, it’s still taking up mental space in YOUR head!
- Personal hygiene. Making sure everyone brushes their teeth – you know who needs a new toothbrush and who has a new toothbrush – and that your daughter will only use the one that lights up when she brushes, and your son will gag if he has to use bubblegum flavored toothpaste. Amiright?! Showers, baths, fingernails, and all the things!
- Lastly, on top of all this, we are likely the ones who manage all the feelings. It’s not just the stuff or the schedules. But oftentimes we manage the emotions. This can actually be what’s most taxing on us. This is probably the main root of our exhaustion and the part that most affects our mental state. These include things like managing tantrums, comforting our kids when they’re overwhelmed, sad, or feeling down. This is making sure they’re getting enough sleep and enough food, so they’re set up for success. This is trying to keep them motivated to do whatever it is you think is best for them. Maybe it’s motivating them to eat their vegetables, motivating them to clean their rooms, motivating them to do their homework, motivating them to put their dang shoes on when you’re trying to leave the house! Mamas – this can be exhausting.
Moms, you are INCREDIBLE!!!! And this is just a glimpse into what I know you’re carrying. These tasks take hours and hours of work each week – and so much mental space. Staying on top of all of these things is a full-time job in and of itself! No wonder you can feel overwhelmed by it all. So how can we change that? Is there a way we can be more aware of what’s on our invisible lists and set a more intentional plan of attack so instead of feeling defeated, we can be motivated by our progress? Here are a few ideas:
Three Strategies to Help Manage Your Invisible To-Do List
1. Write down your invisible list
The first step is becoming aware of all the things you do. I encourage you to write down everything you do over the course of a week. And before you start, take a minute to focus on your mindset. This isn’t an exercise intended to further overwhelm you or make you feel resentful for all you’re responsible for. So take a minute to focus your mindset on how awesome it is that you get to do all this stuff. Maybe it sounds like pie-in-the-sky, eternal optimist, roll your eyes stuff – but it’s not! The truth is, my kids are answered prayers. Thank God I have the resources to bring them to the pediatrician for their checkups. Thank God I have a car to drive them to a good school. Thank God I can fill my fridge and pantry with healthy choices and yummy treats! We’re all so blessed.
Ok – so why are we writing all this stuff down?
We can’t manage, organize, or change what we don’t know exists, right? It’s not only for awareness, but also because many of the items on your invisible list are taking up a ton of mental space. By having a written list of all you do – you can acknowledge ALL that you do on a regular basis. Give yourself a pat on the back. Give yourself a high-five. Show yourself some grace. Look at how much you’re responsible for. Be kinder to yourself. Be proud of yourself. Be gentle if you forget something or feel overwhelmed. You’re doing so much better than you realize!
And friends, put this all in the same place – don’t torture yourself with 47 post-it notes. Grab a sheet of paper or open your notes app and start to jot down every single thing that you’ve been carrying in your mind that needs to get done.
Now, from this brain dump, pick 3 things that you do pretty regularly, that never make it onto your actual written to-do list. Put those 3 things into your planner or calendar. Pick a time when you usually do them, and just put plug them in to your schedule. Be flexible with this. The whole point is that when you write them down and decide when you’re going to do them, it frees up space in your brain. Fewer things to remember is a huge win, Mamas! Don’t underestimate it.
Another thing – also don’t underestimate how long it’s going to take you to do these things. Be realistic and give yourself a cushion. If you think you can get something done in 15 minutes, give yourself 30 until you’ve done it a few times and have a better grasp on how long it actually takes. The point is not to add more stress or guilt or shame or whatever B.S. to your schedule – so give yourself some time.
2. Use your support system
Whether its other family members like a mom or sister, a friend or particularly your partner, communicate where you’re at, verbalize what needs to be done that you could delegate, and allow the people in your life to help you.
Have an honest conversation with your partner about all that’s on your plate. This isn’t a blame game or pity party – just share. It could sound something like this, “I have a lot going on these next couple weeks and I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. After the kids go to bed tonight, can we sit for 10 minutes so I can show you what I’ve got to get done and maybe there are some things you could help me out with?” This is collaborative – it invites participation instead of creating division or making our partners feel like we’re on attack. This opens the door to start sharing responsibilities more equally.
And let’s give our partners the benefit of the doubt. Simply sitting down like this to go over some of your invisible list, will start to ensure that the things you’re responsible for are being noticed by your partner. Same goes for your kids! It’s good for us to make our kids aware of our invisible list. First, we want to raise kids who are aware of what others are doing for them. Kids who are grateful for the lunch lady, grateful for the janitor, grateful for the crossing guard. Our kids can only recognize and appreciate when others go out of their way for them when they’re aware of it. My kids can only appreciate all I do for them if they’re aware of what I’m doing!
Another reason I want my kids to be aware of my mental list is so they can chip in! Tell them, “These 2 things need to get done before I’m free to play with you.” Or “If you would like to help me fold the laundry, or load the dishwasher, we’ll be done even faster and then we can go to the park.” This imparts collaboration, teamwork, and the value that as a family we help each other out.
You’d be surprised what even your little ones can do! Toddlers can help put their clothes and toys away. Three-year-olds can help feed the pets and load the dishwasher with some assistance. Four-year-olds can fold towels and put clothes on hangers. Five-year-olds can transfer the laundry from the washing machine into the dryer, and so on! There are age-appropriate ways that your kids can help lighten your load.
And maybe when they’re super little it doesn’t really feel like they’re actually helping, but friend what you’re doing is making an investment in those few extra minutes the task will take. And that investment will pay off! Your little one is growing in confidence that she can help. She’s learning that she has skills and can contribute. She’s understanding that there’s an expectation that everyone around here chips in. And, it won’t be long before she can actually do things independently – like clean the bathroom, clean her room, vacuum, take out the trash, etc. And because you’ve been encouraging her and teaching her – eventually she will be able to help take things off your plate.
3. Simplify, Systemize & Surrender
This is our motto here at the Motherhood – and it really fits in so well with managing our invisible to-do list and mental load.
So first, once you’ve taken the time to write out those items on your invisible list, take a moment to analyze and evaluate them. How can you simplify the things on your list? Maybe put a star near the ones that are causing you the most stress or will take up the most time and energy. Things like planning a birthday party, getting gifts for the holidays, planning a vacation, shopping for school clothes, or figuring out what your kids will be doing all summer. Whatever it is, ask yourself, can I simplify any of this? Is everything on your list actually necessary? Maybe there are some things you can actually cross off.
Prioritize these things and figure out the smaller steps that need to be done to pull them off. Are each of those steps necessary? And then ask yourself, how can I do this in a way that will make my life less complicated? Maybe its ordering catering instead of planning a complicated menu and cooking everything yourself for a holiday or event. Maybe it’s taking 5 minutes to order the gifts you need to buy for the month on Amazon instead of spending 2 hours running through the mall. Perhaps it’s finding a summer camp closer to home that all your kids can attend so that you’re not carpooling all over town for 3 months. Take some time to analyze what you can simplify.
And then figure out what you can systemize. Put recurring things in your calendar with reminders so you are alerted when you should do them. This is great for making and keeping track of appointments, approaching birthdays and holidays, school events and extra curriculars, paying bills, and scheduling maintenance around the house or cars. Let your tech keep track of when all this stuff is due or coming up and get it out of your mind!
Think of other things you could systemize – maybe you take an afternoon each weekend to meal plan and prep – that’s a system. Maybe you create zones in your house for a cleaning schedule – Monday zone 1 (bedrooms), Tuesday zone 2 (bathrooms), Wednesday zone 3 (floors and rugs). Whatever it is – try to systemize some of your invisible list.
And lastly, and my favorite, surrender. I’ll speak for myself – surrender can be the toughest, but it’s the most liberating. It can be the toughest because we want help with our mental lists – we want help with the kids and the house and the chores and the groceries and all of it right? But it’s so hard for us to allow anyone else to do this stuff! It’s so hard for us to learn to be ok with things not getting done exactly how we might have done them. We know how to do it “right,” we know what everyone likes, we know what everyone needs, we have our systems and won’t get stuff all mixed up. We have our routines – and maybe we can even be a little stubborn. One of our biggest challenges and be just letting some of this stuff go!
I want to encourage you today. Hear me when I say that surrender isn’t about giving up, it’s about intentionally choosing when and where to give in. Friends, if we’re going to ask for help, especially from our partners, we’re going to need to surrender. Surrender control, surrender criticism, surrender micromanaging – the point is for this to take things off our mental lists, not add to it! We have to mentally prepare that things might get done, but probably not the same way we would have done them. And that’s ok. Take a deep breath, decide what you truly can and can’t let go, and then surrender what you can.
This takes practice friends – start with something small and challenge yourself to delegate it – surrender it wholly. Practice getting used to that uncomfortable feeling when things are different. If it’s done differently than how you would have done it (and it probably will be), it’s not the end of the world. It’s done and that’s what matters! Watch as the little details of how it gets done start to bother you less and less.
There are things Jeff does that use to drive me crazy – stupid little stuff. Like he doesn’t triple fold the towels – they’re just these big floppy squares. Anyone know what I’m talking about?! But I don’t care anymore! I’m just so grateful that when I get out of the shower, there are clean folded towels in my bathroom and I’m not the one who put them there! Watch how learning to surrender some of the things on your invisible to do list frees up time and energy for you to focus elsewhere!
I hope this helped somebody today. If you mamas have ways you’ve found to help manage the mental load of motherhood – I would love to hear it and maybe try to implement it in my own life. As always, you can find me on IG @themotherhood.podcast, at the Motherhood Village FB Group, or shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. Rooting for you this week – go get it!