Updated: Nov 28, 2021
Feeling stressed? Exhausted and irritable? Raging silently? If the answer to any of these is Yes, then you may also be wondering how you’ll survive Christmas when it’s only November and you already feel burnt out. In both my clinical practice and personal life, I’m hearing so much about feelings of anger and overwhelm in mums. As Covid restrictions ease and the world opens up, life is getting busy again – with barely a moment to reflect on the collective trauma of a pandemic. Anxiety levels are rising as we draw closer to the festive break and the mental load increases exponentially. Do I have plans in place if my child gets sick? Have I bought the right gifts? Booked the babysitter? Packed the reading book? Ordered more nappies? And so it goes on.
As a mum, you’ll be only too familiar with all this. Constantly scanning the horizon for potential needs and planning ways to meet them uses up your valuable emotional energy.
A zillion tabs open in your head monitoring all those invisible tasks that keep your home running smoothly. This is the monumental mental load, found to fall overwhelmingly on women in heterosexual, middle-class couples. Women are consistently found to bear the domestic and childcare burden too. A recent study showed that fewer than seven per cent of hetero couples share the load equally. Seven per cent! No wonder mums are feeling angry, resentful and wrung-out.
So what to do?
1. Recognise that your time is of equal value to your partner’s.
Author Eve Rodsky makes the essential point that all time is created equal. Her research highlighted that men’s time is viewed as finite (like diamonds), whereas women’s time is infinite (like sand). Yet there’s only 24 hours in a day. Both you and your partner need to agree that your time has equal value.
2. Together, bring a consciousness to the reality of domestic life.
The mental load is cognitive and emotional labour – comprising all those diffuse, often invisible tasks that often aren’t recognised by your partner (or even by you) - ranging from cooking, cleaning & food shopping to arranging childcare and holidays. Sit down with your partner, when you’re both feeling calm, and name all tasks that need carrying out, without blame or keeping score.
3. Agree who takes responsibility for which tasks, including all steps involved.
One key study (Daminger, 2019) broke down the cognitive load into four distinct categories: anticipating needs, identifying options for fulfilling those needs, decision-making, and monitoring progress. So for example, take the organisation of childcare. ‘Anticipate’ is understanding you need to book a nursery space well in advance; ‘identify’ is researching different options suited to your family’s needs; ‘decide’ is choosing a nursery; ‘monitor’ is ensuring your child is registered, completing admin and attending a settling in period. Cognitive labour has been found to be heavily gendered, with women doing far more of the anticipation and monitoring steps. Which steps are more equally shared between men and women? The steps most closely linked to power and influence of course! Identifying options and decision-making.
With your partner, list who does what – taking care of all steps involved. This means if one partner takes responsibility for after school clubs, that person is aware of organising said clubs well in advance (anticipate), explores different options based on family values (identify), decides which clubs work best for your kids (decide), and follows up with the kids to check they’re happy going to these clubs (monitor).
4. Boundaries and self-care
This can be the hardest task of all – particularly for mums who have learned that their needs come last. Looking after yourself amid the relentless busyness means keeping an eye on your capacity. How full is your cup? What are tell-tale signs your cup may be about to overflow? Do you become more shouty? Tearful? Irritable? Tense in your shoulders or jaw? Achy in your body?
Try to tune into how you’re feeling and how this might be showing up in your body. Then practise those lovely mindfulness skills: acknowledge those feelings with kindness, listen to signs that you need a break, and to what your feelings might be telling you. What the vulnerable part of you needs right now. Self-care can mean taking 10 minutes away from the baby or the kids if you can, getting out in nature, savouring a hot drink or doing a guided meditation to recharge and reset. It can also mean saying No to something you don’t want to do. Prioritising your needs.
If moments of rage and overwhelm are happening a lot, please remember there is support out there. Talk to a loved one as a first step, to help you make sense of your feelings. You can also talk to a trusted health professional, such as your GP, to explore an NHS referral to a psychology service if appropriate and/ or local self-help groups and mental health charities offering support.
For emergency support, please visit A&E, call 999, or make an on-the-day GP appt. You can also call the Samaritans on 116 123.
About the author
Clinical psychologist Dr Caroline Boyd has an MA in classics, an MSc in psychology, and a doctorate in clinical psychology. She has over 10 years’ experience working in the NHS and mental health settings, and specializes in supporting new parents in her independent psychology practice, Parent Therapy Hub.
Caroline works with parents around all aspects of the transition – from pregnancy to childbirth and beyond. She adopts a holistic approach to wellbeing, and her published research explores mothers’ experiences of intrusive thoughts about their babies.
Caroline speaks at conferences, including the annual Birth Trauma conference, and shares psychology ideas on Instagram, her blog, and podcasts such as Motherkind to help parents feel more connected – to themselves and their children – and less alone.
Caroline’s new book, Mindful New Mum: A Mind-Body Approach to the Highs and Lows of Motherhood, is available for pre-order now: https://www.dk.com/uk/book/9780241531365-mindful-new-mum/
This book is for YOU – whether you’re a new mum, a pandemic mum, expectant mum, or a mum for the second, third time.
Caroline’s aim is to share ideas accessibly in a way that she hopes reassures & anchors new mums. Mindful New Mum is written as an antidote to all the parenting manuals prescribing a “right” way to mother - offering holistic care with a focus on mindful compassion, evidence-based psychology ideas, meditations & visualisations plus nutritional advice, natural remedies, baby massage & yoga.
This book will help you understand:
⚡️Significant brain, body, and identity shifts during this transformation known as "matrescence". ⚡️The intense, emotional rollercoaster of this first year, explaining why experiencing feelings such as anger & anxiety doesn’t make you a “bad” mother. ⚡️Why it's important to learn to self-soothe, with practical psychological strategies to help you nurture yourself, as well as soothe your baby. ⚡️Why couple dynamics shift with the arrival of a baby, and ways to stay connected. ⚡️How to use your values to guide your decision-making, making choices that fit for YOUR family. ⚡️It also includes info on intrusive thoughts - & real life experiences from mums.
You can follow Caroline on Instagram @_drboyd