tears + teeth 😭 🦷
signs you might need to adjust the mental load
Hello dear reader,
I am just home from yet another trip to the orthodontist. All my boys have the good fortune of needing braces (actually, I am not being entirely sarcastic here – eldest boy qualified for NHS braces by 0.5mm so I do feel grateful!). Right now, all three boys have braces on their teeth. Eldest is soon to be finally free, but what it does mean is that there are a lot of trips to the orthodontist in my calendar in this season of my life.
It’s no big deal, but even though it is no big deal I found myself having a little sob in there today.
I had picked up my son from school in the middle of the day to make yet another emergency appointment because his bracket had broken, we had got stuck in traffic and made it there a few minutes late. She said because we were a few minutes late, she couldn’t do all he needed and so we needed two more appointments*.
As a working mum, with more on my plate than I can effectively juggle right now, and a few painful/ worrying situations that I am carrying in my mind, I found myself resorting to begging. Begging that we could just sit there for the afternoon, to save me the round trip, and when they get a mo, we could just be popped in to get it done?
‘No’, she said.
I then started to cry. Not a wailing, or a sobbing, just a gentle overwhelmed kind of whimper.
It was the final straw, I guess. No great incident had taken place, no major crisis or deep wound. Just another appointment to be made and my ability to be rational and cope with the regularities of life just tumbled.
Why am I telling you this? Firstly, because I am hoping some of you relate (and I am not the only one to lose my shizzle) and also to talk to you about mental load.
This little episode was sure-fire proof that my mental load was overloaded. Each of the jobs, chores, responsibilities, situations, problems or people that I am thinking about or currently organising, is like a responsibility-laden house of cards, stacked up in my mind and body. I had brazenly added another card to the structure, without noticing the weight it was carrying.
And just like that, it all came tumbling down. At the orthodontists.
Historically, this term, ‘mental load’, was associated with the invisible labour that women tend to carry in managing their households. But, I want to move away from that definition, and talk more broadly. Your mental load is all the stuff that you are responsible for, often the unseen jobs, the layers underneath, that involve organisation, planning, remembering, executing and sorting. It could range from work based projects that have unseen layers of work to do to make them happen, emails, birthday cards and gifts to buy, food shopping and preparation, revision timetables, calling your elderly parents, listening to your little one read, washing clothes, ironing, helping with homework, buying and creating and making fancy dress outfits, walking the dog, washing the dishes, emptying the dishwasher, paying the bills, putting the bins out.
Then you’ve got the layer below this. Your thought life. Thoughts such as, I hope xxx gets better. I haven’t spent any time with my partner this week. I hope dad’s condition doesn’t deteriorate. Where shall we go on holiday? Should I book it yet? What will happen with Covid over the winter? I wonder is xxx is upset with me, they’ve still not messaged me back. I’m not exercising enough. Are my children happy? Am I a good parent? I wish I hadn’t said xxx. The house is such a mess, so much messier than xxx’s. Why can’t I seem to keep on top of it all and they can? Am I in the right job? Am I doing anything meaningful? What’s the point?
I’m exhausted just typing this list out. And you and I well know it’s not exhaustive, this is just the tip of the mental load iceberg. So, what can we do? How can we lighten the load?
Please note: this is relevant to our work lives and our home lives.
1. Spot the signs
The first thing we need to do is to spot the signs that we are heading towards ‘at capacity’. If you had a little cry at a practice manager, for example, you may have noticed a little too late. Signs might be, easily feeling tearful, feeling forgetful, lack of focus/ easily distracted and so ineffectively multitasking, getting short-tempered over something relatively small**
We need to learn to spot the signs first, so that we can then go and regulate what is going on before we hit overwhelm.
2. Get it out of your head
Effectively, we need to do a download of all the things that we are thinking about. By doing this mental download, we create space for order, prioritisation, delegation, and letting go. This is a good practice for the start of the day. It’s not quite the same as just writing a to-do list, because you might also write down a list of thoughts and questions that are swimming around your head, too. But it is proven that getting it out of our heads and on to paper helps us to process. Once it is down on paper (on a digital list of OK too) we can sort it, plan it, decide what is important today, and put down the rest, at least temporarily.
3. Fight for the quiet
I am a noisy person. I love to chat, sing, externally process, I am most definitely far across on the extrovert scale. BUT. Everyone needs downtime. And sometimes that downtime needs to include being quiet. Being comfortable with your own company, your own thoughts, sitting in the quiet, is a game changer for introverts and extroverts alike. Learning to be still and quiet and focused is a way to handle our mental load, listen to our own reflections and find a place of solace and peace. Find ways to get quiet, to do silent, still, focused things. This will look different for each of us. I like stretching, reading, walking and praying as my quiet activities.
4. Ask for help
Going to say this one louder for those at the back. ASK FOR HELP.
I know that the absolute best is that people offer, or notice and just do it, but maybe we sometimes have to ask. I am terrible for just quickly doing things because asking means it takes longer as I have to let someone do it their way and it might add to my workload in the end. This is all true, and we do need to get better at just offering and just doing. But, a conversation where you look ahead to what is coming up, in both work settings and home settings, and apportion some tasks between the team/ family is no bad thing. It’s an exercise in planning, and it helps people see the very many unseen things that you do.
5. Let it go
When you’ve made that list of to-do’s, thoughts, worries and preoccupations, let’s get rid of some. Which worries are outside of your control? Cross them off. Which preoccupations aren’t yours to carry? Get rid of those, too. Which items on your to do list don’t need to be you? Delegate. Which things aren’t actually that important or could be done easier? Do them the easy way, or don’t do them at all.
If you love preparing a meal from scratch, with all the trimmings and fancies, then clear your diary of the other non-crucial stuff so that you can. If you can’t manage it all, why don’t you find a compromise? And if you really don’t like doing it, then don’t. Get a takeaway or keep it simple. Life is too short to tie yourself in knots over a dinner party.
6. Learn to live with FOMO
We often add to our workload because we say yes to lots of (what seem at the time) fun engagements. Or we feel obliged to be there, or worried that if we don’t go, others will have been there, had the time of their life and we will have missed out forever. We have got to learn to live with the occasional FOMO. Recently I said no to a party invite, not because I had a diary invite already, but because I just knew it had been busy and we needed to stay home. This is not natural for me, but sometimes, I know that ‘no’ is the right answer to an invite, and to take responsibility for not adding to the mental load by making some unwise choices. We can’t do it all.
And so, there are many more ways to lighten the load that I haven’t got into today (like talking about it, practising gratitude, getting good sleep) but I think there’s enough in there to get you thinking. How’s your mental load? How’s the mental load of your loved ones and colleagues? How can you help yourself? How can you help those around you?
I hope my tears over teeth has given you food for thought, and helped you feel seen if you’ve ever felt like I had. Now. Time for a cuppa and to write my own list.
* This turned out to be not entirely the truth and I think she just wanted me to know that we were late. He needed to come back anyway, because there’s something he needs to have done, which it turns out isn’t an emergency and they can do this at his next proper appointment in Jan.
** I recently lost it over my son having two towels on the go, meaning that both needed washing as I didn’t know which was the dirty one. My response was, in fact, a total overreaction (mental load, oh hello there)
P.S. I have a really exciting well-being based announcement coming up in the new year – stay connected to hear first! Hx