Emotional Labor Is To Blame For Moms' Exhaustion, Not Just Lack Of Sleep

by Mary Katherine
Originally Published: 
DGLimages / iStock

“Whatcha thinking about, honey?”

I paused for just a minute, weighing the necessity of answering his question fully, versus offering my typical answer which would move the conversation along and keep everything comfortably casual.

“Nothing much, really,” I said.

Which was a lie.

So I added, “Wondering how the kids are doing at the grandparents.”

Which was less of a lie.

The truth is, like most mothers in this world, my brain is always spinning. Always. I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking about the very moment he checked in, but the five minutes before he asked?

That hamster wheel was moving particularly fast.

What was it?

Nothing. Everything. All the things in between…

I need to pick up a new box of contacts before we leave town on Monday. Did I overpay the babysitter last week? My daughter isn’t getting enough vegetables. I missed that writing deadline, again. Is this an anxiety issue? I should check in with my doctor…which reminds me, does my son need any vaccines? I should call the pediatrician anyway, pretty sure the preschool needs updated records. Did I register him for next year? Poor kid needs new clothes for school. He’s grown so much.

CRAP, the clothes. Forgot to switch the wash over to the dryer.

Note to self: Google recipes for baby-friendly veggies. Add to grocery list. Call doctor. Contact editor. Move wash to the dryer. But smell it first. May need rewashing…

Man, I miss my little boy. Can’t wait to pick him up from the grandparents. Hope he’s doing well today.

And that’s exactly what I offered when he asked: the tip of the iceberg.

Not because I can’t tell him these things — I absolutely can. He’s my best friend. He can take it. I didn’t tell him because, well…

This is mom brain. All the time. And apparently there’s even a name for it: the mental load.

It’s why so many of us feel so tired, despite the fact that “all we do” is stay at home. And for those of us who balance working outside the home too? My goodness, the idea is exhausting to me.

You’ve seen it happen. You see a mom friend, ask her how she’s doing, and she answers, “Tired.”

It’s not always sleep deprivation. Sometimes it is, but there’s something else, isn’t there? Something deeper. My husband comes home from work every day, and I want to lighten his load. So I ask how his day was because I care. And because I love him.

And always in the back of my mind, my hamster wheel is spinning.

Mothers, you get this, right?

Because if we don’t remember to switch the laundry over, who will? And if we don’t bother with the vegetables, well, the baby just won’t get any. And doctor’s appointments, prescription refills, vacation packing lists…

All on the invisible checklist inside our brain.

This is the mental load we all carry.

And I’m not saying it’s bad or that we need to do something to fix it. I don’t even know if we can.

But sometimes it’s just enough to acknowledge that, hey, this exists. This is a thing. There’s a reason we get tired even when we feel like nothing is getting done.

Because everything that hasn’t been done and everything that needs to be done is playing on loop in our heads — constantly.

Mamas, you are incredible. You are freaking machines. You are that fancy, expensive glue that’s $20 a bottle because it holds heavy stuff together while staying completely invisible.

But maybe we don’t have to be. Maybe there is something we can do.

How about the next time a spouse, or friend, or family member asks, “What’s on your mind?” you tell them. Lighten the load. Even if just for a minute.

And if they look at you like you fell out of the Bonkers Tree and hit every branch on the way down, just reach out to another mama. Because mamas understand.

The burden might be invisible, but it is pretty damn heavy. So let’s be open and honest, and talk to each other.

Let us share the load.

This article was originally published on