Parenting is wonderful but tiring. We all know this. From sleep deprivation to toddler tantrums to school schedules to big kid drama, parenting involves a great deal of physical, emotional, and logistical work.
But that’s not the whole story of parental exhaustion.
There is a commonly overlooked stressor in childrearing, which I’ve recently decided is the root of much of my motherhood overwhelm. It’s a well-known psychological phenomenon, and I’m not sure why we don’t talk about it more in parenting circles.
It’s called “decision fatigue,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like.
We usually think of having choices as a good thing, but making decisions zaps our mental and emotional energy. Even small decisions, such as what to wear or what to have for dinner, require our conscious attention and thought. Every time we make a choice, we go through a process of weighing pros and cons, risks and benefits, costs and rewards. Our brains go through that process even if we aren’t cognizant of it, and the energy expenditure occurs whether we want it to or not. More decisions mean more drained energy and lowered willpower.
So what does this have to do with parenting? Well, everything.
Does your brain ever feel like mush and you find yourself struggling to make even the simplest of choices? Have you ever had your kid ask you if they can do something or have something at the end of the day, and all you can think is, “I can’t make one more decision today”?
Think about how many decisions you have to make on a regular basis in relation to each one of your children. What time should they be getting up and going to bed? What should they have for breakfast? What should we do to reduce their sugar intake? They’ve outgrown all of their pants. Where should we go to buy new ones? They’re not finishing their vegetables. Should we make them eat them or let that go? They want to do a sport. Which one fits with our family’s schedule and lifestyle? They seem to be struggling with getting their chores done. How do we handle that? They want to go out with some friends. Do we let them go? Until when? Do they have to do something else first?
Phew. I’m exhausted just thinking about all the questions and decisions.
Parenting involves a barrage of decisions on the daily that we don’t necessarily notice. But every little thing requires us to go through a decision-making process for what to do and how to do it. And all of that choosing totally wears us out.
There are ways we can mitigate parental decision fatigue however.
Prominent leaders have famously simplified certain areas of their lives to cut down on decisions that don’t really matter. For example, Mark Zuckerberg wears a simple gray T-shirt every day. He explains his wardrobe choice as a tool for narrowing decisions, saying, “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve the community.”
Steve Jobs never had to choose his outfit because he always wore a black mock turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers. Albert Einstein and Barack Obama did the same thing, sticking to gray suits to limit the energy expended in choosing what to wear each day.
We can translate that wisdom to parenting in several ways. As much as I loathe meal-planning, having a set monthly or weekly menu helps cut down on the number of decisions we have to make about what to cook, what to shop for, and what to eat. Keeping our clothing within the same color spectrum or having a handful of outfits we rotate through can help us save some decision-making energy in the morning.
Having set expectations for our kids, as well as a simple structure for dealing with discipline, can cut down the number of times we have to decide how to handle behavioral issues. (For example, you might choose to use 1-2-3 Magic, which helps cut down on discipline decisions if you’re consistent — at least for as long as it works.) Setting limits on activities (for example, two extracurricular activities at a time) can also cut down on the number of choices you and your kids have to make.
Creating a routine that the whole family adheres to can also help us prevent decision fatigue. The more we can systematize and routinize things like housekeeping, meals, after school, bedtime, etc., the fewer small decisions we have to make on a daily basis.
Raising kids means making a million decisions about their care and training, our relationships with each of them, and our family as a whole. The more we limit decisions that don’t matter much in the long run, the more energy we’ll have for the choices that really count.