The Decision Fatigue of Motherhood

by Jennifer Meer
Originally Published: 
Brother and sister in the kitchen dusted with flour

Phil and I have one of those coffee makers that uses the little pods and you just push a button and it produces coffee. They are terrible for the environment and I’m sure there are all sorts of other reasons why we shouldn’t be using them. But we can’t decide on what other kind of coffee maker to get and so, as a default, we stick with this one. We are literally too tired to decide and so we keep pushing the button each morning, grateful for the opportunity to drink coffee and decide one less thing.

This tiredness played out in real time the other morning as I tried to make a cup of coffee using this coffee maker. All I had to do was literally push a button. Monkeys would actually be able to do this. Monkeys would remember to put the cup of coffee underneath the thing where the coffee comes out, not next to it.

Clearly, I am not a monkey.

And as I watched the coffee spill all over the counter and swirl all around the bottom and outside of my cup and nowhere near the inside of my mug which would allow me to pick it up and consume it in all if its caffeinated glory, it occurred to me that I am really, really tired.

For many years I have argued that it is my young children and motherhood that is in fact making me tired. Runny noses, restless sleepers, early risers and tiny toes making their way into my rib cage at pre-dawn hours have certainly not helped my REM. Without question, this has made me quite physically tired. But there is a different kind of mental fatigue that I have been unable to articulate until recently, that is most certainly tied to my day in and day out experience as a mother and is likely exhausting so many of us in so many different ways. I am mentally tired, and what is driving this mental exhaustion is something I’ve been reading more about lately, something described as “decision fatigue.”

As described in a recent Elite Daily article, “…decision fatigue … is a real psychological concept where a person’s productivity suffers as a result of becoming mentally exhausted from making so many irrelevant decisions.” Indeed even when the decisions are not substantial, it is the sheer volume of them that sometimes overwhelms me, mentally. I short circuit. I can’t even remember to put the coffee cup under whatever the thing is that the coffee pours out of. What is the name of that thing? You see?

The article talks more specifically about how powerful leaders like President Obama tend to wear the same thing every day to avoid making minimally impactful decisions in daily lives already so overcrowded with big things to decide. This makes sense to me. In a mind so cluttered with mindless choices that I can’t even seem to summon the cognitive energy needed to determine what kind of coffee machine to buy, I worry how I’ll ever make space for the big things. I worry that I am so exhausted sweating minutiae that it is sucking me of the strength to do the big things, the important things I need to do to be the leader of this family. Things like love them, and teach them kindness, and prepare them to learn how to decide stuff for themselves anyway.

I think of how most mornings begin – with coos and cries and running feet and then, the questions:

5:59AM: Can I play Mario?

6:02AM: Baby cries. What does she need?

6:03AM: Mommy where are my Legos?

6:12AM: Can I play Mario?

6:15AM: Do I have school today?

6:22AM: Can I play Mario?

6:29AM: Did I brush my teeth yet? Should I brush them again?

6:30AM: Can I play Mario?

6:37AM: Baby again – diaper. Did I change the diaper before?

6:45AM: When is breakfast?

6:46AM: What is breakfast?

6:49AM: What are we doing today?

6:51AM: What is the weather today?

6:53AM: Where are my shoes?

6:54AM: Where is my coat?

6:59AM: Why is Mario not working?

In my best guestimates, in that first hour of the day I make decisions for 4 different people every 4 minutes. This gives me enough time to do things in between each question and subsequent decision like, pee, put on pants, maybe turn the coffee maker on, and contemplate the larger questions in life like seriously, why the hell isn’t Mario working?

I grab three different dish towels and soak up precious coffee as it drips and runs all over the counter and in between the crack next to the stove. I am not doing this right. I am tired for all the wrong reasons. I think about my mommy uniform, one that reflects simplicity, one less decision to make. The call to arms and yoga pants makes sense in the context of decision fatigue. But more than excessive amounts of stretchy cotton and spandex, I need to be cloaked in rubber. I need their questions to bounce off me and reflect back to them. I need to teach them about choices and decision making, about how to find their own way. My job is not to make their choices for them but to teach them about how to sift through the noise of life to decide for yourself what is relevant and what matters. And as is the case with most teachable moments in parenting, perhaps I too can even learn something along the way.

And just like that I make my first, last, and easily most loving decision of the day: I decide to love them enough to let them figure all of it (whatever it is) out. So that we’ll have the strength to conquer the really important stuff together that still lies ahead. I do not know where the pajamas are, you know the answer to Mario, go make a choice for snack. And when you’re done come find me.

It’s Chanukah and we’re making latkes and memories over here. And I’ve got just enough strength saved up for that.

Related post: Riding The Ferris Wheel of Motherhood

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