She set an alarm, but she doesn’t need it – her toddler will wake her up long before sunrise. Her day starts then, and it doesn’t end until the little one falls asleep after the sun goes down. This might seem to explain why she and other moms feel tired all the time, but the real reason goes much deeper than that.
When a woman becomes a mother, her life changes forever. Writing for Parenting.com, Stephanie Thomas tried to sum up her experience as a new mom to a baby boy named Henry. “Motherhood is more than I ever imagined. It’s more exciting and more terrifying; more rewarding and more draining; easier to figure out yet totally confusing,” she wrote.
One thing that most new moms do experience is a complete shift in their day-to-day routines. Raquel D’Apice described her typical day in a piece for HuffPost. It all started at 7:00 in the morning, when she’d “wake up wishing [she] had gone to sleep before 1:00 a.m.,” she wrote.
After that, D’Apice immediately fed her baby a bottle, then prepped a fuller breakfast for him. She then changed his diaper, bundled him up, situated him in the stroller and headed outside to walk the dog. Then the mother-and-son duo came back inside for playtime on the floor.
Soon D’Apice said that she put her son down for a nap – which gave her time to tackle her personal to-do list. On the day she described for HuffPost, she did a “full load of laundry and [ran the] dishwasher, schedule[d] four doctor appointments and one pediatrician appointment and two dentist appointments and [paid] several bills online,” she wrote. But her exhaustion took over, she fell asleep until the baby woke up, and she had to do it all over again.
Indeed, most stay-at-home parents’ days follow a similar pattern, although life with a baby is ultimately unpredictable. And each mom’s struggles will be different too – some need help to get their little one to latch and breastfeed, while others worry about proper hygiene and care for such a small and fragile person.
Yet the daily routine counts for only a fraction of why so many moms feel exhausted all of the time. Christine Skoutelas delved into the topic even more for HuffPost. She wrote, “I’m quite sure that it is a scientific fact that parents never feel like fully functional human beings again. Or maybe they just change the definition of what ‘fully functional’ means, so that it no longer implies anything closely related to ‘rested.’”
For one thing, Skoutelas wrote, parents don’t have any downtime when they’re surrounded by kids. “The other day I tried to program my cousin’s number into my phone… I tried about eight times before giving up completely because my children were all up in my space, bumping my arms and touching the screen,” she recalled. The story went to show that she barely had time to herself to complete even the smallest of tasks.
Not only are children active all day long, but parenting becomes a non-stop responsibility – as Skoutelas puts it, “There are no days off.” This becomes even worse when the mother’s health is compromised. “Being sick is the worst, because you can’t be sick. At least, you can’t act like it,” she went on.
Another exhausting aspect of parenting is the physicality of it. Pregnancy asks a lot of a woman’s body, but that’s just the beginning. “For the first few years, parents are constantly carrying their kids around, lifting a 35-pound toddler on one hip, and a 20-pound toddler on the other,” Skoutelas wrote.
And carrying around a baby wasn’t quite like lugging a heavy inanimate object, Skoutelas continued. “These aren’t like bags of flour here, they’re writhing, wrenching, bucking broncos,” she wrote. Because of that, Skoutelas concludes, “There is little to no chance of getting through parenting without tearing a cornea or herniating a disc.”
Then Skoutelas mentioned the fact that motherhood requires constant cleaning. She recalled a morning on which she had planned to grab her infant and go but realized the baby had thrown up on herself. So Skoutelas needed to give her daughter a bath and change her clothes before she could walk out of the door.
But that’s not all – the house needs attention too. “The amount of frenetic cleaning of bodies and houses that parents end up doing is mind-boggling,” Skoutelas wrote. A day in the life of any parent includes picking up toys, bending over, putting things away, doing laundry, washing dishes… the exhaustive list is exhausting.
Worst of all, Skoutelas contended, this task never gets any less tiring as kids get older. Instead, she wrote, “As kids get bigger, so does their stuff. Teenagers have more surface area than toddlers, which means more dust, more circles around the tub. More bodily stench. And definitely more clothes on the floor.”
Then moms have to find time to spend with their partners – and their choices are slim. “Sometimes, they have to stay up until 2:00 a.m. binge-watching Netflix with their spouse,” Skoutelas wrote. And, while this only added to the next day’s tiredness, she wrote that it was worthwhile for couples so that they stayed connected in the midst of the chaos.
Shockingly, Skoutelas’ list of tiring parental to-dos didn’t end there. She went on to describe what a night of sleep looks like for moms at all stages of their child’s life. “Sleeping through the night initially means sleeping for longer than two- or three-hour stretches. Once your infant gets past that point, people seem to forget that doesn’t mean jack,” she wrote.
A silently sleeping baby can also incite fear in new parents, Skoutelas went on. “At first, parents wake up in a panic when the infant doesn’t wake them up, and they check on them, adrenaline rushing, thinking they’re going to find something very wrong. They nudge the baby… until they hear an audible sign,” she wrote.
But that sigh did little to diffuse the stress that arose from such a cruel wake-up, Skoutelas said. “Then, [parents] either can’t fall back asleep because of all that adrenaline, or they can’t fall back asleep because they woke up their kid.” As time goes on, moms and dads sometimes hear phantom crying that wakes them too.
By the time their babies sleep through the night, some think that moms and dads are in the clear, but they most certainly are not. Most toddlers will wake up and barge into their parents’ room to hop into their bed or announce that they’ve had an accident or just to ask for a tissue. They have no regard for the time of night that they wake everyone up either.
And, as Skoutelas pointed out, poor sleep continued even as children matured and grew up. Even with young kids, she said that she was “already dreading waking up in a panic thinking about my kids as teenagers, wondering if they have snuck out of the house.” College responsibilities – and wild parties – would stoke her stress after that.
But, still, research shows that this lifelong lack of sleep is not the main factor in explaining why moms feel so tired all of the time. Nor are the many other exhausting facets of parenting, including cleaning, the physical demands or the lack of breaks. Instead, it all boils down to the amount of time that moms spend thinking.
One mother named Mary Katherine attempted to describe the non-stop nature of her mom brain in a post on ScaryMommy.com. When her partner had asked her what she had been thinking about, she wrote that she had replied, “Nothing much, really,” at first – but that had not been true. Then she added, “Wondering how the kids are doing at the grandparents’.” But that still wasn’t all of it.
In reality, Mary Katherine wrote, “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.”
Mary Katherine then attempted to recall as many of her racing thoughts as she could. “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…” she began.
The thought of the doctor reminded Mary Katherine of something else. “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,” she wrote.
The mention of clothes sent Mary Katherine on another tangent. “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 re-washing. Man, I miss my little boy. Can’t wait to pick him up from the grandparents’,” she went on.
Mary Katherine’s racing thoughts make her just like most of the other moms out there who suffer from what’s known as mental load. It’s a feeling that’s backed up by science too – in fact, research into the topic traces all the way back to 1996, when sociologist Susan Walzer’s article, “Thinking About the Baby,” first appeared in print.
By that time, researchers had already revealed that women, even those who held down full-time jobs, came home and continued working. They called this “second shift,” or the to-do list that has to be completed when a person returns from a long day on the job. But Walzer’s research looked at more than just the physical chores that women had to do.
Walzer began her research by finding subjects, all of whom had to be new parents. It turned out that she found them in quite an interesting way – she scanned local newspapers to find birth announcements for couples in the vicinity. Every pair she chose to study had brought home a brand new baby boy or girl in the year prior.
Through her time with these new parents, Walzer discovered that the women ended up handling most of the emotional and mental work that came with caring for a newborn. They also learned more and processed more information than their partners. For instance, women would be more likely to research the right pediatrician for their newborn babies.
On top of that, Walzer found, women worried more than their spouses. As Mary Katherine’s piece for ScaryMommy.com revealed, moms today still feel anxious about their parenthood-centric responsibilities. Plus, their list of worries can be lengthy, and they run through many mothers’ minds all day long.
Walzer also noted that the family matriarch typically took charge of organization, as well as delegation. She knew what to make for dinner each night, and she kept track of household tasks such as regular mattress rotation. Even if their husbands pitched in, it would be the wives who could pinpoint what they needed to do.
Walzer did make note of the fact that most husbands and fathers spent a proportionally longer period taking part in paid work. It’s important to note that this figure has shifted in recent years – comparing the amount of hours that men and women put into both paid and unpaid positions is just about equal, according to Pew Research Center.
Still, that statistic doesn’t take into account the mother’s mental load – the modern mom continues to do more of the thinking and delegating than her husband, in most cases. And, as Lisa Wade wrote for Money magazine, “Like much of the feminized work done more often by women than men, thinking, worrying, paying attention, and delegating is work that is largely invisible, gets almost no recognition, and involves no pay or benefits.”
And although some put a mother’s mental load down to the fact that she’s better at handling it all than her husband, Wade had another idea. She wrote, “If she were gone, you bet her husband would start noticing when the fridge went empty and the diapers disappeared. Thinking isn’t a superpower; it’s work.”
To Wade, the entire situation was indicative of the amount of progress still needed in the realm of women’s rights. “We have come a long way toward giving women the freedom to build a life outside the home, but the last step may be an invisible one, happening mostly in our heads,” she wrote.
“To be truly free, we need to free women’s minds. Of course, someone will always have to remember to buy toilet paper, but if that work were shared, women’s extra burdens would be lifted. Only then will women have as much lightness of mind as men,” Wade went on.
Katherine agreed with Wade’s sentiment and suggested that women start reducing some of that mental load by sharing their thoughts with others. “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,” she wrote on ScaryMommy.com.
If that failed – and the confidant “look[s] at you like you fell out of the Bonkers Tree and hit every branch on the way down” – Mary Katherine had another idea. She suggested that mothers reach out to and support other mothers, since they can easily understand what each other is going through.
“The burden might be invisible, but it’s pretty… heavy. So let’s be open and honest, and talk to each other,” Mary Katherine suggested. With such openness, moms might feel a little less of a mental load and, therefore, even the tiniest bit less exhausted. Now, if only they can get a good night’s sleep too…