Managing the mental load of family life
Feeling stressed and overwhelmed by family life? Here’s how to set boundaries – and still keep things running efficiently.
Many parents can feel like they’re weighed down by the endless to-do list. Put the washing on, or there’ll be no clean uniforms tomorrow. We need more lunchbox snacks. Buy that birthday present. Is it library day tomorrow? Book the dentist. Defrost the chicken for dinner. Fold the washing.
There’s even a name for it: the mental load. And it can be a big barrier to creating any kind of balance between work and family life.
Studies show that women often carry a greater mental load, and the bulk of unpaid care typically falls to working women. During COVID-19, when many families needed to stay at home, there’s been more transparency about the mental load many women carry, according to experts. But whether that will lead to any long-term changes is hard to say.
And if you’re the parent who usually keeps everything ticking over, it’s important to be reminded that the juggle and putting yourself last can affect your mental health.
“What’s really important is this concept of ‘good enough parenting’,” says PSYCH2U psychologist Lydia Black. “It’s an actual therapeutic approach we use with new mums who are under a lot of pressure and trying to be perfect and get everything right, but it applies across the board,” she explains.
“The aim is to do just enough to keep everybody happy, safe, comfortable and well-fed – and not the ‘perfect’ version of that.”
Creating boundaries with your family
Sometimes, work-life balance can feel so out of reach – for many women in this position, it’s just easier to keep pushing through the stress, she explains.
“The mental load comes up a lot when you talk [to parents] about what they’re managing and juggling,” she explains. “There’s that notion that, as a parent, and especially as a mum, we’re responsible for keeping everyone happy. We’ve got to keep the show on the road. But in carrying the mental load for everyone I don’t think we’re doing our kids or our partners any favours.”
What if you do hit the wall?
It’ll probably come as no surprise that carrying the mental load for your family is, experts say, partly fuelling increasing rates of anxiety and depression.
The 2020 Jean Hailes annual Women’s Health Survey found one in three Australian women had symptoms of anxiety and one in four reported feeling depressed – throughout that year, many of us have been home-schooling on top of working or dealing with the stress of job loss and financial strain.
If we look back further – like in 2018 – 67% of women in the same survey reported feeling nervous, anxious or on edge nearly every day or on more than seven days in the previous month. And more than 33% said they didn’t get any time for themselves on a weekly basis. That’s not great, however you try to look at it, says Lydia.
“I think as parents we can become very busy prioritising everyone else’s emotional needs – and [even if we’re struggling] we’ll still get out of bed, make the lunches, get everyone to school,” she explains.
“We’ll go through the motions because otherwise stuff doesn’t happen and then all hell breaks loose. But we all have to listen to that internal voice and not push it to the side or discount it; you’re allowed to have feelings too and if you’re not feeling like yourself it’s time to reach out and ask for help.”
Strategies for improving your work-life balance
Here are Lydia’s strategies for improving your work-life balance:
- Workshop strategies to share the load. “That might be a calendar on the fridge or a list of practical tasks that need to get done which you split among family members. This is good modelling to our kids as well [about running a household].”
- Be open about your needs. “If you have a co-parent, communicate your needs and take turns for things like sleep-ins or taking time out when you can. It’s ok to say, ‘I need time for me so I’m stepping away from this; you guys can support each other’.”
- Lower the bar. “This might involve sitting down as a family and checking on what matters most to you and your family – and cutting out the extra stuff. Could you scale activities back? Not schedule in so much that everyone’s frantic? Ask ‘What do we care about and how can we find a happy medium somewhere in the middle?’”
- If you’re a single parent create a solid support network. “Solo parenting can be really difficult so asking for help is important – but also, many single parents may find the decision-making side of things easier, because you don’t have to consult anyone. The buck stops with you and that can be empowering.”
Want to hear more about coping with the mental load? Listen to HCF’s Navigating Parenthood podcast, where our host Jessica Rowe chats to PSYCH2U psychologist Lydia Black about imperfect parenting and the mental load.
Mental health and wellbeing support
We’re trying to make it as easy and fast as possible for you to access the mental wellbeing support you need. PSYCH2U mental wellbeing and navigation services give eligible HCF members* access to video consultations with psychologists, psychiatrists and other allied health professionals.
HCF members also have access to online GP consultations through GP2U. If you’re worried about your mental wellbeing and have a mental healthcare plan, GP2U is a great place to start. All HCF members have access to online GP consultations through GP2U for free^ for a limited time. See hcf.com.au/gp2u for offer end date.
Where to find more mental health help:
Words by Rachel Smith
First published November 2021
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*Must have HCF gold level hospital cover for at least 2 months. Other eligibility criteria apply.
^Some members may be eligible for Medicare benefits for a telehealth consultation with GP2U, in which case GP2U will bulk-bill those members. For mental health services, you will need a mental healthcare plan from your GP to access support. For all other services, HCF will pay the GP2U consultation fee for a limited time. See hcf.com.au/gp2u.