Easing the ‘mental load’ during matrescence, with Maggie Dent

Maggie Dent, one of Australia's leading parenting educators, explores what it's like to be a mother today, and shares her tips and strategies to help.

Many of you may have seen the reel in which I supposedly made radio announcer and actor Kate Richie cry when I explained the mental load women (mostly) can struggle with when I was being interviewed on her show. That video went viral and we received so many messages about women crying with relief as they felt so seen and heard. We also received messages from caring dads who wanted to step forward and support the mammas in their lives better. This blog is for you and any woman who struggles with being a mother today.

Also, before I continue I want to add a couple of disclaimers here as I know this can be a sensitive topic:

First, I know that many, many dads worry about their kids — of course they do! Statistics indicate, though, that women are more prone to anxious thinking than men. And that’s what I’m writing about here. Secondly, this blog is intended to explore matrescence and applies to most mothers – there is no judgement whether a mother works full-time, part-time or is a SAHM…we all can experience similar struggles.

Any change where we feel out of control or unsure of what’s happening triggers our amygdala to perceive a threat to survival … please keep this in mind as you wander through this blog.

Firstly, if you are not familiar with the term ‘matrescence’, it is:

When a woman becomes a mother, she splits in two: who she used to be, and the Mother she is. And unless we honour that radical shift, she will get lost trying to figure out who she is now.
— Amy Taylor Kabbaz, Mama Rising

When I was a counsellor, I worked with many women who were struggling. I also ran women’s retreats for 15 years from 1990 – 2006 and since then, things in the mothering space have changed. I have been musing and contemplating why so many mothers today are struggling with a heightened sense of mental overwhelm and physical exhaustion.

More and more women are experiencing parental burnout, which I explored on an episode of Parental as Anything. Here are some of my thoughts and some possible suggestions on how to enjoy the journey a little more.

At a recent Motherland conference for rural women these were some of the anonymous messages of concern that were shared from today’s mums.

  • The balance between being the great mum I want to be and following my own passions and dreams
  • Mothering without anger and guilt about the anger!!!
  • Juggling all the mum things and everything else alone as hubby is never home and busy working.
  • Being authentically me – listening to myself – trusting myself and being comfortable meeting my own needs.
  • Juggling the mental load.
  • Working out what I want to be besides wife/mum/business owner (farm) – something for myself.
  • Finding sexy again in the bedroom!
  • Balance – changing needs/demands – that succeeding in one area is at the expense of another.
  • Juggling expectations of life – farm, family, health, business. Feeling like it’s all too much. No joy in life ATM.
  • Reminding myself to appreciate the little things – to be kind to myself and everyone else.

Matrescence certainly impacted me! Even though I became a mother over 42 years ago, I can still remember the confusion and the questioning of ‘who am I now?’ I had been a secondary English teacher for almost 5 years before I became a mum. As were the rules then, I had to resign from the education department when I left to have my first son and on reflection, I think it helped me a little in the transition to motherhood.

Technically I was no longer a teacher – I was now a mother. Nowadays, a teacher will be given a period of maternity leave, with some of that paid and with the expectation that your job will be waiting for you. This means that you have stepped into matrescence with different identities that may be tugging and pulling at each other, potentially making the transition to becoming a mother more difficult.

More mothers today in the Western world tend to be giving birth much later which means that for many, they have developed independence and have significant careers or pathways in life that they have created and nurtured. By the time many of us become mothers, we have created this identity, a person we believe we are. When we give birth, we begin a new identity and let’s be honest; we begin a journey that can really be the most unpredictable, confusing journey we have ever been on despite being very well-read and well-informed. This is where that split can begin to cause us confusion.

Another significant shift that can cause more confusion is that prior to the arrival of the first baby, we have (mostly, not always) been in an intimate relationship with another human. So we may also have the identity of partner, wife or lover. On giving birth there is a massive shift psychologically and cognitively towards focusing on the new baby and increasing its chances of survival. This is an ancient biological drive and ensures the survival of the species. Many dads have expressed how incredibly lonely they become and how much they miss their intimate connection with their female partner on the arrival of the baby. This same sense of loss can occur for many mums as well and they miss their intimate connection with their life partner. Yet another identity shift that can play out, adding to the confusion and angst.

Conditioned for overwhelm

Social conditioning also contributes to our increased states of overwhelm. Social norms mixed with biological drives exist around what women are ‘meant’ to do and needed to do when we lived in traditional kinship communities, and these can still play out unconsciously. When we lived in those communities, women were responsible for most of the organisation while men were responsible for keeping the community safe. Maybe this conditioning is where our brains got wired to being naturally better at remembering stuff and organising. I noticed the incredible difference in memory when my granddaughters arrived, which literally blew me away. In my work around boys and men, I explain that, generally, they are wired for single focus rather than multiple focus. This means that if they are concentrating on one thing, whether it be a work matter, or they are on their phone – they often cannot hear us! Yeah, I know it’s really frustrating, and it is not something they do intentionally.

Also, I hear women complain, for example, that their male partner’s capacity to remember what to put in school lunch boxes is not the same as their capacity. Why is that? Well, probably as Mum was trying to go to sleep last night, she has already been filling the lunchboxes and exploring what options there are. There is some research that shows that women tend to ruminate more than men, and that can include an endless stream of thoughts about how to look after her children (as well as everything else on her plate).

Over-caring and people pleasing

I have spoken at several events for women about the ‘burnt chop’ syndrome. This means that mothers have a strong tendency to put everyone else in the family ahead of themselves, even sometimes the family dog. It is because we value everybody else ahead of our self. No wonder we get resentful and pissed off and feel unappreciated. We need to be able to value ourselves because we are modelling to our children that mothers are not as important as everyone else in the family. Of course, grab the burnt chop if you love them, but always taking the leftovers is not a healthy thing for us to do, or for our kids to see.

Part of our social conditioning, which I believe is influenced by oestrogen, is that we are wired to be the primary carers of our children and those we love. This means that we are fundamentally driven to care for our children, to keep them safe and to provide the loving attachment that is essential for the health and well-being of every child.

We now know that fathers can be the primary carers of the children and they can learn to ‘mother’ children for want of a better word. Being a caring human means that often most women will also be caring for their extended families, their parents, their neighbours and definitely their closest friends. To be a carer for all of these people requires constant monitoring of each of these relationships and all of the needs to be met in those relationships.

That’s a lot of mind space that gets taken up in ‘the need to care for others’ part of the brain.

Over-caring for others and neglecting ourselves is also common for many mums. If a woman experiences a sense of feeling unloved, or being not good enough, or not deserving of love (this was me), we can become both an over-carer and a people-pleaser. Heck, that really stokes the voice of the inner critic at night and it also stokes the need to review every decision we have made in any given day to see how we could improve or do it better. We are never enough!

In those traditional kinship communities, the women were also responsible for other big things like bloodlines and environmental concerns – like keeping an eye on changes in weather in order to ascertain when it was the right time to move to a better location – and in some ways we are still conditioned to do that. This is why sometimes, as we are trying to go to sleep, our mind will wander to 20 years down the track, and we might be considering what career pathway our child will end up following. Or we may wonder when they will leave home or whether you will downsize the house when the children leave? To many men (and I’ve heard from them in the comments on that viral video) these kind of thought patterns can seem irrational however, when we look at the conditions in which our brains developed these patterns, I think they make sense to most women.

Another tendency we have as women is to ‘compare and despair’.

In the research for my Girlhood book, many people who I surveyed could see girls doing this right from early childhood. Sadly, fat shaming is happening in girls as young as three! An evolutionary biologist explained to me once that to keep the species alive, girls and young women were wired to find the best male to breed with. This meant that every girl was competing with another girl to win the best breeding male possible. We’ve certainly come leaps and bounds since then but I do wonder if some of these evolutionary influences still linger and are preyed upon by marketers’ algorithms.

In a way, this plays out again with women often reviewing every choice they make in their lives, beating themselves up, feeling guilty and thinking of how they might make better choices in their parenting. Secondly, they will think of a different way of doing it tomorrow. They might also do this what they chose to wear, where they parked the car at school drop-off or even review their work day in a similar way! More endless random thoughts that technically has have a purpose, but they can be all-consuming and take hours. As I mentioned earlier, ruminating loops of thoughts seems to be more common in women than men. It does not mean that men do not worry, it is more that women are prone to worry about more things – and are often concerned with things that might happen rather than things that are happening.

This leads us to the problem of social media. Women can become attuned to watching what other women are doing, especially as mothers. They can often beat themselves up because some women seem to be doing better than them, look better than them or have kids who seem to be doing better than them! That compare and despair dilemma can really impact how we feel about ourselves.

Previous generations of mothers did not have to deal with this on such a scale, and it can really erode authenticity, compassion and genuine self-worth.

Many mums feel that parenting has become a competition in the social media feeds and even at school drop-offs!  Social media is not all bad because sometimes we can use it to connect with our safe women’s group, or we can follow someone who lifts us up, however the negative algorithms of social media ensure we are marinated in negative not positive content.

Let’s be honest most mums are the main organiser of the family. Sometimes our crazy brains are planning what costume to wear for book week next year, a few days after this book week! We can also be planning Christmas gifts or possibilities for holidays months ahead of time! Again, the ruminating loops can become habitual thinking patterns that are very difficult to curtail and turn off. The more stressed we are, the more likely we will be looking at all the things that could possibly go wrong and the more likely we will be doing catastrophic thinking, rather than optimistic thinking.

One of the worst things that is contributing to excessive mental load is definitely the smartphone. There are so many messages on school WhatsApp groups organising all the things that need to be organised – and there are often different groups for your different children. You need to be on your phone to order school lunches, make doctor’s appointments, orthodontic appointments and a million other things. If your children do extracurricular activities too, there are a whole lot of apps that you need to have to keep up-to-date with changes in fixture times or grounds for soccer due to a weather event. It is endless! Sometimes at night, a mother’s brain is trying to remember whether she checked the WhatsApp group for school about library books and did she end up ordering the lunches that she was going to order earlier in the day? This causes cognitive fatigue and subsequently creates stress in every primary carer’s nervous system. This can take a Mum down another rabbit hole in her brain as she’s trying to go to sleep. Smartphones are stealing quality time for mums from their kids and from themselves.

Suggestions for easing the mamma pressure

  • Keep in mind the words of Australia’s only female Governor-General and a mum of five, Lady Quentin Bryce: ‘Women can have it all, just not all at the same time.’ Life is a long journey and striving to be the best at everything while having little ones can be really hard as sleep deprivation impacts us on many levels! Things can get easier once kids start school. I wrote my first book when I was 47! Learning to prioritise can be helpful.
  • Make peace with yourself – accept your strengths and embrace those bits you dislike. Good news after 40 – there is a shift many women find where they care less about what others think! This keeps getting better… by 60 you care more for yourself and care less about the stuff that used to keep you awake at night.
  • If you have a co-parent, sit down and hand over some things so the ‘to-do’ list is shorter for you and the distribution of domestic responsibilities is shared more evenly. Reducing decision fatigue means possibly having someone else do lunches, even for a few days a week, and maybe sharing the cooking. There is a book and game called Fair Play that I’ve heard folks talk about that helps couples divvy up duties, including everything from who reads the notes from school to who organises the insurance – I haven’t seen it but could be worth checking out. A key point in this planning process is whichever parent is responsible for an activity needs to make all the decisions around that activity. This can cause so much stress and tension among couples as illustrated in the story from Dave Hughes about going to do the shopping, but asking his wife for a shopping list. Ordering groceries online (for delivery or free pickup) can help reduce the decision fatigue and arguments around this as you can save lists. Similarly, taking a photo of what goes in that pesky lunchbox I mentioned earlier can help a co-parent new to doing lunches remember what goes in it.
  • Make lists of things to do before you get into bed – this helps your brain from adding these things to your ruminating loops. If you think of something while you are in bed – keep a pad next to you and write it down!
  • If your sleeplessness is not allowing you to have REM sleep or you are waking up feeling exhausted, please seek some professional help. Chronic lack of sleep can contribute to compromised immune systems, anxiety and depression. I learned about the power of warm Epsom salt baths with lavender bubbles and the boys knew to leave me alone when I was having one!
  • Learn to say ‘no’ more often. Spend some time considering your boundaries – the more tired I felt, the more I said yes to things that I did not need to add to my to-do list. Keep creating small spaces of time for yourself – for things that fill your cup, whether it be yoga, walking the dog, reading, going to the gym or connecting with a good friend.
  • Give yourself micro doses of joy – pausing to rest when having a cuppa, stepping outside to check out nature, especially the sky, taking some deep breaths more often, scrolling through photos of your kids on your phone rather than social media, listening to your favourite playlist while doing stuff or eating two squares of high-quality fruit and nut chocolate – surely it’s a health food!

  • Learn to lower the bar regarding your standards around domestic tidiness from time to time when you feel under pressure. If you have a spare room, maybe try my strategy of having a ‘lucky’ dip bed where the clean clothes went rather than spending an hour folding clothes… and close bedroom doors if untidiness triggers you.
  • Find a relaxing audio that you use often when you get to bed. The brain cannot hear the ruminating loops or the inner critic if it is listening to a guided relaxation. There’s loads of apps now to choose from. I have some free tracks – Moonlight Relaxation for Mums and Flight Fantasy. The more you use them the better they work!
  • Remember, there is no competition in raising children – your children are unique, one-off beings and you are their best bet. Focus on loving connection as it’s the number one determinant to raising healthy kids. Tell your compare-despair voice to shut up and keep a simple mantra on repeat – I am good enough – I have got this!
  • Practise self-compassion and be kind to yourself. Prioritise moments of pause and listen to the whisperings of your heart.
  • Learn to laugh more – lightening up by being ridiculous and acting silly can release as much stress as tears! Let’s be honest, a catch-up with a bestie will see tears of mirth and sadness – that’s why we feel so much better afterwards.
  • Ask for help. I can remember drowning in stress – trying to be Wonder Woman! Due to my own childhood wounds, I was desperate to ‘help’ others to gain a sense of self-worth – kindy president, on the school board, basketball coach, volunteer in palliative care, running my husband’s business, being the only cook at home, gardener and super mum. My body caved, and I experienced complete burnout and two life-threatening medical dramas. It took a near-death experience to wake me up to the truth – I was already enough! There are parent organisations and many not-for-profits who can offer support. Please don’t be too proud to seek help.

I always say the little things are the big things, so taking small steps can really help. Recently someone sent me this beautiful resource, Emotional Support for Mothers – Simple Practices for Difficult Days by Belinda Haan from The Compassion Project here in Australia. It’s a box with cards that each contain simple emotional support practices… specifically for mothers. I recommend you check it out (and maybe gift it to a mamma in your life who might need it).

Mothers used to be surrounded by a village and especially supported by other women. Traditional kinship communities really did things well in that regard. In some Native American communities, it was protocol for menstruating women to retreat to a Moon Lodge for respite. All the other women took care of the children until they returned. Heck, imagine having a week off every month just to relax and catch up on your sleep. Having a circle of women meant they could share their worries, their fears and disappointments and offload them so they weren’t there as they went to bed. Also, they had many conversations about being a woman, becoming a mother and that meant it wasn’t such a mysterious, unpredictable ride. Women stepped forward when other women struggled – no-one struggled alone. While our communities live very differently these days, there are some online communities that can help too. As I mentioned, for Australian rural women, there is Motherland. Internationally, expat Aussie Tracy Gillett has created Raised Good, another space for mums to gather online, and there are many more.

Being a mother with the unique pressures of the 21st Century is a tough gig; I believe tougher than ever. Every mum is doing the best they can EVERY DAY and some days go well, and others not so well. There is no perfection in raising little ones to adulthood. Strive to nurture your heart over your head and know that fierce unconditional love is the key to healthy mothering – and we need to start with ourselves first.

Finally, please enjoy this free gift from me.

About Maggie Dent

Maggie is one of Australia’s favourite parenting authors and educators, with a particular interest in the early years, adolescence and resilience, and is known as the ‘queen of common sense’.

This article was reproduced with permission and originally appeared at maggiedent.com.

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