Return to COVID-shaped school year swells the “mental load” of parents, caretakers

Around the dark cloud of this pandemic has been this big silver lining: my “mental load” got a break.

To moms, the phrase “mental load” is familiar: it’s the “mental work, the organizing, list-making and planning, that you do to manage your life, and that of those dependent on you,” writes Leah Ruppaner for ABC News. She also describes the mental load as “like a phantom — felt by many, but, without the language to describe it, very difficult to discuss.”

For months, I didn’t have to think about my mental load, let alone talk about it. My husband had been working at home, we had been ordering our groceries to be delivered, and for months we learned to isolate our little family from the world.

But now, that mental load is back, in full force and heavier than ever. Five months of inaction have left so much to do, and so little time in which to do it.

Parents and guardians everywhere, I suspect you all know what I’m talking about. Every one of us is struggling right now.

COVID-19 created a haze over the last five months. My three children — ages 4, 9, and 11 — came home for spring break in March, and then stayed home.

Life as we knew it was canceled. Playdates, science center visits, Girl Scout camp, family camping trips, summer days at the pool, all cancelled. One day was exactly like the one before, and the one after.

We delayed all doctor and dentist appointments. We only talked to extended family over the computer. I never had any idea what day it was, and only a vague notion of the month.

While the concerns surrounding COVID caused my personal anxiety to go sky-high,  the stress of carrying my family’s mental load disappeared almost completely. I no longer had appointments to remember, homework to remind my children to do, special events for which the children needed to be dressed, or birthday parties that needed a gift.

Now that schools are reopening, my children’s schools are using a hybrid plan for learning. They start this week, in class for two or three days a week and online for the remaining days.

So now we’re rushing to get those eye checkups, dental checkups, and yearly physicals completed. We’re rushing to get school supplies, but this year the kids can’t join together en-masse for the trip like they have in the past.

School itself is … weird. It was going to be a landmark year anyway, with my eldest starting middle school and my youngest starting preschool. But now, it’s like they’re each attending two schools: one in person, and one online.

We are learning new rules for transporting them to and from school. For safety, I’ll probably pick the kids up — from all three schools.

All of the kids are nervous. They miss their friends and were looking forward to seeing them when the school year began. But now, under the hybrid model, a lot of their friends won’t be in school on the same days they are. They are uneasy about everything being different because of COVID.

This new “mental load” is incredibly difficult, the hardest I’ve had to carry so far in my time as a parent.

As their mother, I need to reassure them. I need to help them face these strange times with confidence. I can handle making a million appointments. I can figure out the shopping. But how do I support them emotionally when I personally feel so overwhelmed by it all?

For starters, I’ve found that it is somehow comforting to know this stress is shared by parents the world over. That we are all having to figure this out anew, and that we will figure it out by trial and error. That we are not alone in this.

Simply sitting down and talking with my husband about this new and insane stressor also helped considerably. So did typing out this column! Sometimes we just need to admit that we’re struggling, and part of that struggle fades away.

We also need to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves while we’re juggling the mental load for everyone else. Allow yourself time to relax, breathe, unwind. You may indeed face a mental load that is a mile-long to-do list, but self care needs to be part of your approach to come out of this pandemic with our sanities intact.

So, I’m taking deep breaths. I’m doing my research. I’m taking medication for my tension headaches. And I will find a way through it.

Moms, Dads and caretakers everywhere, we can survive this. We will be imperfect, we will make mistakes, and we will struggle. But we will face these new emotional needs with love, and we will make it through.

The mental load won’t know what hit it.

Becca Hathaway is a mother of three and writer from Ankeny, Iowa, and assistant editor of The Real MainStream.

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