“Instead of arriving to work fresh I’ve been up for 4 hours, changed 2 poop diapers, brought one kid to camp, the other to daycare and feel successful if I managed not to leave my gym bag with one of the kids and have taken the baby’s bottle bag with me to work. I arrive to court at 9:00 am and I feel as though I’ve already slayed a dozen dragons! With any luck, there isn’t unidentified goop on my suit.”

The mental load is damaging the relationship to career for 62% of over 200 surveyed Moms*. Many feel distracted, disengaged and hollowed out juggling work demands and everything-household. After fighting for years to establish our professional selves, the double-bind of it all crushes the spirit and pulls the same precious energy needed to problem solve and innovate. Essential skills to thrive in most careers.

There are limits to human attention and working memory. If you’re paid for strategic solutions or deliver creative output, the mental load’s insistent tug competes for that cognitive space and presence.

“I could have lost my job about 2 years ago. The stress was so bad from taking care of home and work…I was paralyzed with fear of doing it wrong. I was diagnosed with ADHD (got meds for that) increased (my) anxiety and depression meds and started seeing a counselor. That helped, but shortly after that I got pregnant with my second set of twins.”

“I am behind in deadlines and my ambitions, projects and research have all been put on hold while I try to raise my family. I am years behind where I thought I would be in terms of my career. I am just doing the bare minimum to survive.”

“I also feel resentful toward work and pissed at my co-workers because they have no f*cking clue what I take on when I’m not in the office…most who have kids, also have stay at home wives who help.”

With women as primary, sole or co-breadwinners in nearly 2/3 of American families** mental load stress threatens more than happiness and fulfillment for working Moms, but financial security.

There are bright spots, for nearly a third of surveyed Moms (27%) the mental load does not affect their work and a rare few (4%) have made time-crunched-lemonade by squeezing more efficiency from each day.

“…Fortunately, I work at a company that has incredible work-life integration…there are the emotional signs like feeling I can’t have it all (and) I have to sacrifice more than my husband… but I love to work. And I’m not sacrificing a passion.”

“It has forced me to create better boundaries and examine trade-offs more carefully. I drop the ball a lot more and have stopped caring about getting back to people promptly (and the reputation that yields). I have reframed a lot for myself. I try to say things like well, would they really fire me for this? Getting to the breaking point has forced me to make changes for the better, but it’s ridiculous to have to get to that point in the first place, and it feels like an epidemic among my peers.”

“It has made it harder for me to be a hands-on theatrical producer and it has basically made it impossible for me to handle scheduling for anyone outside my family. On the other hand, it has made me focus more clearly on what I most want to do and ask for help more often.”

“I don’t (have mental load affecting my work), no. It’s a distraction at times, but I feel like I’m pretty good at holding it at bay until I leave the office…then I have a huge wave of stress from the family load come over me”

How the Mental Load Affects The Relationship to Career for 216 Moms surveyed:

More distracted, less productive and/or engaged 31%
No effect 27%
Career has stalled and/or no longer prioritize professional development 9%
Less energy and/or patience 6%
More stressed 6%
Left workforce/stay at home 6%
Less time for work or prioritization 5%
More productive and/or efficient 4%
Less strategic and/or creative 3%
Angry and/or resentful 3%

Although Moms make extraordinary contributions in every societal sphere, women are still scarce in the most visible leadership roles. Just over 6% of Fortune 500 CEO’s are women (sadly, an all-time high) and less than a quarter of top elected officials are women. Many Moms cited they often neglect external networking, internal relationship building, personal branding and professional development events in the massive juggle for more bandwidth.

“No time to focus on career growth. (I) just survive day by day.”

“It makes me stressed out that I can’t give adequate time to what I believe should be my top priority, professional development.”

“I don’t think it has really affected my productivity. I find ways to be more efficient. However, I suppose it has caused me to be more efficient and spend less time with peers and coworkers.”

Unfortunately, these ‘soft-skills’ activities that Moms under-invest in are described repeatedly as the bridge to the elusive leadership track.

The Responsibility Trap

Jen Walper Roberts, an Executive Coach who primarily works with women leaders, explained the Moms she works with have typically succeeded because they’ve been so responsible. “They’re the safe hands…everyone sees them that way. (Their) spouse, kids, CEO…their identity is connected to being reliable.” I was nodding vigorously at this point. She continued, “They’re so dependable, they don’t get credit for how much they take on. People need to be acknowledged (to feel good) not just do invisible work.” Bravo!

Many of us are wired to find happiness at the intersection of productivity and helpfulness. We volunteer our time to the point of over-commitment. Moms continue to feel guilty about what they’re not doing versus recognizing how much they take on and overall positive impact they’re having.

“Sometimes I feel I’m at my best at work in the morning because I am refreshed so I feel guilty that my “best” isn’t when I am with my kids. I would like to get more done at work than I do but overall, I feel I do well at my job because I am financially focused for our family.”

“Ugh. I feel behind, but I am being promoted/achieving, so I guess it’s okay? Wish I felt better about work performance, stepping back from an A++ employee to a B+ employee is a hard transition for me post-baby.”

“I had a SUPER hard time returning to work and I felt worried all the time that I was not measuring up to others (I shared a managing position with someone). Ended up having to leave my job. Currently looking for new work.”

Renegotiate The Rules!

Time Mastery and Awareness
“Identify what you do have control over and give up stuff you hate. What’s the worst that can happen?” Jen described how feeling a lack of control and autonomy or being “at everyone’s mercy” drives career dissatisfaction.

What happens when you’re no longer able to work the longest? Many expressed guilt associated with taking what used to be work time for pick-ups, drop-offs and children’s appointments. “You need to become more efficient and waste less time at work.” She went on to describe the concept of ‘time mastery’ an improvement upon ‘time management’.

“Identify passive areas in your schedule. How can you only attend the meetings that add value to your work?” It’s one way to reorganize time against the right priorities. “Think of yourself as self-employed.” She also advised how to set boundaries, especially with your schedule, to align output against goals. “To the people you work with regularly, be clear about ‘sacred times’ when you can’t be interrupted.”

Be Brave. Set Limits.
Wait, aren’t we supposed to be leaning in? Sheryl Sandberg’s tomb influenced many of us to rethink career engagement from the context of advancing gender equality in power positions. Jen laughed and described that for many women she coaches, “…they’ve been leaning in, leaning in, leaning in! It’s too stressful and they begin to ask themselves, what am I doing?”

“Changing the rules may seem to put you at risk in some people’s eyes, however, normalizing being brave is better than the stress of hiding or trying to work three times harder at home.” She acknowledged, this is particularly hard for women who are often conditioned to please others.

The great news, this is happening! Some Moms shared encouraging stories of negotiating flex arrangements, compartmentalizing the mental load, discovering time mastery and flourishing at work.

Figure Out What You Want
When working with clients, Jen starts with the Gallup Strengths Finder. “Ideally, align your work with the types of things you enjoy so much you’d do them for free.” She realized in her own career, she felt the most fulfilled developing people. This realization led her to coaching.

“Post-motherhood, what you want from your work may change.” Jen illustrates tailoring what’s right is quite personal. “Some women decide, I just want to do strategy and nothing else. They don’t want work that requires nurturing energy anymore (like people management) when they’re doing a lot of nurturing at home.”

She also sees women (and men) that elect to downshift versus ascend. “People stay in jobs they don’t love, because they have tenure to make those flexibility requests and (they) prioritize that freedom over starting something (potentially) better.”

Moms are designing every possible flavor of work/life and shared their stories of negotiating flexibility, temporarily or fully to reduce mental load stress or other aspects of work/life conflict.

“At one point, it really was a problem, I ended up going part-time and giving up a management role. It was a real set back. After a year of this, I went back full-time and then it took me another year to get back on the management track.”

“(Career growth)…It has (been) put on the backburner and slowed down. It was a conscious choice, but it still hurts.”

“…(The mental load) has not (had an impact) yet, I work part-time and tend to prioritize work above many other things. (This) could be a problem in the future.”

6% of Moms surveyed, elected to pause their careers altogether.

“As a stay-at-home mom, my job IS the mental load. If I worked outside the home I would expect my husband to share in these things and I honestly think our marriage would crumble under the strain of constant bickering and nagging.”

“I haven’t gotten back into the workforce simply because I don’t think I can handle another thing on my plate.”

“I am a stay at home mom currently, but hope to reenter the workforce at some point. Thinking about this and all the changes it will bring about, as well as the fear of rejection or failure, causes me a lot of stress and confusion.”

Practice Self-Awareness & Compassion
Moms are hard on themselves, evidenced by the inescapable Mom-guilt expressed in so many responses. Jen encourages not only self-compassion but to remember “this is a season of life, not forever.” Just acknowledging that takes off some unnecessary pressure.

When asked about her own journey, how she transitioned to build a successful coaching practice, Jen laughed and said she views herself as ‘always in training’. “I’m aware of the capacity and resilience I’ve built in myself.” She said looking back, she’s been able to accomplish things she never imagined she could.

Choreographing every move the family makes is expected from the ‘Mom-job’ but few discuss how the invasive nature of planning (versus just doing) leaves less time and mental space to navigate career growth. Continuity of thought (and time) are required to reach a state of work ‘flow’ where the joy and breakthroughs often lie.

This space for growth and self-care will not come automatically and the well-intentioned people around you won’t realize that you need it. Believe in your heart you deserve it (because you do) and shift to view what’s healthy for the path you’ve chosen as good for your family too.

Now, give yourself the permission to actively build infrastructure that supports it…don’t worry, you’ve got this!


* Moms Hierarchy of Needs, How the Mental Load Affects Your Life survey August 2017
**Center for American Progress study 2015

Many thanks to Jen Walper Roberts, founder of Conspire Coaching, for sharing her expert guidance! Jen helps mission-driven women lead and thrive in their careers and lives. She works virtually with clients around-the-globe and you can learn more about her business and background from her website and LinkedIn profile.

This article originally appeared on www.MomsHierarchyofNeeds.com.