Parenthood

The ‘Mental Load’ of Single Working Parenthood

This wasn't in the job description.

It was the last Monday morning in August and I had plenty to do — real work deadlines as well as all the things you tell yourself you’ll finish during a summer, that you might still get a sliver of done during that final week. But instead of tackling any of it, I was trying to figure out all the various ways in which my kid could take gymnastics. Was 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning too early? That would let her take another class at 10:30 a.m. (ballet? soccer?) but would that be too much for her focus? And then what about swimming? Should she be taking something closer to home? What about a weekday afternoon? I could grab her early from school on Mondays, but why would I take her out of paid-for childcare for a class when I had all this time on the weekend? But wait, if I definitely wanted swimming, gymnastics and soccer, then how much more time did that leave her, anyway? And, oh God, how can two classes for a four-year-old cost over a thousand bucks? 

There was urgency here. I had to figure this out before the class sold out (I was stressing about a 9:30 class only because the 10:30 gymnastics now had a waitlist) and the 10% discount for the second class only applied if I bought that second class as part of the same transaction with the first class. The clock was ticking, but I was no closer to figuring it out.

As a single mom, I didn’t have anyone else to puzzle this through with, or even better, delegate to. I thought about calling my sister, who had been such an important sounding board ever since my daughter’s birth, but she didn’t live in New York and it seemed like something that required awareness of the unique challenges of a Saturday morning bus to Chelsea Piers. As my shopping cart waited with two back-to-back Saturday morning classes, I imagined my plucky but distractible girl, who had already been fished out of the foam pit twice by an annoyed instructor, lurching out of step in a prissy ballet class filled with graceful, focused little angels. Ones like the sweet daughter of a friend who flitted across my Instagram in her little pink tutu, happy and bun-headed, and already on her umpteenth ballet class even though she was the same age as Ruby. Ugh, Ruby was so behind. 

All of this jumbled together in my brain, vibrating in paralysis like one of those tiny greyhounds that seems motionless in her owner’s arms, until you look close and see that her eyes are darting everywhere and she’s quivering with panic. It took another hour, two emails to two separate moms groups ( resulting in ‘yes, she’ll be fine!’ and ‘no, she’ll melt down!’) and one panicky phone call to a mom friend on her third kid (who recommended two totally different local spots) to finally figure out that it was fine for her to just take the gymnastics. Ninety stressful, anxious, guilt-ridden minutes during which I did no actual paying work to cover that $630, because I was engaged in something called “the mental load.”

As mothers, we’re already probably doing the lion’s share of the work but, we’re also the ones mentally juggling all of the tasks and logistics associated with child rearing.

As mothers, we’re already probably doing the lion’s share of the physical job of feeding, dressing, teeth-brushing, bath-giving, bum-wiping, bedtime-suffering and laundry-doing, but we’re also the ones mentally juggling all of the tasks and logistics associated with child rearing. There’s the mental work of planning, budgeting, calendaring and generally being the Wayne Gretzky of everything happening in your household, perpetually skating to where the puck is going.

And this feels normal to us. According to Darcy Lockman, author of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, unequal division of household labor actually feels fair to both husbands and wives — that  is to say, men feel like they are contributing equally when they do 35% of the household labor, and women feel like they are being equitably treated when they are only doing 65% of the work. (“Only.”) But add in the mental load and the scales tip wildly over to the mom’s side.  

For single moms, the burden is even heavier. After all, we have to do everything in our household, and we don’t even have that 35% of work being done by someone else to not complain about.  

And the grind can get you down. Lockman called it “the despair that comes with exhaustion that is not likely to wane” (ouch!) and identified single moms as being particularly prone to it because of the unrelenting nature of mental and physical labor. Lockman recalls an observation made by a friend with 3-year-old twin boys: “I don’t ever have anyone to hand them off to.”

As a single mom I can definitely relate. If I want to leave my house by myself, I usually have to pay someone. Otherwise, if I really need to do something, there’s Netflix. (Thank you, Netflix!)

There is a lot of overlap between the mental load experience of single mothers and partnered moms (defined loosely here as “living with another adult and your children in a shared household”). Like sometimes having to co-parent with another human, which often comes with child support payments and access schedules. And for some people there are amicable, positive co-parenting arrangements in which responsibility is shared with flexibility and generosity. It’s just not necessarily something you can count on. And where cis, heterosexual relationships are concerned, the common denominator is that these arrangements wildly favor the men. 

“We’re raised in a sexist society,” says Lockman, whose book will make you want to punch a wall, or throw it at the nearest person who shares your child’s DNA. “We all come to understand that men’s needs, ambitions and priorities are more important and we enact that in our heterosexual relationships. But as we become more aware of this (as women tend to do more clearly than men), we become frustrated because who wants to live as if she has less worth?”

Lockman also points out the very real professional earning consequence of this default: a diminished earning capacity for mothers. “There is no plus for women to being society’s primary unpaid caretakers,” says Lockman. “Women over 65 are twice as likely as men over 65 to live in poverty, largely because of all the time devoted to unpaid care has a paid labor cost (to lifetime earnings, to social security). And that’s just one thing.”

Another thing: we have less time to devote to our advancement. “Women I interviewed spoke about turning down professional opportunities to support their husband’s ability to be the ambitious one,” says Lockman, who interviewed 50 mothers for All The Rage, and noted the near-universality of experience. “Reentry to the workforce is difficult, there are years of lost wages and you reenter not at the wage you would’ve made had you not stopped working. But there are also costs to cutting back at work, turning down promotions, etc.” Lockman also notes that promotions are also less likely to be offered to mothers, because of assumptions about their outside responsibilities, which tends not to apply to fathers. (Riveter founder Amy Nelson has written about her own experience with this). 

This is something I have personally experienced, including with this article, impossible to finish over a weekend without standing childcare. As a self-employed entrepreneur, I get to work from home, but if I want to attend an event, I have to pay for childcare, and the IRS does not recognize that childcare as a legitimate business expense — even for events I am hosting for professional reasons).

But Heather Whaling, a divorced mom of a six-year-old boy, finds the positive spin here. “[My son] knows about my work, he knows about my community involvement, he knows my friends, he knows when something breaks in the house I have to figure out how to get it fixed, etc.” wrote Heather, the founder and CEO of Columbus, Ohio-based Geben Communications. “When there are two parents, oftentimes gender norms take hold and color how a child sees the mom and sees the dad. In some ways, I think he sees me more as a full person, while other kids see their parents ‘just’ as the mom.”

There’s also the stress that accompanies the process of becoming de-partnered parents. Divorce, spousal support, child support and access litigation is truly one of the most soul-crushing, time-consuming and money-draining things on the planet, and almost no one who goes through it comes out unscathed. And the realization that the state has more rights over your child than you do is terrifying to experience. Says Whaling: “Having a legal system force you into a parenting schedule is a horrible, frustrating feeling.”

There are additional elements to the mental load for women of color. Journalist and author Kimberly Seals Allers has written about the “single mother hierarchy”, citing her personal experience: 

“Years after my divorce, I continued to wear my wedding ring when meeting new school teachers and principals, acutely aware that as an African American woman — even with an Ivy League education and a middle-class income — I was still subject to the stereotypical perception of “the black single mother.” And I did not want any teacher interacting with me or my child based on that negative perception.”

Charlene Castellanos, founder of the Single Parent In The City Instagram and podcast, is acutely aware of her responsibility in raising her son. “My son is Latino with Afro-Latin parents, one with dark skin and one with light skin. My ex-husband has no clue what it is to raise a son who is looked at as an African American boy,” says Castellanos, who lives in Atlanta. “It is my job to ensure he gets the best education and mentorship so that he will have an advantage. Plus, ensure that he is prepared for the world we live in.” (When I asked whether that meant 2019 under the Trump administration, she clarified as such: “I think this [would be] a concern of mine during any administration that does not value men of color.”)

But there are also perks for single moms: One is the absence of having another person in the house to think about, bicker with, cook for or silently rage at while mentally tracking just how long those dirty dishes have been piling up in the sink. “I get to make the rules for how I want to raise my son,” says Castellanos.

Bridget, a lawyer in the Midwest who prefers to go only by her first name, is a single mom to a teenager, and she recalls this benefit from her daughter’s early years. “One observation I made was that my married mom friends did have a lot of drama with their husbands when their kids were young,” she recalls. “At least I didn’t have to deal with that.” 

A study came out this year revealing that married moms do more housework than single moms, despite the fact that they have a whole other person there to help out. My household reflects this. I was never Marie Kondo, but when it’s only me and Ruby, it’s easier to be flexible and just think of what works for just the two of us. (This might also explain why there is crayon and marker all over our walls). But also, I’d guess that this data reflects that single moms are often so depleted by their 100% focus that it becomes easier to make those compromises. 

Lockman says she is not surprised by this finding: “When I was interviewing [sociologist] Annette Lareau, who spent lots of time for her research in dual-earner households with kids, she noted that dinner was less of a production when dads were not there.” Lockman understood this from a personal standpoint too, as a mom, and wife, herself. “If it’s just my kids I make them frozen chicken nuggets and I eat whatever. When my husband is home I feel responsible for providing adult food, and that’s more work.” 

Whaling notes another byproduct of a mom-centered household — the lack of defaults that may reinforce traditional toxic masculinity. “We talk VERY openly about how important it is to feel our feelings, a discussion that doesn’t happen in friends’ homes where the dad isn’t as supportive of little boys expressing their emotions.”

Most moms realize, the mental load is just a bummer, and sometimes it takes being happy and carefree to realize it.

But mostly, as most moms realize, the mental load is just a bummer, and sometimes it takes being happy and carefree to realize it. Adrienne Gunn, a single mom in Chicago who has been divorced for eight years, realized this after taking a vacation to Scotland with her best girlfriends this summer, and posted about it on Instagram. “While running around having tons of new experiences and laughing my ass off with my girls, I had a different understanding of how much of my life is spent stressed. (Like all of it.)” she wrote. “I do my best. I mean being a working single mom is hard, that’s just the reality, and feeling wondrous every day is just another thing to add to the list. But travel is a good reminder that the world is big and joyous and not all terrible things on the news and unconscionably-specific school supply lists.”

And she’s right. The world is big and joyous, and having kids is one of the biggest and most joyous things you can do. Yes, the mental load sucks, and even if you’re not single, parenting is hard, expensive and pretty darn relentless. But having a name for all of it helps.

And at least there’s a definable payoff. After all of that effort: Ruby really loves gymnastics.

Rachel Sklar is a writer, entrepreneur and single mom in New York City. You can find her on Instagram @rachelsklar and a much angrier version of her on Twitter also @rachelsklar. Women contain multitudes.