Imagine working 98 hours a week for years on end. Sounds exhausting, right? 

Welcome to the sunup to sundown world of working mothers, who labor an average of 14 hours a day. In case you’re wondering, that’s the equivalent of 2.5 full-time jobs. This reality is all the more difficult when you consider that there are no weekends off, no sick days, no vacation days … heck, there’s not even a coffee break.

So Much More Than Meets the Eye

Peek into a working mom’s life and you’ll watch her cycle through one task after the next: picking kids up from daycare, folding laundry, changing diapers, shopping for food, preparing meals, loading the dishwasher. What you won’t see is the constant chatter in her head about how to keep her household in good working order.

This endless chatter is called the “mental load,” and it can be described as the organizing, list-making, reminding, and planning that moms disproportionately assume. If you’re a mom, you’ve probably fretted about the following in the recent past: holiday gifts; the dwindling supply of toilet paper; the kids’ next dental appointments; birthday party plans; the cat’s vet visit; parent-teacher conferences. Add in a global pandemic and that mental chatter is probably compounded. (See the mental load in action by checking out the viral cartoon “You Should’ve Asked.”)

It’s easy to see why the mental load is often referred to as “worry work” and “emotional labor.” 

All of these tasks take up valuable real estate in a person’s mind. So while it may look like mom is zoned out in front of the TV, she may very well be ruminating about where to procure her kids’ Halloween costumes.

A Woman’s Work is Never Done

Research shows that women are shouldering more than their fair share of this invisible work. According to a recent study, women are twice as likely to be managing their households and three times more likely to be managing their kids’ schedules. They’re also three times more likely to volunteer at their kids’ schools and two times more likely to manage all their families’ myriad responsibilities. 

And that holds true even if mom is the family breadwinner. The study revealed that moms who are the primary earners in their families are three times more likely to manage kids’ schedules than breadwinning dads. 

Gemma Hartley, a feminist journalist and author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, says moms today have it worse than ever before. “Women are most certainly handling more responsibilities today than ever before in terms of both paid and unpaid labor,” she says. “The problem is that women are taking on more paid work, but men aren’t taking up unpaid work in equal measure. A vast majority of women now work outside the home, yet their workload inside the home hasn’t changed.” 

Hartley also believes that our competitive child-rearing culture only exacerbates moms’ mental loads. “We feel a mounting pressure to turn motherhood into another full-time job where it is our responsibility to not simply keep our kids alive, but to use every moment as an opportunity to give them a leg up,” she explains. 

Then there’s the internet. “Where we used to look to our family and friends for advice, we now have the whole internet giving us advice,” she says. “It’s not only the increasingly busy schedules that are contributing to the mental load but also the amount of information we are constantly sorting through while creating those schedules.” 

Using Alcohol to Quiet the Mind

It shouldn’t be a surprise that many moms turn to alcohol to calm minds in overdrive. After all, alcohol is abundantly available not only at dinners and parties but at book clubs, quilting circles, even Bible studies. (My own church holds a “Women, Wine, and the Word.”)

Wine, in particular, has been elevated as a salve for the busy mom’s overactive mind. Often referred to as “mom juice,” wine and the moms who drink it are the subjects of endless memes.  

“As a culture, we have tied motherhood and drinking together in a really worrying way,” says Hartley. “There’s a whole market for drinking-related merchandise targeted specifically at mothers. Upping your alcohol intake is not only normalized, but encouraged when you become a mom, so it’s very easy to wander into dependency without even realizing something is wrong.”

As the working mom of a spirited toddler, I get it. It’s usually around 9:00 p.m. when I can collapse into the couch and cap off the day’s physical labor. But I’m still thinking about the grocery list that needs to be written, the credit card bills that need to be paid, the oil change that needs to be scheduled. It’s too late to head to the gym to work off steam and I’ve never had luck meditating. So I give in and pour myself a glass of Pinot. 

Hartley says the messaging around moms and drinking normalizes this kind of behavior. “I think the most dangerous part about mom-wine culture is that women are encouraged to drink more at a time when their lives are really upended when they really need to learn healthy coping methods more than ever,” she says.

Drinking, in and of itself, is not a coping mechanism, but it is touted as one. This is very much a slippery slope, leading mothers down a path of potentially long-term suffering. Alcohol might be used as a short-term source of relief from really hard days, but this can lead mothers to use it as a crutch for the daily difficulties in parenting. It becomes an escape rather than a tool. 

Using alcohol can actually make anxiety and depression worse, which isn’t of any help for anyone, let alone mothers. The physical consequences of prolonged alcohol use are also detrimental. With documented increases in heart disease, certain types of cancer, and epilepsy, mothers who use alcohol as a coping mechanism for parenting are putting themselves in danger. In short, alcohol is not a solution for mothers. It’s an escape with serious consequences. 

The Way Forward

It’s clear that overwhelmed moms need better ways to cope with their stressful lives. Hartley, a mom herself, suggests yoga, meditation, and clearing space in your calendar for downtime.

But what many moms need most of all is more help. “If you’re dealing with an overwhelming mental load, the best way to get a reprieve is to work on splitting that load with your partner,” she says. “It’s a process that takes time and effort, but it is so worth the mental space you will recoup once you’ve found a balance that works for you.” 

I recently did just that with my husband. After writing out every task that keeps our home humming along, we then discussed who would take ownership of each one. (I’m happy to report that unloading the dishwasher, ensuring we never run out of cash in four different dollar denominations, and making breakfast are no longer under my purview.) 

It wasn’t the most fun conversation we’ve ever had. But the long-term relief was far better than the short-lived kind afforded by a glass of wine.