A couple weeks ago, and just as we’d finished the lunch I’d lovingly prepared, my husband told me, “I’ll go out for a walk, okay?”
By the way I looked at him, he knew how I felt about that. He didn’t understand, so I told him how hectic my day had been up to that point, at just about 1:00 p.m.–not even halfway into the day. I hadn’t gone for a walk, of course. After the first three sentences, he shouted, “Stop, I’m already stressed!”
So, let me explain to everyone who’d like to listen what mental load is.
I wake up groggy and tired. My neck’s hurting again. Bad posture at the computer? Who the fuck knows. Husband is sweet–he makes me coffee. Daughter has school at 8:30, which means my office is hers for as long as the zoom meeting with her teacher lasts. Her teacher says it’s always one hour long, and if it’s going to be longer, then she’ll send an email with the info. I haven’t gotten any emails today, so I decide to go out for an hour’s walk. I’ll be back when her lesson is over.
Another ten minutes of quiet to finish my coffee–I’ve allowed Son to listen to an audiobook while Daughter is in “school”–and I put on my hiking top and shoes. I have to do some walking every day, and if I don’t do it now that it’s early, I won’t do it later, when I’m swamped. Our health has been deteriorating during this lockdown. Our eating habits, too. We’ve had fries for three meals in a row. I don’t have ballet right now, which was my way of staying fit and active, and I’m only getting fatter. It’s okay, you’ll think, but it’s really not. I don’t get fat in the “nice” way–or what is considered acceptable in today’s society, at least–not at the hips or butt. My extremities remain matchstick-thin while my midsection bulges. When I’m fat, I have a fat belly, a fat back, and no waist. I’m like a barrel with legs. It’s unacceptable.
But that’s not even the main reason I have to go outside: I have to go outside every day because otherwise I ‘ll lose my god-damned mind.
It’s not only exercise, either. I take with me an invitation to Son’s birthday celebration, which I’ll throw in his friend’s mailbox (only one guest allowed. Corona!). I also take a lot of change with me. Some people don’t bother with small coins, so I regularly have to see that I do something with Husband’s change. It’s such a bother for him to deal with the insignificant details, so he just doesn’t. But my thinking is, we shouldn’t be throwing money away, now should we? The change is for buying eggs at the nearby farm. They have good eggs.
I pop some Ibuprofen before I leave. I can’t count on the walk to fix me–if the neck-related grogginess continues, I won’t be adequately functional today. And there’s a lot of shit to do. Ibuprofen wakes me up. Lately, I totally get why soccer moms in rich neighbourhoods take stimulants. I’d be tempted, too.
I start my route tracker and go first by Son’s friend’s house. Letter in, check, first thing done. I’ve walked 4 km by the time I’m back in my neighbourhood and at the farm. Workout, check. It takes me a while to count all the change, but when it’s done, I pay, and, check! Another thing taken care of. Along with the raw, free-range eggs, I take six cooked, coloured ones (pink, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple) for the kids. Maybe it’ll improve their mood, and they won’t freak out when I tell them to do their homework. Maybe it’ll just make them happy for ten seconds, and I’ll have ten fewer seconds of grumbling.
I’m back. Run upstairs, Daughter still in front of the computer. Why the hell do they make the kids sit in front of a screen for so long? This is not healthy. They get pale and lethargic. Son is playing some game on the old iPhone I’ve given him, so I tell him to stop and get up from the chair. He gets headaches if he plays for too long. He can walk around the room or do some stretching while he listens to a book. No child should be sitting for ninety solid minutes.
Back downstairs. I have to prepare food. Look in the fridge. It’s a whole logistics nightmare to make sure we have everything we need but still not too much, so that it doesn’t spoil, and heaven forbid I forget to buy Son’s favourite sausages or Daughter’s favourite muesli.
Not that I ever forget. I have a detailed database in my head. This is where all the sugar I eat goes: the planning capacity of a caretaker’s brain is endless.
The boiled potatoes have been in the fridge for several days, so has the salad and the rice. I have to figure out how to make meals everybody likes without throwing stuff away. That’s an everyday struggle. Okay, we have lots of cheese–so, potato gratin for lunch, a salad for me and Husband. Phew, that takes care of two out of three. I can make a stir-fry with the rice for tonight; I still have those expired vegetable cans that can go in there, after all. There’s also chicken stock, so I’m thinking noodle soup for the kids (they don’t eat Asian food, the soy sauce and all the crunchy vegetables are just too weird for them).
The kitchen’s a mess; I have to cook and clean at the same time. The plates from breakfast are still on the table. As soon as I’ve put one in the dishwasher, I see the stuff in the sink that needs to be washed by hand, so I do that. Then I run upstairs again. Is the lesson finished? No. It’s been nearly two hours–Daughter is going to be exhausted after this. My blood pressure rises just thinking of the torture that’s going to be convincing her to do homework. She’ll blow up and cry, she’ll get stressed and start fidgeting, she’ll start shaking. I’ll have to be her rock, keep her sane, hug her, tell her to give me all her stress. Mommy’s here.
Is Son playing instead of listening to the audiobook? No, he’s on his feet, listening intently. Phew. Lower probability of hyperactivity and headaches later. Back downstairs. Dang, why are there still plates on the table? Did I get sidetracked again? Duh, of course I did. And, gosh, I should wash the bedding today. Haven’t done it in two weeks. How grubby can sheets get before they’re too grubby? Never mind, I’m never getting this done today. I have to cut potatoes and grate cheese. Clean salad, soak the buns for my french toast tomorrow morning. I made banana buns last week, and nobody’s eating them–and I refuse to throw away food. My breakfast for the week is settled. Fine by me.
When am I going to finish the proofread I have to hand in next Monday? I only managed ten pages yesterday. I don’t even know if I’m doing a good job. My brain’s just too addled and distracted these days.
I have a first appointment with a child therapist tomorrow, because Daughter has been depressed, crying, stressed. I have to take care of her mental health, because nobody else will. Don’t get me started on Husband’s family. They’re willing to ignore all elephants in the room. I’m talking about roaring, stampeding elephants. If they can pretend a problem doesn’t exist, they will, and we all know humans are perfectly capable of pretending problems don’t exist. And the problems I sought a therapist for are only the recent ones, which are on top of all the issues Husband’s possible autism and my chronic anxiety have been causing for years: the hypersensitivity, the panic attacks, Daughter’s debilitating anxiety, her insecurity, her difficulty sleeping. I’m in charge of the family’s mental health. I have to fix it.
Husband’s coming with me to the therapist tomorrow, so that she gets a complete view of what we think’s wrong. My mother-in-law calls to say she can’t make it to babysit, but grandpa can come here and stay with Daughter for two hours so she’s not alone. She gets so insecure. I think it will be nice for her to spend some hours with grandpa.
Mother-in-law and I agree to talk again at 13:00. I set a reminder on my phone because there’s no chance I’ll remember.
I’m grateful I’ve been able to get help for all the members of the family, and at the same time I’m just a little resentful that nothing happens if I don’t do it. Our daughter would be irrevocably traumatized hadn’t I stepped in and set the wheels in motion. Now three of us–all except Son–are in therapy, plus there are the family therapy sessions. The progress is slow but significant. We need a lot of work. Husband doesn’t always see it. One little success, and he thinks we’re finished. I have to convince him anew every fuckin time that he has to continue therapy. (Yes, that’s my job, too. I have to keep this family together.)
Husband has his first autism evaluation appointment next week. The family therapist has been insisting he do it for six months now. I almost had a breakdown during our last family therapy session, so this time the family therapist told Urban, “You’ll keep postponing it forever, so do it now. Call the autism center. Today!”
Really, I’m telling you, I was close to burnout for a couple days there. It was touch and go. Now, second burnout in a year, that would have been an achievement. But that’s Urban. His inertia is a thing to behold. I still love him, for whatever reason. (I know the reason: he’s the only absolutely logical person I know who’s absolutely secure in his skin and nevertheless has no ego–he admits what he does wrong and he’s willing to correct it. If the inertia doesn’t take over, that is. Which it usually does. Still, have you ever met someone who’s 100% secure but not selfish and insistent on his opinion? The line is so fine that pretty much everyone falls on one side or the other. Not Urban. He’s just absolutely okay.)
Where was I? Ah, Husband and his possible autism. He goes to therapy, but I’m not allowed to talk about it with him anymore. I posed too many questions. I was too critical–of the therapist, mostly. If you ask me, his therapist knows nada about adult autism. She thinks the person who has to have everything at right angles on his desk and freaks out if you touch his stuff just had an overprotected childhood.
Fuck. There are still two dirty plates on the kitchen table. Why are they still there?
Daughter comes down after two hours of zoom lessons. She’s exhausted. I have a plan for homework, but if I tell her now that we have to do homework, she’ll explode. I’ll be there for her, of course, like yesterday, and I’ll sit her down and gently insist we do it. I’ll write down the math exercises for her, while she tries to soothe her trembling and her nerves by drinking some water or eating a snack. I’ll try to soothe her by showing her just how good she is at math. This is how we do things these days. She can do everything on her own, of course, under normal circumstances–her teacher can’t believe I have to help her so much at home since she’s a model student in school. Her teacher doesn’t get school is different from home. Her teacher doesn’t understand the difference between having to obey a person of authority and the insecurity caused by an emotionally unregulated parent. Every single time Husband berates Daughter has her questioning his love for her and freaking out about whether she’s made him sad. Teacher doesn’t get any of that.
So, no homework. I reckon it’s snack time. I know they’ve barely had breakfast, so I sit them down and cut some bread. They dive in, and the ham and salami are gone in a second.
Mental note: buy more salami. Open app on phone, note down salami. While they eat, I sit and help them. I’m actually sitting!
Now I tell them to get carrot leaves and parsley to feed the piggies. They must stay occupied for half an hour or so. The piggies are fun. Thank God for the piggies. They make me feel less lonely—you already know about my husband and my loneliness.
Maybe I can steal a couple minutes’ work while they play with the pets.
Daughter does her schooling at my desk, so I have to sweep the eraser bits to the floor. Who cares about some dirt—next week it’ll be swept by our cleaning lady. She’s not all that good; if I have a basket on the floor, she wipes widely around it, not even bothering to push it to the side and wipe beneath it. But again, who cares. The important thing is that we’re not filthy.
Trim nails (I hate my nails hitting the keyboard when I type), light candle (soothes me!), get my cold tea. Ready. Open document. It takes a while for me to concentrate. I have to be well concentrated for a proofread. Am I doing a good job? I did a second pass yesterday, and I found things I’d missed. In my mental state, I’m terrified I’m still missing things. Okay, then, it’s settled: two passes for everything. Even if $4/1000 words aren’t worth the time I’m investing. But I want to do the best possible job. Four dollars are more than zero dollars, after all.
The kids come before I’ve done two pages. They want to watch TV now, or play on the phones. But there’s another drama: they want to use my computer (it’s the only place where they can play a specific game), the same one on which I’m working. You’d think giving them a smartphone each to use for the time I’m indisposed would be entertainment enough, but no. (Mental note: tell Urban to finally make a kids account on his computer so they can play when he’s not here.)
Okay, new idea: I’m buying Minecraft for Son. I promised it would be his birthday present. His birthday is in just two weeks. It’s fine, he’s just getting his present early. It’ll keep him occupied. Then maybe I can work for this meagre fee I’m charging. Maybe I can even make the 7.99 Euros I spent for the game in the little time I have until lunch.
Son returns with the phone. I have to remember my Microsoft account password to log into the game (why? WHY?). Fat chance. I set up a new one. This takes another five minutes. While I’m doing this, Daughter comes in and wants my face ID to download something. I berate her—”You see I’m writing something right now,” I tell her, “why do you think I can do it? Wait, please.” I kid you not, she came yesterday to ask for my fingerprint to download a game while I was on the toilet. But if I open the door while she’s on the toilet, there’s hell to pay. “Do you like it when I do this to you?” I asked her, and she was mortified. But still she stayed until she got the ID. Kids don’t really have boundaries, but hell, they’re big enough now, they’ll have to learn.
Where was I? Work. Let’s continue the proofread until Urban comes back from his therapy. Darn, he’ll be back any minute. Lunch. I got to make lunch. I’m hungry.
Deep breath. Another one. A sip of my nice cold tea.
I can proofread a little more. On to the next page. I do my best to concentrate again.
Son comes back. “I can’t play!” How the fuck do you play Minecraft? Holy cow, why does this have to be so fuckin hard?
Okay, I need to start with the salad now. I’ll proofread tonight, when the kids are asleep. Theoretically, I like to shut down the computer in the evening and wind down, but yeah. Ha-fucking-ha.
I managed seven pages. Maybe 1.5k words. 6 dollars, maybe 4 Euros or so. Well done, Ioanna.
I go downstairs and make lunch, leaving them to play. Daughter comes down the stairs, and I tell her to leave the phone and come for lunch now. “But we have barely played!” she starts–already in the ear-piercing half-crying mode I can’t stand. “I don’t give a shit,” I snap. Of course, she deteriorates to sobs, and I immediately regret it. I apologize, hug her, hold her until she’s calm again. I apologize again and again. No matter now swamped mommy is, no matter if she needs to work on her computer and the kids insist they want to play on there too, no matter how much of a struggle it is to make them do homework, cook, get groceries, do wash-up, keep them fed, physically healthy, mentally healthy, coordinate as best as possible so that Husband doesn’t get overwhelmed (hint: everything that’s not organized and figured out overwhelms him, so basically everything in a child-full life), no matter what, Mommy has to stay calm.
Okay. I’m calm. Lunch.
We sit down. Daughter’s not eating, she’s just sitting there. The three of us are happy with the food Then we’re finished, and while I clear the table, I tell them about homework. Daughter very nearly has another meltdown, but I hold her and soothe her and tell her we’ll do it together, and it’s going to be fine. I don’t know why she keeps having these meltdowns. She can do her homework all right. It’s not too hard for her.
She brings the printouts of Monday’s exercises (it’s Wednesday today, but we’re taking it slow. She wasn’t doing any homework until last week). She makes a mistake. “I don’t want to show my teacher that,” she says. In the meantime, Son is climbing on and off his chair, fidgeting, looking at the simple (for him) math sheet in front of him, he grumbles, he throws the pencil around. He doesn’t do math. I try to convince him to do it quickly and go play, but no dice. “Go tell daddy to print the page again,” I tell Daughter, “so you can do it as nicely as you want.” I try again to motivate Son. “Come on! We’ll do it together! I’ll tell you and you’ll write!” We’re cheating, but who cares. He’s good at multiplication, it’s just such a drag to write everything a bunch of times. But he doesn’t stop moving and fidgeting. He just won’t sit down and do it.
Daughter comes back. “Daddy was in a meeting, but he turned off his camera and talked calmly with me! And he said he’d print it! And he wasn’t mad at all!”
“YAY!” we say together and throw our hands in the air. Daddy is patient! Daddy is learning! Daddy didn’t shout! Yay! The little joys!
Son is grumbling, mock-crying, fidgeting, while Daughter is trying to do math. She starts half-crying, too. “Come on,” I tell her, we’ll do it together!”
I turn to my other side, to Son. “Come on,” I tell him, “it’s easy! You wrote three times two is six, look, the same calculation exists in all exercises! Write it in all of them and you’re halfway there!” I binge on their Kinder chocolate all this time. Who fuckin cares about weight right now. I have to stay sane. I have to get them to go out today, too. Since I started forcing my daughter to get out of the house every day, she’s less pale and doesn’t cry all the time.
Husband can’t do homework with both kids at the same time, he says. Too confusing. Too demanding. Too exhausting. It can’t be done.
Not like I have a choice, right? But he does. He has a choice. Why does he always have a choice?
After a while, I don’t feel like torturing them (and myself) anymore. I let them do whatever they want with the phone and come to my den to write this post. I could have proofread several pages in the time I wrote this, but I didn’t. I wanted to write it so that you know and I remember. This is my life. This is why I collapsed last year. This load, emotional, mental, and physical, that nobody–not even your closest person–can understand.
This is what most of the people I know don’t get: the mental load of doing yet another thing is almost insurmountable. So much mental energy is expended in overcoming the mountains of doing things that are emotionally difficult. Do you know how much strength it takes to know Daughter’s meltdown is coming and steel yourself, and stay there, and be their rock, and push on? Most people leave. Urban leaves. The emotional strain has reached destructive levels.
And this happens every day.
But I fuckin stay.
“It’s easy,” a violin-playing friend said when I said I just can’t muster the strength to practice every day. But it’s not easy, because I truly, honestly forget. God knows I have a shit-ton of things to keep in my head, to organize, to bring to fruition. “You just have to practice for five minutes a day,” he said. “Do it in the morning.”
Thing is, I know it only takes five minutes a day. Only, before the five minutes, you have to tune and figure out where you left off. You have to make sure your music stand is steady (you had to disassemble it–floor cleaning, kids throwing stuff around, you know) and then you have to make sure people who barge in the room every three seconds are otherwise occupied. Before you do all that, it already feels like a huge hurdle to overcome–never mind that you feel the weight of all you have to achieve in the next eight hours already now, now, which raises stress levels already to red. And, by the time you’ve tuned, flexed, practiced, re-tuned, wiped down, loosened, tucked in, put together, disassembled, at least have an hour is gone. And in your state of exhaustion and anxiety, going to the other floor, where the instrument is, is a hurdle. Opening case, tensing bows, tuning, wiping, it’s all a hurdle. Trying to concentrate: huge hurdle. It’s not a five minute thing. The mental barriers of stress, tiredness, reluctance are the worst. Why don’t we all have good habits if it’s as simple as that? (Hint: read James Clear’s Atomic Habits and all your questions about habits will be answered. This is not product placement. I just loved this book. It helped me make my walks into a habit. Thank heavens. Thank you, James.)
This was half my day. A chaotic process of jumping from one subject to the other every four seconds. Brain science and psychology tells us it takes a lot of energy to change focus all the time. This is why multitasking is a huge drain of mental energy. And let’s not go into the emotional energy, of which you need to have endless reserves in order to deal with a possibly autistic husband, a child with anxiety, and all the rest. Emotional load is a real fuckin thing. It’s crushing.
Thank goodness I’ve dealt with most of my own issues–the Rejection Sensitive Disorder, the chronic anxiety (really! I didn’t even get dizzy once today!), the borderline borderline, the body dysmorphia (but see “barrel with stick-legs”–am I really over that?) and whatever else there was. They’re not gone, not all of them, but who has time to think of her own mental health right now?
I still have to make dinner, make sure the kids go outside for at least half an hour, do homework with them (stress levels hitting deep red), send Daughter’s teacher her exercises, work some, tidy up Daughter’s room with her. (Tidying up is a long process. We started one week ago. There was no floor to be seen. Now we see the floor. It’s going to take a month or two. Her room was like a rubbish damp. I won’t start.)
The kids have to shower and wash their hair today, but Husband can take care of that. All in all, it’s 15:38 and I haven’t really finished even half my tasks of the day.
“That, my friends, is a great book.” –Rebecca Hefner, author