Like the completely rational person I am, I started writing what you are now reading while sitting on the hard plastic of a booth at a trampoline park. My kids, at ages that are questionable for letting them roam unsupervised in such a place, were roaming unsupervised in this place.
I thought I was being clever, honestly. I was planning to write about the sensory overload of motherhood. What better place to do so than from the depths of sensory hell that is a trampoline park on a Saturday? Between the flashing lights, the swirling throngs of children, the shrieks that reverberate throughout the cavernous building, the constant requests for popcorn and slushies, it may be the epitome of over-stimulation. I truly admire my friends who refuse to go to these places. We, on the other hand, have an annual membership.
The punchline of my clever-ish attempt to write about sensory overload was that I didn’t write a word. I opened my laptop three or four times, even pulled up my blank google docs canvas, but my fingers didn’t manage to touch any keys that day. It wasn’t the neon or the noise that got in my way, exactly, though I’m sure they didn’t help. It was the being asked for something on repeat– to play in the ball bit, to help walk to the bathroom, to use the membership card to get a free soda, to watch someone bounce – that made even five minutes of focus an impossibility.
Lest I sound like an inexperienced or overly naive mom here, I want to make exceedingly clear that I know this drill well. With four children ten and under, I’m adept at answering six requests at once (“No. Sure. Definitely not. Ask me again later. No. Are you serious right now?”) and I’ve somewhat accepted that they are energy vampires, even on their very best days.
I’ve also gotten better over the years at recognizing the value of One Thing at a Time, a function of both knowing the research on mindfulness and of seeing how futile my mind being divided in eighteen places really is. Still, I find myself all too frequently falling in the trap of thinking that I can just get this one other thing done real quick and not wanting to fully release the idea of my time as my own.
And so I’ll take my laptop to the trampoline park and look around at the moms who are diligently working, their presumably older and more independent kids off playing or their noise canceling headphones working much better than my own, and the ones who are bouncing high into the sky with their toddlers, beautifully tuning in to the giggles of the moment. And I’ll feel frustrated to not be either one.
I facilitate some mental wellness-based leadership programs for women working in corporate roles, and regardless of the company or experience level of the group, certain experiences seem ubiquitous. One of them is the experience of fulfilling the responsibilities of multiple positions at the same time.
Sometimes it’s a function of transitioning between work roles for a promotion without a backfill, so the person is doing their old job and their new job. Sometimes this lasts just a few weeks, but I’ve seen it play out for a year or more. Sometimes it’s a function of a direct report leaving or transferring, leaving a manager to assume their responsibilities alongside their own. Not uncommonly, someone might be covering even three or more roles at the same time.
It probably goes without saying that this is tough. Doing multiple people’s jobs is hardly ever considered a sustainable state. While certainly some companies take these situations more seriously than others, most at the very least acknowledge that it’s not ideal. The work suffers. The team suffers. The employee burns out. There’s usually some momentum to backfill or shift work to alleviate the pressure. There’s almost always an end point, even if far into the future.
There’s a term for this – of course there is, since industrial psychologists love to name things – and it’s called role overload.
Role overload is, in fact, a fairly well-researched concept in the work literature. It’s been defined as the experience of having too many responsibilities for an employee to manage in a reasonable amount of time or with the resources that they have available. In role overload, the employee is beholden to multiple stakeholders who each have different expectations of the employee, which results in what they call role ambiguity and role conflict.
To be clear, role overload is considered a really bad thing. It’s shown to decrease the motivation and creativity of employees. It increases stress, both psychological and physiological, even putting people at greater risk for coronary heart disease. People in overloaded roles are more dissatisfied with their work, are more anxious and tense, tend to be absent from work more often, and are more likely to leave their jobs.
The problem is so significant that even the National Institutes of Health call to address it. Harvard Business Review warns against letting it develop or persist. Don’t make people be responsible for everything, they all warn. It won’t work. They’ll get sick. They’ll fall apart.
I nod my head vigorously. And then I wonder, who is calling for an end to role overload for moms?
We packed up to leave the trampoline park around 1:00. Third Kid has a birthday party across town at 2:30, and I still had to swing by Target to pick up a present and some supplies for an in-the-car wrapping job. I knew that we had to stop at home first to pick up his swim suit for the party, and if we went home First and Second Kids were probably going to want a snack, so I needed to allot time for that. Fourth Kid would likely fall asleep on the drive, and so I calculated how to avoid getting her out of the car at each location. (Logistics Specialist.)
On the way to the car, Fourth Kid – not yet having gotten the aforementioned nap – resisted holding my hand in the parking lot. (Crossing Guard.) Third Kid poked her shoulder and told her, in a demonstration of true irony, that she had to listen to mom. She swatted back his poke, to which he responded with a full on shove. She tripped forward when her knee hit the pavement, tiny red dots of blood appeared.
Her wailing could probably be heard from Target down the street, and I scooped her up and tried to quiet her sobs. I moved my hand in a fast circle around her back and whispered in her ear. I could feel the pounding of her heart on my own chest. (First Responder.)
Meanwhile, Third Kid was livid that his younger sister, who’d defied mom and swatted at him, was now being nurtured, and so he took off running. I urgently called for him, my own heart now racing both in frustration and due to the very real chance of a car hitting him. He’d made it to the car, and so I hurried over, got the littlest in her car seat, and turned my attention to him. I let out big breaths to fight my urge to let him have it, and instead I validated his hurt and frustration while explaining the boundaries of hitting and running and parking lots. (Emotional Alchemist and Safety Officer.)
First and Second Kid were, blessedly, in the car by that point, but were now arguing over whose most recent jump off the diving board created a bigger splash, or something equally as crucial. I wisely declined to arbitrate this particular debate, but then the questions started: What’s for dinner tonight? (Executive Chef.) Can we have friends sleep over? (Hotel Manager.) Can you fix my bike tire when we get home (Mechanic.)? Did you wash my swim suit? No. not the green one, the shark one! (Laundress.) Why do I have to go with you to drop off Third Kid? (Mean Mom.)
Of course, you get the point. The roles go on and on… and on, which is why we every so often we see articles trying to calculate what the annual yearly salary of a stay-at-home parent should be. (The current figures are around $115,000, which barely scratches the surface, if you ask me.) It’s no secret that moms play countless roles at home.
When you add in the multitude of other roles in which they serve – professional roles (probably multiple), community roles, adult child roles, neighboring roles, romantic partner roles, friend roles, faith roles, and more – to suggest there is role overload is almost laughably obvious.
What’s obscured though, in our wide-eyed gaping at how overstretched and under-resourced mothers are, is a conceptualization of this as a real problem. Role overload. Remember the stress? Remember the heart disease? Remember the anxiety and tension? Remember the decreased motivation and the lowered creativity?
When companies look at their bottom lines, they worry about these outcomes because they decrease productivity and increase costs. But what they worry about even more are the absenteeism and people resigning, because those have a much more major impact on their bottom line.
But moms don’t usually take a lot of days off from parenting, and they rarely leave their families. So, sure, mental health problems and stress-related illnesses for moms aren’t great. But in our culture, they seem to be just the price of doing business.
We certainly saw plenty of mothers succumbing to role overload during the pandemic, heralding in The Great Resignation. No one predicted Covid, but we should have all predicted a peak to parental burnout.
In response to losing two million American women workers, many companies have scrambled to play catch up in implementing more “family-friendly policies” and flexible work arrangements. Some have shifted their expectations of workers in general, recognizing the true toll of the parallel mental health pandemic we just faced.
These changes are welcome, at least those that have been thoughtfully and genuinely applied, but they alone won’t solve the role overload problem that mothers face. To be fair, I’m not sure they could even be expected to. The problem is bigger, more holistic, more societally and relationally engrained than any corporation could solve for.
But role overload is also personal when it comes to the clatter inside our individual brains, the exhaustion of driving 92 miles between sports practices, the feeling torn between the needs of so many different humans.
And so because so far the National Institutes of Health hasn’t yet called for intervention, I’m going to suggest a few of my own recommendations that we as individuals can implement:
- We have to build and use a village in parenting. There is no physical way for one parent – or even two – to fulfill all the roles of home and child management, particularly if also trying to hold down a job and be a good citizen and human. We need people for transporting kids, making the occasional meal, watching one kid while tending to another, helping fix the broken gutter. We need people.
- We need equitable divisions of labor at home. We need a system (Fair Play, for example) to strategize and hold accountable the members of a family for making it run.
- We need to be willing to say no to the dominant cultural pressures of overscheduling everything and everyone. We so often forget that just because one family member wants to do that activity doesn’t mean that it will work for the family as a whole.
- We need to spend time defining our personal values so that we can understand how the hundreds of decisions we are making on a daily basis align – or don’t – with those values. It will help us resolve some of that role conflict and get clear on what our actual core priorities are.
- We have to be willing to have true rest days with no plans. That will mean turning down invitations (even ones that feel like obligations) in service of actual downtime. It will mean disappointing those in and outside of our homes. But real rest is worth it.
I’m not selling you a solution here. These aren’t hacks, by any means. They are simply suggestions for how we can combat the ill-effects of the very real problem of role overload and maybe preserve some of our sanity.
For my own sanity, I will no longer attempt to work at a trampoline park. At least not on a Saturday.