6 min|Rhiannon Lockhart

Is the Invisible Load of Parenting Affecting Your Health?

Wellness, Mind Health

Until I had a child, I’d never put much thought into the invisible load of parenting - in my case, motherhood. Why would I? I transitioned from an independent 30-something year old, doing things on her own schedule, serving her mental health, propelling her career, to a woman who was now at the mercy of an eight pound human who just cried and pooped all over her. It was a shift, to say the least.

This small human got bigger: started having big emotions, needed real food and meals planned, started daycare, had more doctors appointments, got sick (from said daycare, ugh!), had a nap schedule to keep, the list goes on. And starting back to work myself, it now feels like I work two jobs with very different clients. And I can tell you, some of the most difficult nutrition cases are easier than managing the emotions of a toddler!

If you’re the default parent who also manages the household, you probably know this story as well. It feels like you can never really catch up. The laundry piles, you’re calling for takeout rather than cooking, your needs start coming last. The load becomes even bigger for parents without family or close friends near, single parents, and those needing to work multiple jobs to provide for their family.

This is impacting our health in more ways than one.

1. You get less sleep

We all know that new parents get less sleep. But what we don’t talk about is how these sleep changes appear to be more long-term. According to one study, with over 4,000 parents, sleep time decreased by 15-20 minutes, nightly for parents of 6-year-old children. Unfortunately, this is all self-reported data and doesn’t factor in the quality of sleep, night time wakes, how long it takes to fall asleep, etc.

Looking at more anecdotal evidence from practice, parents often get less sleep than this. Especially those that have highly stressful jobs and stay up late to have some quiet alone time.

2. You don’t eat well

Whether you’re trying to please your child’s palate, just get dinner on the table quickly or rely on takeout most nights, your diet might look different these days. While I’m a strong believer that everything can have a season, we want to evaluate our diet if it’s been going on for months or years. This is especially true if we notice our energy shift, have unwanted weight change, become ill often or feel more irritable.

I see many parents who have a major diet shift with the addition of children. However, I find changing our diet to work with both the needs of our family and ourselves can be a major catalyst to support our overall health.

In many cases, I advise clients to start with the meals that they have the most autonomy over: breakfast and/or lunch. Once we have those dialled-in, begin to bring in dinner meals that serve your needs as well. That may look like:

  • Adding more vegetables to your plate

  • Cooking two types of pasta (i.e. bean-based and white) but using the same sauce

  • Avoiding ultra-processed foods in the home

3. You don’t exercise

Many parents find it very difficult to find time to be physically active after having children. We associate exercise with going to the gym, lifting weights, going to a class or running. After you have kids, it may mean reframing what exercise looks like for you or how you accomplish it might change. A few ideas, depending on child’s age:

  • Newborn/infant: home workout videos, using the child as a weight; add squats or a band while bouncing the child to sleep; lots of walking

  • Toddler: running with them in a field; small movements while playing with them; breaking up extra movement or exercise moves through your day; stretching after they’ve gone to bed.

  • Child: having them do some of the exercises on a home workout video, together; playing soccer together; exploring a park or a beach together.

If you can find a few days per week to have higher-intensity movement, that is ideal. However if this season only allows for micro-movements, make that a priority.

4. You experience chronic stress

When we deal with the invisible load of parenthood, we often experience chronic stress. We may resent our partners, feel overwhelmed with tasks, fail to meet our own emotional needs while trying to regulate our children or struggle to find an outlet for our stress. All of this can, unfortunately, impact our overall health.

Luckily, there are a few ways to manage the full invisible load of parenting.

Mother and father with their twin girls playing with blocks
Invisible load of parenthood

How to manage the invisible load of parenting

1. Delegate your tasks within the home

Okay, this is probably the hardest task, but the most important. Sit down with your partner and your children, if they’re old enough, to make a list of the normal tasks that you all do. Include everything like:

  • making grocery lists and meal plans for the week

  • organizing play dates and appointments (general children’s schedule)

  • keeping kids uniforms or clothes clean

  • Supporting children’s school work

  • Managing the family budget

  • keeping pantry staples or bathroom items stocked

  • Taking out waste

  • Daily dishes cleaning

  • Cleaning the home (break it down by room and task)

  • School pickups and drop-offs

  • Work schedules

  • Cleaning baby bottles

  • Responding to small children night

All of these add up and, often, it isn’t simply the task itself we need support with, but the management of the task. When the above items get divided up, make sure both partners complete and manage the task.

2. Use nutrition services to create an individualized plan for you

In many cases, the added mental load of figuring out how to make healthy eating work, becomes too much. Working with a practiced holistic nutritionist to strategize on ways to create healthy meals for your family each week can take off some of the mental load.

3. Find 10 minutes for yourself, daily

It doesn’t seem like a lot, but that’s the point. Finding any time for yourself everyday can be a struggle and starting small makes it more accessible. Avoid things like scrolling your phone or checking email. You can try:

  • Walk or stretch

  • Call a friend

  • Sit with your coffee, alone

  • Breathing exercises

4. Seek counselling services

Another way to lighten your load: enlist someone else to help you find ways to manage your mental health.

Clinical counsellors work in a wide variety of ways. You can talk it out, have them provide simple tips for mindset shifts, work with someone experienced in supporting trauma. Your options are quite endless. It is important to remember: the first counsellor might not be the perfect fit, and it is okay to shop around until you find someone that works.

It is important to remember that you are not alone in this journey. Seeking additional support from outside sources is one of the best ways to reduce the invisible load. Let us help.

  1. https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/contributors-health-general-science/parents-and-sleep-struggle-real-and-long

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