The Mental Load Of Being A Poor Mom

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Land.
This story was supported by the journalism non-profit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
I used to work full-time as a maid, spending my nights doing coursework for a full load of college classes after my then-3-year-old daughter had gone to bed. The two of us lived in a 300-square-foot apartment that was full of mold and made my daughter sick. My wages, slightly above minimum, barely paid for rent, utilities, gas, and insurance. I relied on food stamps and WIC coupons to keep us fed. Most months, we only had $50 in spending money, which had to cover toiletries, household needs, and clothing — which, understandably, I rarely bought.
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In my day planner from my days as an economically struggling single mom, I can’t help but notice how many appointments we had during the day. I constantly had to reschedule appointments or not work for an afternoon in order to get to them. A regular check-up for my daughter, meeting with a domestic violence advocate, or having to re-certify for benefits meant lost wages. Less money meant more stress in figuring out how to pay bills. It meant standing in the middle of a grocery store aisle, a package of sponges in my hand, crunching numbers in my head to figure out if I could afford it.
I returned to those memories when I read a French comic in my Facebook feed last month, “You Should’ve Asked” (or “Fallait Demander”). In simple language and illustrations, the cartoon showed me what I and many women (especially mothers) experience as “a mental load.” The author, who just goes by Emma, describes the mental load of always having to remember everything involved in running the household she shares with her boyfriend. This takes a toll. Her cartoon seemed to illustrate life as one of two straight, middle-class adults in a couple. My mental load felt heavier than that — and not just because I was single and had a kid. After all, wealthier families can hire help, like hiring me as a maid. My responsibilities didn’t end at my own household chores. I also bore much of the brunt for the 20 clients whose homes I cleaned.
I gather, based on its popularity, many women had a “whoa” moment when they saw that comic, but the concept of daily depleted stores of mental energy wasn’t news to me. The amount of energy it truly takes to run a household is not news to me. I saw the comic through a lens of what now feels like a former life: the mental load I experienced as a single mom struggling through poverty.
Nobody offered to help back then. My extended family, limited in their own resources, spent little time with my daughter. They never asked if they could take her for an overnight or even out to dinner. Her dad paid minimal child support. Asking him for help, for instance to take his kid for an extra day so I could work, meant giving him the power to drop out at the last minute, leaving me with the responsibility to suddenly find child care or possibly lose my job. None of this was unique to my circumstances: People in poverty live with constant stress.

The amount of energy it truly takes to run a household is not news to me.

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“The problem,” Emma wrote, “is that when we stop, the whole family suffers.” In my case, suffering meant not having enough food to last us through the month. It meant the possibility of being homeless.
Being able to start talking about these experiences helped. Since I saw that comic, I have talked to my neighbor about the “mental load.” I also talked about it with my new husband. Once, exasperated, I told him “I need help thinking about things!” — the comic helped me bring home to him what has always been a part of life for me, and so many other women. Now, we talk more about what we each need, and if I forget something like the baby’s diaper bag when we leave the house, I am confident he’s got it, and it’s packed with wipes and a change of clothes.
Who is there for a solo parent to ask for help? As safety net programs face drastic cuts, Paul Ryan even suggested churches and non-profit organizations will help families in need. As someone who called a long list of those places numerous times over the last decade only to hear they did not have the funds to help me, I know the desperation of trying to keep your family afloat on your own. Relying on religious organizations also gives churches the power of deciding who deserves help, and who — according to their terms — doesn’t. It can open families living in poverty to more judgment, which is the last thing they need. An increased demand on all of these organizations would only deplete them further. Food kitchens, already fighting to keep up, would have their shelves run dry.
What did I need to help with my mental load? Livable wages. Affordable — and quality — child care. Money for food that did not drastically decrease if I received a 25-cent raise. I needed cash for shampoo and tampons. I needed a program that would help me pay the rent on a home that suited us in size and did not make us sick.
“When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things,” Emma wrote, “he’s viewing her as the manager of household chores.” We expect single parents in poverty to carry the weight of two people, to carry an impossible load. Identifying it — like this “mental load” comic did for me — is only the first step. The next step is simply asking: How can we help?
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