It’s widely known that moms tend to carry the bulk of the mental load for their families. Finding a division of labor that works in your marriage is critical to a happy home. If both spouses are good to each other, that division ends up about even—but that doesn’t mean every day or every category is equal.
In my home, I keep track of appointments, monitoring calendars, managing childcare, meal planning, keeping household essentials in stock, watching our future to-do lists—balancing a lot of short-term and long-term needs to keep the family functioning smoothly.
As a result, my mind is usually turning gears on five or six different machines at once in addition to managing my own needs.
It’s a lot. It’s definitely part of what makes motherhood so exhausting. Moms are practical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual. We are phenomenal multitaskers—it’s one of our many superpowers. But it ain’t easy.
Don’t Even Try Doing It All
Much of the advice I see about multitasking is deeply unhelpful: “Don’t do it so much.”
I can’t not do it. If I don’t do it, too many of the balls I’m juggling will hit the floor. Picking up the pieces will be roughly one zillion times more stressful than managing them preventatively, so it’s the latter I’ll continue to do. But how?
How do you watchfully keep so many balls in the air without losing sight of the bigger picture?
Partly, it’s about balance. But it’s also about accepting reality.
Let’s face it: We cannot do everything at all times. No one should hold us to that impossible expectation—including, and most importantly, ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we need to somehow just stop managing the many components of family life.
That’s where the balance comes in.
Some Tasks Pair Well. Others Don’t.
Occasionally, my husband and I enjoy a DIY wine and cheese night. After the kids go to bed, we open a bottle of wine and arrange neatly sliced cheeses alongside salami and crackers on a plate. It’s a fun way to be fancy without leaving home.
Now, I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to pairing. But because I love wine and cheese as much as I do—both individually and together—it doesn’t really matter. I just enjoy the eating and the sipping and the bonding with my husband.
Multitasking is nothing like that. It’s not especially fun, and the tasks involved aren’t nearly as delightful as a creamy Havarti or a dry cabernet. It needs to be managed deliberately to be a bearable exercise.
To that end, here are some of my rules for more tolerable multitasking.
1. Combine a little bit from every category as often as you can.
If I’m trying to focus my brainpower on five things at once, they have to be broad so I don’t get too overwhelmed by a single role.
Example 1: I can run a load of laundry (housework) while I respond to emails (professional), with my favorite music playing in the background (self-care) and a few short breaks to check dinner in the Crock-Pot (housework) and go remind my kids they should be napping instead of jumping around their room like monkeys (momming).
This is a typical afternoon for me and isn’t particularly overwhelming. But what if all five of those things fell into the same role responsibilities?
Example 2: I can run a cycle of laundry (housework) while I get dinner prepped and into the oven (housework), cleaning the kitchen (housework) as I go. Meanwhile I’m packing my daughter’s lunch for tomorrow (momming) and folding the laundry from the previous load (housework).
If I have an open afternoon when I’m finished with work, the kids are actually napping, I’m feeling energetic, and my mind is clear, that’s a manageable list. But how often does all that happen at the same time? Almost never. So if I’m trying to do all the housework at once, I’m constantly distracted by deadlines I didn’t get to that day (professional); the kids making far too much noise instead of sleeping like they’re supposed to (momming); and the fact that I haven’t had more than 30 minutes to myself in three days (self-care).
Now, instead of feeling like I’m accomplishing a checklist of diverse tasks, I put all this work into one category just to watch it multiply (that next load of laundry won’t fold itself, and the dishes are piling up)—ignoring all the others even as they nag at me from every angle.
I need to focus on each role responsibility in bite-sized chunks. That way, I feel relatively on top of it all and can compartmentalize everything that needs to be done into separate, manageable spaces of time.
2. Accept that not every pony is going to be in the ring for every show.
Now, combining categories doesn’t mean that every responsibility gets my attention at all times. That’s just not possible. During business hours, for example, my brainpower needs to focus on work—and the other stuff needs to sit, undone, until I can get to it. When my kids are sick, momming must be my priority. Most of the time, I need to let a few things slide to make sure more immediate needs are met.
Combining categories does mean, however, that things come up about equal on a typical day. Maybe none of them is done perfectly or completely, but none of them is neglected, either. So when I have a day or time block that requires my full attention on one category, it’s less painful to stay focused and temporarily set aside the rest.
This helps immensely with a couple of common plagues: mommy guilt, prioritizing time for myself, keeping the house reasonably tidy so that I can hustle-clean if unexpected company comes over, and so forth.
3. Keep an eye out for looming existential catastrophes and stop them before they stop you.
When someone is literally juggling, if she’s highly experienced and relaxed, a ball or two may fall to the floor without disrupting her flow. But if she’s new or nervous, seeing a ball fall may throw off her game—and all the other balls might come tumbling down after it. Even if she’s exceptionally centered, she’ll probably need help to put a dropped ball back into the rotation.
In terms of multitasking, few of us can stay completely level-headed when we fail to manage something important. We are naturally and emotionally invested in each of the burdens we bear. So our knee-jerk reaction will be to overcorrect, which means the other things get much less attention—which means the whole routine may collapse. It’s a domino effect. If we let it get out of hand and simply watch this collapse happen around us, we tend to question whether we’re capable of fulfilling our roles and our families’ needs.
Step one in preventing such a crisis is staying humble. We need to expect that things will fall out of place here and there—sometimes due to our own fault, sometimes due to circumstances outside our control. We need to lean on God and constantly remind ourselves that we are loved regardless of our faults, we can always improve with His help, and we are not in this alone.
The next step is self-awareness. It is so important to be honest with yourself and your support system about what you’re managing well, and what may be starting to slip. A frequent examination of conscience (and Confession!) can be helpful in many ways here: you’ll monitor which areas could use some extra attention and take good care of your soul.
The final step is to ask for help. Ask for it early—before things start to crumble—so you can articulate your needs, minimize the burden on others (you shouldn’t feel guilty about this anyway, but don’t we all hate sharing our crosses?), and not have to set down other important priorities to put out fires. Even a little bit of help (from your spouse, or your neighbor, or your older kids) can make a huge difference in getting back on track before things go off the rails.
How do you manage your multitasking? Visit my Facebook page to share your tips and tricks with other busy moms!