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The Mental Load: Pandemic Edition

Making the invisible visible by exploring the mental load of home life during the pandemic with Bee Shapiro, Elisabeth Holder, and Vanessa Cornell.

The mental load is not a novelty of the pandemic, nor is it a novelty to BWB. When we last spoke about the mental load, we highlighted a relatable cartoon by a talented woman named Emma. Her illustrations illuminated the household labor that is often otherwise invisible. These invisible tasks are the chores and responsibilities that keep the home running smoothly. In turn, members of the family enjoy a low stress routine while their needs are being met under the radar. While these tasks are out of sight and out of mind for most of the family, they tend to weigh heavily on the mind and shoulders of the women in the home.

During the pandemic, we’ve come to realize that this mental load has surely increased by leaps and bounds. The precautions and anxieties of the pandemic add plenty of extra mental bullet points to the grocery lists, the laundry pick-ups, the doctor’s appointments, the work meetings and the school events. Does everyone have a mask? Did the kids wash their hands when they got home? Where can I pick up more hand sanitizer? What time is my Zoom board meeting? Does someone have a virtual exam for school today?

As such, it is always a great time to step back and admire the resilient women in your life and community. At BWB, we’re lucky to meet strong women that inspire us every day. In fact, we’re even luckier to get a sneak peek into their day-to-day experiences and make the invisible visible. Explore the ins and outs of the mental load with New York Times beauty editor & founder of Ellis Brooklyn, Bee Shapiro, CEO of Ladurée, Elisabeth Holder, and founder of Nushu, Vanessa Cornell. And let this exploration of the often unspoken tribulations of women serve as a reminder. Do something today and everyday to help lighten the mental load of a woman in your life. Don’t ask, just do.

Moms tend to carry the “mental load” of the family when it comes to all the little things that keep everyone’s day running smoothly. How has the pandemic changed this mental load in your day-to-day life?

Bee Shapiro: Oh my, this is a loaded question! Ha, sorry I couldn’t resist the pun. The truth is the pandemic made it all the worse for us moms. I read a New York Times article the other day and was discussing it with some mom friends. It was about “mom rage” and we were all laughing about how real it was. I think that has made me personally focus more on my well-being when I can. For example, I try to take baths after the kids go to sleep when I can. I take walks around 4 p.m. just by myself. I need a lot more “me” time.

Elisabeth Holder: It is difficult to manage both school and business schedules, especially because I work a lot with France. My morning calls and school take place at the same time.

In order to help both me and my children, I asked their grandparents who live in France for help. They were super happy helping with their homework. In fact, they loved the daily FaceTime with their grandchildren! In turn, I had more time to work without the guilt.

Also, we always have breakfast and dinner together, and lunch as often as possible! I also try to keep everything fun and smooth, but it is not always easy. Fortunately, my husband is very helpful.

Sometimes, it feels like there are a hundred balls in the air and someone just yells ‘catch!’

Vanessa Cornell: Yes, I carry everything in my head for everyone in my family. This includes my husband, as well as five kids (ages 7, 9, 11, 12, and 14)! Sometimes, it feels like there are a hundred balls in the air and someone just yells “catch!” It takes a lot of energy to remember everything and not let a ball drop (which happens too, by the way). Over time, I’ve developed systems that help it all run smoothly. An important part of this is training my kids to be independent. For example, they each take care of their own things (dishes, bed, school work, PE clothes, etc.).

Unfortunately, the pandemic upended all of the systems I had in place to keep my family and household running smoothly. Creating a good system that ultimately saves time and energy also takes a lot of time and energy! I have been reinventing my systems every few months as the schedule, needs and environment change. First, it was online school. Then, no school or camp. Now, all my kids are on different hybrid schedules. New framework, new schedules, new rules, new expectations. It is tough!

Quarantine has turned the home into a multi-purpose place. It’s an office, a school, a restaurant, and everything in between. How have you been managing all the new roles you occupy in your home?

Bee Shapiro: I haven’t really been managing so much as surviving! The lack of change of space is incredibly difficult. It makes things boring yet chaotic. It’s a weird state to be in. I have become much more obsessive about keeping things clean and making the home environment as pleasant as possible. Because what’s worse than being stuck in a house all the time together? Being stuck in a messy house. I’ve been plumping pillows more and lighting candles to scent the house.

In that regard, I’m lucky that I have a fragrance line. As such, I’ve found the that home scents are that much more important for boosting mood and improving the day. In addition, I’ve become more careful about overscheduling. Because I wasn’t commuting or having any in-person meetings, I noticed I was scheduling myself all the way through without any breaks. In conclusion, I was definitely was running myself into the ground. Now, I take things one step at a time. If I can, I try to stop working at 5 p.m.

All of us are comfortable working, and the most important rule is to respect each other’s schedule and time for themselves.

Elisabeth Holder: Not to mention a sports class, a movie theatre, and more! I let everybody choose their place at home. All of us are comfortable working, and the most important rule is to respect each other’s schedule and time for themselves. When school or office time is finished, our home has to return to normal. The kitchen, bedroom, living room – no mess left behind. I think it’s been a success.

Vanessa Cornell: I’m a pretty good multitasker, but all of this togetherness has been tough for me. I have been working really hard to carve out space for myself, to honor the time I need for my own pursuits, my business and my intellectual life. The pandemic has definitely made it harder. To be honest, one of my life hacks over the last six months has simply been locking my door!

Now that you’ve got a full house, how have you been able to give each of your children special attention? Have you discovered any new games, activities, tools, toys, or routines to keep all the kids occupied and happy?

Bee Shaprio: This has been especially hard. I actually think my kids are sick of seeing each other, ha! I’m lucky that we are currently in Connecticut where the virus numbers have been down since the spike in March and April. That said, my kids have literally been forced to see each other all the time because of pods and other things!

Simply listening to my kids and seeing how much they change by the day or the week has been an unexpected gift.

I’ve been buying them special toys or books for they individual interests. My older one is into Star Wars and my younger one is very into music. So, we bought new Star Wars books and new instruments! In other words, we simply try to make sure we recognize each of their interests. There is, however, a silver lining for me. While I am someone who is usually running around often for work, I have gotten to know my kids so much better by working at home. For example, I have been able to just sit down and listen to them talk and tell stories. Simply listening to my kids and seeing how much they change by the day or the week has been an unexpected gift.

Elisabeth Holder: It is never easy. I have twins, so they are used to sticking together and they love it. During the weekend, I take time to spend a moment with each of them. I use this time to read, watch movies of their choice, and most importantly, to hug.

Vanessa Cornell: It has always been a challenge for me to have enough time with each of my kids. When you have five, there is always someone pulling on your skirt for attention! It’s easy to get caught in a cycle of guilt and feel inadequate as a mother. However, I know that shaming myself does nothing for my kids. I always come back to the same thought. The thing my children will remember about their childhood is how they felt when they were with me. Did they feel safe, loved, seen?

In other words, I know my children won’t remember the details of the organizational tasks I juggled. They won’t measure my motherhood bandwidth. Instead, they’ll remember that I tried. Sometimes, details fall through the cracks. It takes a lot of energy to go from 95 percent perfect in the logistical tasks of parenting to 100 percent. So, I relinquish the 100 percent perfection in favor of having time to sit and chat with them. I delight in hearing about their day and getting to know them more, not just on a surface level but deeply. I want to know who they are. More importantly, I want them to know that they don’t need to be anything for me. My children only need to be exactly who they are as they discover it.

We can’t talk about the mental load without discussing self-care. What kinds of mental health practices have you adapted to make sure you are taking care of yourself just as much as everyone else? Wellness routines, guilty pleasures, spa days, etc?

Bee Shapiro: Ha, I think I’ve already talked so much about self-care. This pandemic is literally surviving with little bits of self-care jammed in where I can. Honestly, even being a beauty editor all these years, I underestimated the value and feeling of grooming. In the middle of the lockdown in New York, there was a moment where I would look in the mirror and feel totally unlike myself because my nails and hair and makeup and skin just didn’t look the same.

So, is it vain that I then devoted time to painting my nails and doing masks regularly? Probably, but I also felt that much better. The true lifesavers for me are my solo walks in the neighborhood. I’ll walk for about 40 minutes, rain or shine. In that time, I just admire flowers, listen to music, or simply space out. It’s all about the little things to gain that measure of sanity back.

Elisabeth Holder: Since I am no longer taking time in the morning to drop off my kids at school, I take this time for myself. Instead, I do yoga or pilates to begin the day with breath and focus.

Also, sometimes I like to lock myself in the bathroom for spa time. During the weekends, I happily watch all the Audrey Hepburn movies I’ve seen before and loved.

My self-care begins with deep acknowledgment.

Vanessa Cornell: My self-care lives with me all day, every day. My self-care begins with deep acknowledgment. I have needs, I get tired and I get burned out. While I have a large capacity, sometimes I also need to refill my tank. So, my self-care takes different forms. For example, it could look like sneaking out of the house at 4:30 a.m. to go surfing. Alternatively, it could look like an afternoon of Netflix or a 20-minute meditation and a nap. No matter what, I tune into how I feel and what I need.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: I am not last. I have to be first. Believing in this deeply has only grown my capacity to care for those I love.

Feature Image Credit: Alicia Zhang

Teresa Deely

Teresa Deely is a graduate from Columbia University with majors in English and Creative Writing. She is a freelance writer and marketing assistant working for clients in the wellness, jewelry, creative, and sports industries. She believes that one’s skin is yet another canvas and vehicle for art, and has loved styling her hair and applying makeup from a young age. Spending much of her time in educating youth and leading enrichment programs for children, she is highly motivated in discovering new ways to care for herself and sharing them with others.

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