Decision Fatigue in Motherhood
If I have to decide what we’re having for dinner one more night this week, I am going to lose my mind.
Every few weeks, this becomes my most pressing and urgent need: to not have to make one more decision. And while at first I thought this must just be a “me problem,” it turns out it’s a psychological phenomenon that researchers are just beginning to understand.
People in roles that require frequent decision-making experience a burn-out that researchers have labeled decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is the theory that a person’s decision-making abilities and productivity get worse after making many decisions. This is also called ego depletion, and research has indicated that the fatigue applies to all decisions, not simply the larger or more difficult ones.
Studies have shown that forecasters are less likely to accurately predict the weather as the day goes on, and that judges are more likely to grant parole in the mornings than in the afternoon.
Even without extensive research, though, we can see the impact of decision fatigue clearly in the professional world. Certain professions, like healthcare professionals and teachers, who make constant decisions throughout their day, are also two of the professions experiencing the highest rates of burnout.
But if you talk to any woman in the thick of motherhood, my guess is that she won’t need to see the research to implicitly understand decision fatigue. In fact, she could probably tell you more about it simply based on her own daily experiences than most scientific articles could.
When a child’s every question begins with “Mom?” (even when her partner may be standing right next to said child), moms are going to experience decision fatigue.
From deciding who will eat what at each meal, to answering “yes,” or “no,” to their child’s every frequent question, to managing both their time and their children’s time, moms are constantly “on” with their decision-making. This can rapidly become mentally draining.
By the end of the day the simple question, “What are we having for dinner?” can feel like you’ve just been asked to climb Mount Everest in flip flops. I can’t do it. I don’t know.
While multitasking and making decisions is a natural part of motherhood, knowing when your battery is running low is essential for protecting your mental health. So here are a few strategies to help you combat decision fatigue and take care of you:
Recognize the signs of burnout.
Feeling agitated by every small thing and experiencing a significant amount of “brain fog” are two sure signs that you are experiencing decision fatigue. When you find yourself snapping at your kids more than usual or that you are forgetting a lot (that time in recent history when I put suntan lotion on my daughter’s toothbrush…), it’s probably a sign that your brain is running on E, so to speak.
Communication is key. Whether it is a partner who shares in the parenting journey, or a village of support in the form of grandparents, friends, etc.–it is important to communicate with someone when you need support.
When I’m feeling burnt out I will directly text my husband, “I can’t do dinner tonight. I need you to order or pick up anything for the family and pick our orders for us.”
The first time I sent that text and he replied, “on it,” I realized I didn’t have to make the decisions alone. While my kids may still naturally come to mom first at their young age, my partner is my equal in this family. Communicating with him when I need to take a step back has been incredibly helpful in not feeling totally depleted. And now he simply takes over on his own accord when he notices I’m running on E, often even before I need to ask.
Rely on routines.
Routines help eliminate many of the daily decisions you would otherwise have to make. For us, this looks like pulling out outfits the night before, my oldest knowing which snacks are options and making sure she can reach them/open them herself, and keeping roughly the same schedule each day.
Routines don’t always happen, but I find that especially when I’m exhausted after being up all night with the baby, having a routine makes my life much easier.
Decision fatigue is a real and depleting part of motherhood that should probably be talked about more. At the end of those days when you feel absolutely spent, when answering just one more question, no matter how small, feels quite literally impossible, try to remember that there’s a psychological reason you feel that way.
You are doing an amazing job. You are cut out to be a mom. And you are not alone.
(And you probably didn’t put suntan lotion on your kid’s toothbrush this week, so let that be your consolation and reminder that we are all in this together.)
I remember reading somewhere that when he was President, Barack Obama made one of his staff members pick out his clothing for him so he didn’t have to waste mental energy on such a mundane decision. It’s so true that we have SO MANY things to decide, that we are just out of “brain juice” by the end of the day!