The Mental Load of Mothering with ADHD

Parenting with ADHD is a royal pain in the butt. Parenting on its own is not a cake walk. But differences in executive function become quite obvious when you have to manage the details of caring for a little human.

ADHD doesn’t make a difference in how much unconditional love and affection I give to my kids. It doesn’t stop me from reading to them, recognizing they are hungry, or feeding them food that has already been prepared. However, it does make certain tasks quite challenging. For instance, stocking their various supplies, like diapers or food, cleaning their clothes and organizing their clothing as they grow and need bigger sizes, keeping their toys from taking over our house, and finding books and other items that can help them learn and thrive.

Now as a parent, my organization systems have to work for me and neurotypical caregivers. And I struggle to explain my systems to them or to try to understand their systems. 

The “mental load” of mothering–check out this great article–is made much more difficult with ADHD, lack of sleep, and the actual parenting part which is all-consuming. When you’re in the family room with your kids trying to prevent one toddler with the arm of a Cy Young winner from jacking his baby brother in the head with a toy-car-fastball, you can’t simultaneously complete and check off items on your to-do list. I have ADHD. I need extra time to get things done. Yet as a parent, I am now doing two to three times the number of tasks and with nearly zero free time to do anything.

The parenting productivity paradox–more tasks with less time–doesn’t just impact parents with ADHD. My husband also has to more efficiently organize his time at work and at home. This week, he told me about a book that has changed his life: Work Clean. I have ADHD. I’ll never read the book. Luckily he summarized it for me. The book takes the principles of restaurant order fulfillment and applies them to personal productivity. Essentially, it posits productivity requires more than just planning your day and week, though that is part of it. Planning only helps if you have the pieces in place in order to do your tasks when the time comes. And, for ADHD productivity nerds, if you can find those pre-assembled pieces quickly.

It has really helped my husband. My takeaway was simply to break down tasks into a series of steps, each its own system. A kitchen would break up preparing a dish into the following:

1. Determine ingredients and quantities required
2. Purchase food
3. Prepare various items for cooking; chop up vegetables, cook rice, marinate meat, etc.
4. Cook the dish
5. “Plate” the dish so it looks nice
6. Deliver the meal to the customer.

For one of my writings tasks, it would be something like this:

1. Outline
2. Research
3. Analysis
4. Revise outline
5. Write first draft
6. Let item sit for at least 30 minutes
7. Come back and edit, edit, edit
8. Post or send

For my ADHD brain, sending off the completed project can be the hardest part. I do occasionally get a few hours down the road and realize I still have the email to my boss with my final piece sitting in draft mode on my computer. I have systems in place to allow me to catch that so I don’t overlook that last step beyond the end of the day.

For one of my parenting tasks, such as getting my son a new water bottle, the list of steps would be:

1. Need identified by other caregiver or me
2. Wonder whether he already has a water bottle that could be used
3. Search the house for water bottles
4. Fish out water bottles from behind the couch, the car floor, stuffed in a random cabinet, and sitting in the refrigerator 
5. Ask husband and nanny whether one of the discovered bottles is sufficient; do not receive an answer
6. One week later, other caregiver asks for water bottle again
7. Repeat step 5
8. Existing water bottle options don’t work
9. Spend one hour on Amazon.com reading three star reviews for 5-10 different options
10. Become distracted by any number of things on mobile phone
11. Repeat steps 6 and 7
12. Search mom sites for recommendations on water bottles
13. Buy three different water bottles
14. Package with water bottles is lost or stolen in transit after being crossed off my to do list and completely forgotten
15. Repeat step 11
16. Attempt to re-order same three water bottles and send to office; one no longer available
17. Bottles arrive at office; forget to bring home for two days
18. Place box on counter after arriving home
19. Repeat step 6
20. Unpack box on counter, remove two water bottles from packaging
21. Realize we already own one of the bottles and it is therefore insufficient
22. Wash one remaining option
23. One week later, realize son has been bringing one of the supposedly insufficient bottles to school
24. Discover two months later that I missed the deadline to get a refund from Amazon for the disappeared package

Most parents could not complete 24 steps for a simple water bottle purchase. Most parents would probably pick one up from Target and skip steps 2-24. But ADHD. I’ve left Target with 10 other unrelated items and no water bottle, or been unable to find the water bottles in the store, or been unable to find time to stop by Target for a week or more. Unfortunately, that means I have to find systems hacks to work around my executive functioning and attention weaknesses. Again, a neurotypical parent could figure it out quickly, but my mind doesn’t work that way. It’s a slow process. I am incredibly privileged to have a nanny and other caregivers to help make our family function. My husband does at least 50% of the parenting tasks. And yet, I struggle with mundane projects like buying a water bottle.

I enjoyed the kitchen-management-as-productivity idea because it incorporates necessary steps in the process that I used to overlook. And in not seeing those pieces, I skipped steps and didn’t get the final product I wanted. I doubt the book was written with ADHD productivity in mind, and perhaps what I detail above about the system is not the author’s intended message.

I share my take in case it is helpful for others with ADHD, with the caveat that some organizational tasks require what my diagnosing therapist called “household accommodations.” After reading my list above, I think I need to start trading some of these tasks with my husband for tasks that are more in my wheelhouse. For ADHD parents, part of productivity is recognizing what you can’t do efficiently and finding a better way to do it or delegate it. 

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