Religion and Spirituality: Mental load, Mentorship, and Motherhood by Dr. Denise Handlarski

By: Hazel Katherine Larkin
We are approaching the season of Ramadan, Easter, and Passover, a busy time for the Abrahamic religions. While these religions are named for this patriarch, increasingly research suggests that most of the work of religious inculcation, holiday preparation, and the work that goes into celebration falls to women and mothers.

As a religious leader, I’ve been acutely aware of “mental load” long before I knew the term because I see countless women who bring their kids to Sunday school, decorate homes for holidays, make sure the gatherings get organized, and do the cooking of the festive meals.

The Pew Research Center has found it is often women who are charged with the religious upbringing of their children, with Emma Green noting it is the “women who get the kids to church.” Of course, “getting to church” often also means organizing and preparing breakfast, selecting appropriate clothing, adjusting the carpool schedule, juggling other activities around religious activities and holidays, signing up for bake sales, making costumes for pageants/parties, and on and on. Getting to church (synagogue, temple, mosque, etc) is the easy part.

Mothers bear huge responsibility for the religious and spiritual upbringing of their children, including character education, the development of morals/values, and the inculcation of identity. These are weighty and important matters, and often it is mothers who feel the intensity of wanting to get this “right.” This level of spiritual mentoring, often without any kind of training or support, puts huge pressure on mothers.

Of course, fathers and other caring adults share the load, which is great. However, we are living in the aftermath of an incomplete feminist revolution, one in which women were told we could become anything, but men were not necessarily raised to support women at home while we did it all. We know women are shouldering too much of the burden in many areas of childrearing and domestic life, even when they are the primary breadwinner of the family. Being in charge of the spiritual and religious life of the family is another huge area of mental load, not to mention time. Planning and preparing holidays, getting to religious services, mentoring kids into spiritual wholeness, takes a whole lot of time.

What can we do about all this?

  • People of all genders need to pitch in for holiday gatherings. I remember being outraged as a young feminist seeing all the women cook and serve holiday meals, while the men at the table sat and talked. I’m pleased to report I see this dynamic changing – everyone pitches in with the cooking, serving, and cleaning. We need more of this.
  • Determine who organizes decorations, gifts, memberships or donations to the religious institutions; signs the kids up for classes, programs, or groups; and researches services to attend or the places doing other types of holiday gatherings? If all this work is falling to a mother, I suggest the rest of the family pitch in to get some of this off her to-do list.
  • Gratitude also goes a long way. Often part of the “getting kids to church” involves some nagging and cajoling, along with managing complaining and sometimes resistance. It means a lot when partners, others in the community, and kids themselves notice all the mental labour that goes into the religious and spiritual life of the home and extends a thank you.
  • Make sure Mom gets a good holiday gift, time to relax, or some other way to make sure the holidays you celebrate are times of joy and rejuvenation for her!
  • And for us moms, it’s our job to advocate for ourselves. Part of the spiritual development of our children is learning that people of all genders are equally deserving of rest, care, well-being, help, and grace. One of the teachings of my religion/culture is that all people were made in the divine image. I often say that whether we believe that literally or figuratively, it is spiritually empowering to treat everyone as though it were true.
    Whether you celebrate Easter, Ramadan, Passover, or any other holidays – this month or at any time of year – I hope they are meaningful times of connection for your family, and that you, as the mother, gets to enjoy it along with everyone else.

    The mental load and mentoring, inculcating, and raising of kids in our traditions is sacred work. We deserve to feel spiritually significant. And then we deserve to rest.

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    Dr. Handlarski is an Assistant Professor at the School of Education, Trent University. She is also a rabbi and a mother.