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Erica's New Book Releasing the Mother Load is officially out! Order your copy today!
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February 20, 2024

February 15, 2023

Minimizing Mental Clutter: How To Embrace Less and Find More Calm in the Chaos of Motherhood

E:
160
with
Denaye Barahona, Ph.D.
Therapist

We have exciting news–Happy as a Mother has evolved into The Momwell Podcast! The podcast is staying the same–same great experts, same mission, same format. But we’re now operating under a new name–Momwell.

What You'll Learn

  • How Minimalism Impacts More Than What We Own
  • Why Intensive Mothering Clashes with Minimalism
  • How Values Help Reduce Mental Clutter
  • Mental Clutter and the Invisible Load
  • How to Navigate Intrusive Thoughts and Mental Clutter
  • Minimalism and Parenting
  • How to Know It’s Time to Declutter

Do you ever find your brain spiraling with endless to-dos? Or feel overwhelmed by all the toys and mess around you? Many moms struggle with both physical and mental clutter, juggling responsibilities, worries, and labor in the home. But with the right strategies, we can declutter our homes and our minds, bringing some calm back into the chaos of motherhood. 

Today, I’m joined by therapist Denaye Barahona, host of the Simple Families Podcast, to discuss the intersection of clutter and mental health. 

Too Many Tabs in My Brain

As a mom with ADHD, it often feels like my brain has so many tabs open that I don’t know what to prioritize. My mind is full of to-dos and checklists and mental labor that I have trouble keeping track of it all. I find it very difficult to quiet the noise and focus on what needs to be done first. 

So when I came across Denaye’s work and heard the term “mental clutter,” it really resonated with me. Mental clutter occurs when our mind has too many thoughts, making it difficult to focus or prioritize. 

What really pushes us over the edge isn’t just what’s going on around us.

We frequently talk about overstimulation in terms of too much noise, mess, or touching. But often what really pushes us over the edge isn’t just what’s going on around us—it’s also what’s going on in our brains. 

Denaye’s work is centered around minimalism—but not just decluttering or scaling back on physical items. She also focuses on minimizing the mental clutter that keeps moms exhausted and overwhelmed. 

I was so excited to sit down with Denaye and pick her brain about minimalism, mental clutter, and quieting the chaos in our minds. 

How Minimalism Impacts More Than What We Own

Denaye began dabbling with minimalism while she was pregnant with her second child and working on her PhD. This led her to consider some of the research she was analyzing in a new light—particularly around picky eating

The research showed that often we make the mistake of doing too much—too many choices, too much pressure, and too much involvement. For feeding issues, taking a step back and doing less is often the answer. 

Minimalism isn’t just about how many things we own.

Denaye realized that minimalism isn’t just about how many things we own—it’s also about how we approach the world, how we interact with our kids, and how we process our thoughts. 

We can take a minimalistic approach when it comes to toys, but we can also take a minimalist approach to our time or to our parenting style, choosing fewer structured activities and less intervention. 

Denaye pointed out that ultimately, minimalism is about foregoing the things that aren’t important in favor of things that are. This often requires peeling back the layers to discover our personal and family values so we can determine what those important things are. 

Why Intensive Mothering Clashes with Minimalism

I often hear from mom clients that feel overwhelmed—with too many responsibilities, too many things, too many activities, and too much mental labor. 

In many ways, intensive mothering creates the feeling that we must always be doing more—that we should invest more time, energy, and money into our children no matter the cost to our mental health. 

Intensive mothering tells us that motherhood should be all-encompassing.

Intensive mothering tells us that motherhood should be all-encompassing. Taking a minimalist approach feels counter to what we’ve been conditioned to believe a "perfect mother" does. 

Denaye pointed out that the search for perfectionism isn’t just harming us—it also teaches our children that they don’t have room for mistakes. But when we let go of some of those pressures and accept that we can’t do everything all the time, we give them permission to be human. 

We also have to consider the toll that intensive mothering takes on our mental health. In a world that tells us to constantly do and be more for our children, we often find ourselves struggling. It can feel as though we should suffer—to sacrifice our own needs for theirs. 

But Denaye pointed out that when we are subscribing to social expectations instead of our own values, it impacts the way we show up as moms. If we are stressed and overwhelmed, it keeps us from being present and connected with our kids. It’s important for us to preserve and protect our own mental health as well. 

How Values Help Reduce Mental Clutter

As we let go of the perfect mother myth and focus instead on our values, minimalism becomes easier. 

For example, when we think about holidays and birthdays, intensive mothering might tell us to buy more toys, to fill our homes with items that don’t actually reflect our values. 

But if we are attuned to our values, it becomes easier to take a minimalist approach and choose less. If connection is a value for us, maybe a board game makes more sense than toys. If independence is a value for us, maybe we focus on a gift that encourages solo play. 

If we are attuned to our values, it becomes easier to take a minimalist approach.

Leaning back on those values can help guide us through the decisions and choose fewer, but more meaningful toys so we can set up a dynamic in our home that reflects what truly matters to us. 

I recently signed my boys up for hockey—a rite of passage in Canada. But once we discovered how encompassing it would be, with early morning commitments and ongoing pressure, we realized that it wasn’t in alignment with our family values. 

Now, we’re looking for a different activity that still lets our children explore their active side without capturing so much of our family time. 

When we tune into our values, it’s easier to quiet the rest of the noise and focus on what’s important. 

Mental Clutter and the Invisible Load

Denaye explained that the invisible load consists of a lot of mental labor—but it also consists of clutter. 

She recommended writing down all of the thoughts occupying your brain, dividing them into three sections:

  • Things I need to execute
  • Things I need to plan
  • Things I am worried about

We think of mental labor as all of the tasks we need to complete. But when we do this exercise, we start to see that worrying takes up a lot of our mental space. If we can let go of the worry, we can declutter and become less overwhelmed. 

Denaye also pointed out that our mental clutter can impact the weight of the tasks we have to do. For example, a diaper change is a simple task—one that moms of little ones carry out many times a day. 

However, if we see our partner sitting down on the couch after we’ve had a long day juggling everything, and we start to feel resentful, the weight of that diaper change has become heavier. 

The weight of tasks can change depending on many factors.

The weight of tasks can change depending on many factors—the emotional state of our relationship, how much sleep we had the night before, or our mental or physical wellbeing. 

Denaye said that our children experience this as well—some days they are able to get themselves dressed and put on their shoes with no problem. But on other days, they struggle. It’s important to remind ourselves that their mental weight of tasks changes depending on their emotional regulation. 

How to Navigate Intrusive Thoughts and Mental Clutter

If we find ourselves occupied by mental clutter, there are ways we can start to pull it apart and remove what isn’t necessary. 

The first place to start is Denaye’s exercise of writing down thoughts. Set a timer for an hour and write down everything that comes to mind, then start to look through and analyze your thoughts. When you notice worries about things you can’t control, those are places to start letting go. 

She also pointed out that asking for support is the most important way to work through mental clutter. During the pandemic, many moms took on additional labor, often carrying out both work and childcare. It left many of us thinking that we might be able to do it all. But Denaye said this is a scary expectation that keeps moms drowning in labor. 

Asking for support is the most important way to work through mental clutter.

Sometimes, when we feel like we’re struggling with the invisible load, it can feel impossible to identify what we need the most help with. It takes awareness and curiosity to parse our thoughts out, so we can begin asking for help with the things that we are struggling with the most. 

It might help to divide our thoughts and worries into categories—for example, our relationship with our partner, our children’s safety, and work. This helps us separate them out and start to see the differences and nuances. 

We can also build skills to handle intrusive thoughts and worries as they arise. To some degree, we can’t control our thoughts. But we can set boundaries around them and control how long we spend ruminating on them. 

That’s why it’s important to build mindfulness and awareness around our thoughts. When we start to experience worries about things we can’t control, or encounter intrusive, scary thoughts, we can ground ourselves and stay rooted in the moment. 

Minimalism and Parenting

Denaye pointed out that minimalism also applies to other aspects of our parenting. We should try taking a step back and opting to not swoop in every time our children struggle with a worry or an obstacle. 

It takes a lot of self-awareness and intention to begin to let go, to embrace a minimalist approach. But Denaye firmly believes that in many cases as we parent, less is more. 

For example, many children have fear or anxiety about going upstairs by themselves or going to the bathroom alone. It can feel like a natural instinct to support them by just going with them. We want to be the fixer and the coach. 

But Denaye shared that research shows every time we do so, our child’s anxiety takes over a little bit more. Instead, we can choose to support by giving them the confidence to do it on their own, while validating their emotions. 

Her go-to line is, “I know this is hard for you. It’s okay to feel sad.” Often, compassion instead of coaching is the best approach. 

How to Know It’s Time to Declutter

So how do we know it’s time to declutter our thoughts? The biggest sign is whenever we start to feel overwhelmed. 

If you find yourself struggling to relax or enjoy leisure time at the end of the day because of all the things you think you need to do, it’s a sign that you are housing a lot of mental clutter. 

Denaye pointed out that when people ask her how they know it’s time to declutter the house, the answer is the same—when it comes overwhelming. (After all, if you are overwhelmed by mess or toys, chances are your kids are experiencing the same reaction.) 

With awareness, curiosity, and a commitment to our values, we can choose less, quiet the noise, and let go of things, and thoughts, we don’t need. 

Do you find yourself coping with overstimulation and overwhelm? Register for our workshop, Managing Overstimulation in Motherhood to build the skills you need to stay calm in the most chaotic moments!

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Tags:

Parenting, Values, Minimalism, Cluttered mind

Stage:

Postpartum, Motherhood

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OUR GUEST

Denaye Barahona, Ph.D.
Therapist

I am a therapist, author, and the host of the top-ranked Simple Families Podcast. My work has been featured on Netflix, Real Simple Magazine, The Today Show, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and many more.

For the past 15 years, I’ve had the experience of partnering with parents in search of a more harmonious life with kids. My doctorate is in Child Development with a research focus in family wellness. I'm also licensed as a clinical social worker.

Erica Djossa
Erica Djossa
PMH-C | Founder of Momwell
Erica is the founder of Momwell, providing educational resources and virtual therapy for moms. She is a mom of three boys and a registered psychotherapist. Erica’s work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Breakfast Television, Scary Mommy, Medium, Pop Sugar, and Romper. how they want it.

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