ADHD Moms & Dads

Overwhelmed Mom Syndrome — It’s a Real Thing

Running a household is grueling enough without ADHD. Here are 8 life-saving tips for parents with executive function deficits, lagging patience, and hardly enough time to read this.

Mother with ADHD who is overwhelmed
Mother with ADHD who is overwhelmed, illustration of woman doing work and household chores with multiple arms

Managing the home is one of the most unfriendly lines of work that anyone with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) could undertake.

But the multiple-task coordination required to keep a household functioning smoothly bumps directly against the executive-function difficulties inherent in ADHD. Adding to that is the pervasive gendered division of housework, where women are still the ones expected to manage a household. This makes for a crisis of overwhelmed mothers with ADHD.

It is key to recognize the challenges on the domestic front, be realistic and forgiving of yourself, and put organization systems in place that will help you work around the difficulties.

Tough Work, Indeed

Consider the job description of homemaker and child-care giver: “You’re required to provide all the organization and structure for three or more people. Tasks are poorly defined, filled with distractions, and require constant multitasking. Because much of the work — including cooking, cleaning, and laundry — is boring, you must be able to function without needing a high level of interest or stimulation.

“Appearance is important as well: You must create an attractive household, attending to the details of décor and the children’s clothing. It is also important to maintain a calm demeanor while caring for children, who, by definition, have problems with attention and behavior.

You’ll need to carefully structure their lives in order to give them the calm, supportive, organized home environment they need to succeed at school and with friends. Excellent calendar and scheduling skills are critical. You are required to prioritize without guidance, and work without incentives, such as raises, bonuses, promotions, or even the support and company of co-workers.”

[Free Download: The Parenting Guide for Moms with ADHD]

Would anyone with ADHD (or, without, for that matter) apply for an impossible job like this?

Of course not.

Yet many women with ADHD remain determined to achieve these ideals, even though, as Lynn Weiss, Ph.D., notes in her book Attention Deficit Disorder in Adults (Taylor Trade) (#CommissionsEarned), “an ordinary day for a woman is a nightmare for a woman with ADHD.”

Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., co-author of ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life (Routledge) (#CommissionsEarned), points out that mothers with ADHD “may be struggling valiantly with demands which are often difficult, if not impossible, to meet.” Women with ADHD, no matter how successful in other areas of life, struggle on the household front. They may ponder on the “how to be a good mom” question, and experience stress and a feeling of failure to measure up.

Take Control — Now

What to do? First, stop beating yourself up about ADHD patterns. Instead, create a household that can accommodate them. An ADHD-friendly house is one that is easy to clean and easy to keep in order — one that works for you and everyone else in the household. That means finding creative solutions to the daily challenges you face. Nadeau points out eight common problem areas below, and offers innovative approaches for each. Good luck!

[Self-Test: Could You Have an Executive Function Deficit?]

1. Need housework help? Do whatever it takes to hire a cleaning person. Don’t immediately assume that you can’t afford such a service. If necessary, take on part-time employment just to pay for a cleaning person. Look at it this way: Housecleaning is a part-time job for which you are poorly suited. Why not take on a job at which you can excel?

2. Hate laundry? Most individuals with ADHD do. Instead of letting laundry pile up, do one load every morning. Better yet, train the children to do their own. Can’t remember to sort, fold, and return clean laundry to the appropriate spots? Put out two baskets: one for clean clothes, the other for dirty clothes. Let household members find the clothes they need and deposit soiled ones in the designated basket.

3. Need a quick de-clutter? Use the old garbage-bag trick. Get a big bag and drop unneeded items from every room into it.

4. Mail building up? Most ADHD households struggle with the daily influx of mail (mostly junk, interspersed with the occasional, carefully hidden important item). Stick to this simple mail-handling routine: Open the mail while standing next to the kitchen trashcan. Throw away junk mail immediately — or, better yet, drop it into a handy recycling basket. Then, place any bills (unopened) in one pile, important correspondence (that which requires a response) in a second. Immediately take both piles to the desk where they “live” — the bills to the “bill-to-be paid” slot; the correspondence to the pile for “action” items.

5. Need a home for newspapers and magazines? Place a pretty recycling basket in the room where they are typically read. Toss in reading matter when you’ve finished with it. Another family member can easily find the magazine or newspaper he or she’s looking for on the top of the pile.

6. Hunting for important items every morning? Create a “ready-set-go” site in your home — this can be a small bookshelf, with hooks on the wall next to it. Place all items needed the next day — books, papers, clothes to take to the cleaners — on the shelves or hooks. Mount a bulletin board above the bookshelf, so you can tack up reminder slips: “Robby, dentist, 4:30 Tuesday.”

7. Redecorating or remodeling? Take ADHD into account as you make decisions. A dark rug in front of the sink catches drips, and a hardwood floor hides crumbs and spots that would be glaringly evident on linoleum. Sponge-painted walls make a great fingerprint-hider and are attractive to boot.

8. Need peace and quiet? Most ADHD households are lively, cluttered places. Not a problem, except for the fact that women with ADHD sometimes need to downshift for a few moments in a quiet space. Turn one room into a calm, visually appealing space where you can go to gather yourself. Make it a house rule that this room is for solitude or quiet conversation only — not a place to bicker, tease the dog, or argue with your mom.

[13 Survival Strategies for Moms with ADHD]

9 Comments & Reviews

  1. Please donot forget “single moms” with ADHD, we are not house wives. We run the whole dad gum ship by our selves. I wish you would write an article, or two about. The pure he’ll of that, and how people assassinate your character based off of the fact that you have ADHD. Thanks Penny

    1. Amen to that. Single mom (with ADHD) of two. One with ADD and one with ADHD, ODD and OCD. No word from their birth giver in 15 years. 100% role of mother and father . Tack on a house and a business since I also have to provide the finances of two parents.

      Sheer exhaustion!

  2. Overwhelmed Mom Syndrome is definitely a thing, and I appreciate the sympathy and understanding this article conveys (someone who gets me—hooray!), but after the sympathy and reasoning behind such a syndrome, instead of providing helpful ways for a mom to learn to accommodate her deficits and become more successful (which I was looking so forward to), so many of the solutions are to simply give up and let ADHD be the excuse. I’m always looking for more help in managing our lives, and this didn’t quite cut it.

    I’m sorry, but housework (or any other task, for that matter) being boring isn’t an excuse to not do it or to give up. Are there not ways to incentivize myself to do the housework? Are there not simple systems that could benefit a person with ADHD? Should I not learn to make myself do stuff? Can I not teach my children how to be more helpful? Can we not simplify our home so that the housework isn’t as consuming? Could we not be given helpful tips on how to teach children and simplify the home? Because hiring a service or getting a part-time job to pay for one really isn’t an option for me or so many other mothers, nor would we want to just hand it over to someone and miss the opportunity not only to spend time working with our children and talking to them while doing it, but to also teach them how to be more responsible and contributing people (and to help them to learn to function better if they have ADHD too, as a couple of my kids do). Life is full of tasks we would rather not do, and that are difficult for people with ADHD. We might not be able to accomplish things at a rate a neurotypical person might, but we are certainly capable of accomplishing more than this article gives us credit for. We just need the tools to learn how, which is something I’m always on the hunt for.

    For instance, I listen to podcasts while I do dishes or laundry. I set a timer to see how long it takes me to do tasks so I don’t keep putting off stuff that really only takes minutes. I have my children be responsible for certain zones each day so that keeping up with a household of eight people isn’t nearly as overwhelming. Yep, we are not perfect at it, but I keep telling myself it is a process and we are not giving up. I have three narrow, tall baskets for sorting dirty clothes into as soon as they are taken off, and each set of kids that share a room has them too—darks, whites, lights. So clothing is already sorted and that’s one hurdle out of the way. Older kids are taught to do their own laundry. When clothing is clean (sometimes after washing more than once because, yes, we get distracted and forget to move clothes to the dryer—I am working on remembering to tell Siri to start a timer so I remember to check and move the clothing on), it’s neatly laid in a basket (so we don’t have to iron), and then sorted—neatly—into a pile for each person and they fold and put away (sometimes, we are still working on the clothes making it all the way to the dresser drawers every time) their own clothing. I do this where everyone wants to sit down so they can’t sit until they fold and put away their clothes. 🙂

    Even with all the things I have learned, I still struggle in so many ways, and that’s why i’m always looking for more help that fits my limitations and allows me to excel despite them, as well as information that helps me teach my kids with ADHD and my other kids how to contribute to a family and to society, and to be successful in their responsibilities. I appreciate ADDitude for the help I have received in this regard. I have learned to acknowledge that I have ADHD, and that some things are just going to be harder for me, and that I might need alternative ways to do things or to say no to things others are doing, and this has been good for me. I just don’t like the articles that tell me that i’m not capable of certain things or that tell me to give up. Because that is not an option. 🙂

  3. First hint for overwhelmed moms is to stop sorting clothes! For a good 30 years the dyes have been good enough that one can put reds with whites without problems. But if you are really concerned, separate the reds, but darks and lights- no need. I wash everything together-lingerie, jeans, etc. on perm press, and they all come out fine. And nothing needs to be ironed any more. If something actually comes out with wrinkles, throw it back in the dryer. Organic sheets can come out wrinkled, but really, who is going to see the wrinkles, and why would you care?

    As far as working to afford a housekeeper, it makes sense if you can earn $20/hour and pay $10/hour for a cleaning lady to do things you just can’t do, because of the ages of your kids, for example. My kids do have certain chores they do for free, and certain chores they do to earn money. This works better as the kids get older, of course.

  4. On youtube I follow Clutterbugme and Fun Cheap or Free (Jordan Paige) for mom life hacks. One has adhd, the other just hasn’t been diagnosed yet, I’m sure. Saved my sanity, encouraged me and they helped me regain my mom-joy again. Yeah, still get overwhelmed but feel like I have life coaches that are in the trenches with me. They give million great tips–and for free!

    1. Just wanted to add, to me, the article was a good general starting off point for more conversation on the subject of adhd overwhelm in motherood. Not ever meant to be a perfect and exhausted encapsulation of the subject.
      And I don’t feel it was exclusively aimed at SAHMs or married moms. I don’t see where it excluded single moms, widowed moms, breadwinner mòms, married moms with deployed spouses, married moms with deadbeat/lazy spouses, moms with addicted spouses, moms also caretaking physically or mentally challenged spouses, sandwich moms who also caretake elderly parents, moms with physical handicaps, etc, etc…but truly there are support groups to be found that target those of us with adhd faced with those extra challenges.

  5. What about single dads? my son lives with me. We are both inattentive type ADHD.

    Its not the tidiest house , but it’s clean and okay sometimes dishes take 2 days to get washed, and we tend to wash clothes when one or both of us start running out of stuff.

    He goes to the shop every day, 2 mins walk, with a list, I cook. Then we play some games. Or take the dog out if it’s sunny like today.

    We manage.

  6. Mmm, overwhelmed DAD syndrome? I’m a stay at home Dad of 3 and a full time foster carer of another two, with inattentive sub type add and a Son with the same. I hear everything in this post, and agree, up until the Mom/Mum part. Please don’t forget about the few of us out there that do all as described above that are men. FYI, I have a loving supportive wife that is studying degree level so do have some support, so although not a single parent, still take on the main care governing role day to day 😊

  7. Don’t forget the single dad’s or the dad’s who keep the home running while their spouses is working their tails off. My wife and are were both in tech but she made almost twice as much as I did. When our daughter was born (and well before I was diagnosed with ADHD) we decided that we could afford to live on her income and I would stay at home. I mean, how hard could it be? Well, as this article proposes, it’s about the worst job I couldn’t imagine. Before I was in a highly creative field with lots of social interaction and I was really good at it. Our lives basically fell apart. The only thing I was good at was feeding her and giving her a stimulating, safe and fun environment. But there were no routines, no forethought or planning of activities or groceries or meals or cleaning schedule or laundry…except for the cloth diapers which we smartly got a laundry service for, or social activities for the little one or ourselves. I can’t begin to describe the anxiety and disappointment and feelings of incompetence that were my constant companions. Somehow, we decided to have a second. Right after she was born I was diagnosed and have been on meds for 2 years and they saved us…at least temporarily anyway. My wife became ver, very ill soon after our second was born and I was somehow able to keep everything going and take care of her as well. This lasted for several months and I felt competent for the first time in a very long time. It’s far from perfect. I still occasionally leave the car unlocked with the trunk open all night, or forget a load in the washer, and am still hit with a dash of anxiety every morning when I’ve finally gotten everything going and everyone is on time and we’re about to leave and I think, “Shit. Keys. Where are the car keys?”. It’s light-years better but the meds took a while to get right and I was a total super defensive a-hole for a good chunk of it but I’m finally at a good place with that. Now is just figuring out how to re-enter the workforce one our youngest is off to preschool. My wife now makes more than four times what I made and while I’ve gotten better at running the house there are things…like generating meal plans, shopping lists and then executing according to those plans… that continue to be intractable problems for me. Essentially, I’m hoping to be able to cover the costs for outsourcing everything I did…and wish I did.

    But yeah… dad’s too. It’s incredibly isolating for us and AdHD makes it unlikely that we’ll seek out the resources or social groups needed to help us manage.

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