Burnt out with all the stuff you’re constantly thinking about to keep your household running – but on paper, things look pretty 50/50? You’re not alone! Kelly Bertrand looks into why women are bearing the brunt of the mental load of their households, and what you can do about bringing the invisible work back into balance.
I have a friend, Steph, who always used to think she didn’t want children. But, so life goes, she met a great guy, got married and then had a gorgeous wee boy, whom she loves dearly.
But one of her caveats to motherhood was that everything – everything – to do with parenting and running the household was to be split 50/50.
“I didn’t want to be that mother, you know,” she tells. “The one who was responsible for everything to do with this kid, simply because I’m a woman. I’m not just someone’s mum – I’m me, too.”
And almost four years later, they’ve largely succeeded. However there’s one glaring issue that even Steph didn’t realise would cause her so much stress. She didn’t even know it had a name.
The mental load.
WHAT IS IT?
Also referred to as the ‘hidden’ load, mental load is the invisible, non-tangible tasks that running a household – with or without children – demands.
It’s not the physical act of turning on the dishwasher, picking up the kids from school and grabbing the weekly shop from the supermarket.
It’s remembering to get washing powder, and unloading the dishwasher. It’s remembering that you have to pick up your kids’ friends too, and that one of them has a playdate that afternoon and that your kid doesn’t want to be dropped off too close to school because you embarrass her. It’s looking in the pantry and seeing that you’re out of tomato sauce and adding it to the list you keep on the go, and then planning a week’s worth of meals and writing out a list for each one, and trying to figure out how to keep the budget down by re-using the same ingredients differently, and then remembering to put the reusable bags in the car.
The mental load is all the little things that allow the big things to actually get done – and even though the actual split of chores and tasks might be 50/50, it’s the women who are taking on the entire mental load themselves.
One study published in the American Sociological Review describes it as the responsibility of “anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress.”
It’s constant, it’s invisible, it’s exhausting – and it’s leading to huge levels of burnout, particularly in mothers.
“I asked my husband the other day – when have you ever gone and bought our son shoes, because you realised he’d outgrown every pair?” says Steph. “He just looked at me blankly like he didn’t understand the question, and then asked me why I just didn’t ask him to go and buy shoes. I shouldn’t NEED to ask!”
YOU SHOULD HAVE ASKED
Ah. ‘You Should Have Asked.” Potentially the most problematic phrase.
The idea that the woman in the relationship is responsible for one, thinking of what needs to be done and two, delegating it out.
As the French artist Emma virally illustrated a few years ago, when a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he’s viewing her as the manager of the household, with himself safely and comfortably confined to a mere staff member.
“What our partners are really saying, when they ask us to tell them what needs to be done, is that they refuse to take on their share of the mental load,” she writes.
“At work, once I started managing projects, I quickly stopped participating in them. I didn’t have the time. So when we ask women to take on this task of organisation, and at the same time to execute a large portion, in the end it represents 75% of the work.”
At its most frustrating core, it’s the idea of needing to ask, when you both can clearly see a full washing basket and an empty fridge. Somehow, you’re also the one who remembers, thinks of, purchases and ensures the safe arrival of his cousin’s wedding gift, and remembers, thinks of, bakes and ensures the safe delivery of Timmy’s school bake sale contribution.
BREAKING IT DOWN
Allison Daminger, a Ph.D candidate in sociology at Harvard University, has spent some time breaking down exactly what the mental load is, and in a paper published by the American Sociological Review identifies four separate aspects: Anticipate, identify, decide and monitor.
For example, buying a wedding present. Anticipate is realising a gift will be needed, and you start to think of options. Identity is when you trawl through the internet finding the perfect salad bowl or glassware set. Decide is choosing and purchasing, and monitoring is making sure that the bloody thing actually gets to you in time with track and trace because you’ve of course left it to the last minute because of all the other stuff you’re thinking of.
“Women’s antenna seemed to be constantly up and looking for these things,” Allison told the New York Times.
“Whereas men were often very happy to help once their partner had alerted them to the issue and they might’ve gotten to it eventually on their own, but women were consistently getting there first and either doing it themselves or saying: “Hey, this is the thing you need to handle. Are you thinking about it?”
Further research by psychologist Dr Lucia Ciciolla found that almost 90 per cent of mothers in partnerships say they feel solely responsible for organising their families, and that the burden left them overwhelmed, exhausted and unable to make space for their own self-care.
You don’t need me to outline the various societal causes as to why women are lumped with the mental load – from the earliest of years, we’re taught to nurture and care, whereas men are taught to dream and provide.
The idea that women are inherently ‘better’ at running a household is simply rubbish. We’re just expected to do it more, so naturally, we become better at.
It’s the same train of thought as the old gendered expectation that we’re better at being empathetic and emotional – and why we also get stuck in the ‘emotional labour’ rut. You know, when you’re expected to smile and make cheerful small talk at the gate when you’ve just had a family tragedy; when you’re the one responsible for cheering up your son when he’s bullied at school for liking pink; or when you’re the one boosting up your partner after they had a nightmare day at work- all good things to do, but you find you never quite get the same emotional support back after putting aside your own needs to look after everyone else.
But of course, there’s an element of us being our own worst enemies.
Another friend Jess, who has an 18-month-old girl with her partner, admits that she’s constantly overwhelmed – but part of it is due to her inability to relinquish control.
“It’s been my job from the beginning to figure out how our life is going to be and how it’s going to run, so I did that job,” she explains. “I don’t mean for it to be ‘my way or the highway’, but the only way that shit gets done is if it’s done the way I’ve planned and organised our entire lives around – which leaves my partner feeling devalued, I guess. And I’m simply not prepared to yield to another way of doing things, because I’ll know I’ll have to clean up the inevitable mess.”
“Of course, there’s nothing forcing us to do all of this,” Emma writes in her cartoon. “The problem is that when we stop, the whole family suffers. So most of us feel resigned to the fact that we are alone in bearing the mental load, nibbling away at our work or leisure time just so we can manage everything.”
WHAT DO WE WANT, AND HOW DO WE GET IT?
God, how long is a piece of string? But when we’re talking about sharing the mental load a little better, the first step is to identify it, and talk about it. I know there’s a certain irony to the following statement but as much as we want/need them to be at times, partners are not mind readers – and they can’t fix a problem if they don’t know it’s there.
Women can be scared of being accused of nagging, so instead identify and explain the issue, rather than screaming ‘I shouldn’t HAVE TO ASK’ as you storm down the hallway (probably straight to the wine in the fridge because mums, I literally have no idea how the hell you do any of this and writing about it got me so stressed I needed to have one myself).
But, apart from upping the levels of communication, what else can you actually do?
- Be specific and be explicit. For example, if you decide that it’s your partner’s responsibility to do the school run, it’s everything in the school run – making sure their bag is packed, they have their homework, they’ve checked if it’s swimming and they have their togs, etc.
- Plan together. Figure out your meals, your priorities, your potential speed bumps and your to-do list weekly – perhaps over a morning coffee on Saturday or a glass of wine on Sunday evening. It’s also a chance to reconnect and check in with everything else going on, too.
- Let it go. Know that, if someone else is actively trying to help balance the mental load, things will not be done 100% your way. Give your partner the flexibility and have some faith that everything will work out – and if it doesn’t, learn from it and move forward.
Tell us – what do you think, and let us know if you have any advice, tips or tricks at managing the mental load! Email us at [email protected]