A little over a year ago, I came across an article that highlighted an issue I had been struggling to articulate to my partner for ages. The article explained the concept of “emotional labour”, or the mental load as it’s often referred to.
Here is a link if you’d like a similar aha! moment: “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up”
If you’re limited on time though (because of course you are), here is the general gist:
The article outlines how women take charge of all the behind the scenes tasks that allow our households to run smoothly. We are the ones who make sure there is food in the fridge, dinner on the table, that the house gets cleaned, and that our kids get to school on time with their signed permission slip safely tucked into their backpack. We keep track of appointments, birthdays, events, homework, paying the bills on time, and make sure the dog gets his monthly worming tablet.
This series of unseen tasks are collectively known as the mental load.
It’s the never-ending to-do list that our brain is constantly churning over, only pausing to actually complete a task, or add another one to the list. It’s invisible to the naked eye, which makes it so very hard to explain to our partner why we feel so drained, and exhausted and just kind of over it to be honest.
Here’s an example of the mental load in action: Your partner offers to mind the baby so you can run some errands in peace.
From your partner’s perspective, by watching the baby they are making it easier for us to accomplish our tasks and giving us a break from mum duties.
What they fail to realise is that for them to watch the baby, we first have to make sure their bottle is ready, that there are enough nappies, wipes, and a change of clothes at the ready. We need to write down the baby’s schedule because we are the ones who have meticulously crafted their routine after we researched age-appropriate awake windows and day sleep. Even after all of that, we’ll probably still say “call us if there are any issues” because we don’t want the task to be too difficult for them.
Then once we are home, we are met with an expectation for a thank you for watching the baby and lightening our load while we were out (doing the food shopping, picking up dry cleaning, and going to the bank).
Of course, we receive no reciprocal acknowledgement that we are the ones who set them up so well for success in their sacrificial moment, or for the tasks that we took care of, but yes, bless them for being so helpful and doing their part.
Now if you’re reading this and feeling strong vibes of familiarity, you might be asking why this is happening? How did we get here?
You could blame your partner, to be honest though it’s not really their fault. This is simply the way they’ve been conditioned. The way we’ve all been conditioned.
We grew up watching our mothers and grandmothers bearing the brunt of the mental load. We were taught to think that running the household is naturally our responsibility and men were taught to think that little elves sneak in overnight and pick up the wet towel they left on the floor and stack the dishwasher while they sleep (just kidding), they were taught simply to not think about it at all.
Yes, carrying the mental load is a skill honed by women over many years, with an equal number of years not having to carry the mental load acquired on our partner’s end.
Since we have all been conditioned this way, this is also the assumption we hold about others. If we have guests over and the house is messy, it’s because the mother hasn’t cleaned. If the kids don’t have a healthy lunch packed or don’t have their hat at school, it’s because the mother forgot. The anxiety of being judged as mothers weighs heavily on us, contributing to our need to ensure every task is done, and everyone has everything they need at all times. I feel this pressure and I know I’m not alone.
I read a comment from a Facebook user recently where she explained how her husband organised her son’s school enrollment, including speaking to the school, completing the forms, and emailing the forms and relevant documents to the school, all from his personal email account. However, when the school had a question about the application and wanted to arrange a meet and greet, they called her instead of her husband.
At the rate that societal expectations are evolving, trying to shift responsibility for the mental load is a bit like waiting for your toddler to finish telling you a story. Will we ever actually get there? Only time and patience will tell.
So then what is the solution?
A little over a year later, I’m now carrying an even heavier mental load, working from home with a baby, except now I love it, thrive on it actually.
How did I arrive at this sweet spot?
After we had our baby, my partner really stepped up. Now when he gets home from work he asks me what I need. He asks for updates on things I’m working on. He asks if I need a break and what he can do to help. That beautiful man stepped up and gave me what I really needed: acknowledgement, understanding, and most importantly, time out.
This is how we did it:
1. Communication is paramount.
At the end of the day, what I truly want is to be acknowledged for the additional effort that is put into each and every task. Acknowledgment that for my partner to complete the task of cleaning the bathroom, I still have to mind the baby, make sure cleaning products are available, explain to him exactly what needs to be done and “edit” his work.
My partner now understands and respects the mental load. He now understands why sometimes I’m tired or overwhelmed. He knows to ask me “What do you need to feel less stressed? How can I support you?”
Even just knowing that he is aware of and appreciates the effort of the mental load, seems to lighten it a little, or make it easier somehow.
2. Balancing the scale.
My partner is great at doing his share to contribute at home. If I ask him to do a task, he’ll usually get it done efficiently and without complaint.
So rather than trying to even out the amount we each perceived we were contributing to the household, we focused on making sure we each got equal time for ourselves to relax, practice some self-care and pursue things that are important to us.
Once we made an effort to balance that scale, the mental load naturally redistributed itself a bit more evenly, and I felt much better equipped to deal with it.
3. Loosening the reins.
The truth is, I love being the one in charge. I love taking care of my son and my partner, I love being able to solve their problems, and I love having things done the way I like them done.
Realistically, if I didn’t do all the things or if I went away for the weekend and left my partner to manage all of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it actions that come together to run our household, no one would die. Nothing truly bad would happen. I’d come home and everyone would be fed, and the house won’t have burned down. There may be a wet towel on the floor somewhere, we might be out of milk and the kitchen sink might be full, but he would have made it work in his own way.
So I now try to let go of the little things and give him room to grow into responsibility by doing things his way. Some of you may read this as letting go of my controlling behavior and you’d be totally right.
My mental load was largely self-imposed. By being the scheduler, organiser, and general CEO of our household, I had created the environment where my partner relied on me instead of thinking for himself.
So if this holds true for you as well, start to ask yourself if something small is really worth getting upset over, and then if it is – address it. Tell your partner how it makes you feel. I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you something YOU do that they’d like you to change.
Pick your battles and compromise on the things that aren’t as important to you so that you can ask for the things that are.
If you’re struggling with the mental load, trying to give it away might not be the answer. It will be generations from now before we see the mental load evenly distributed between men and women, but it does start with us.
It starts with realising that we are not chained down by societal expectations of what family dynamics should look like. Lifestyles, job roles, parenting styles, and personalities are all different. Same-sex partners can also struggle with balancing the mental load; every household is different. Find the solution that works for your family.
It starts with acknowledging that to an extent, the mental load is self-imposed. If we want our partners to take responsibility, we must give them the opportunity to do so. That may mean suffering a bit more in the short term while they figure it out, but it will be worth it for the long term benefit.
It starts with expecting our partners to meet us halfway. If you explain the concept of the mental load to your partner and they aren’t willing to acknowledge that extra burden and find a way to work as a team, then your problem is not the mental load, it’s your partner, and that’s a whole other issue.
Do you struggle with the mental load? Let us know in the comments.