Unpacking the Mental Load | Wholebeing Institute

I sent out an email to a working mother group I’m a part of, asking women to share their thoughts about mental load. My sister, who runs the podcast Marriage and Martinis, sent out a similar request to her 117,000 followers on Instagram. We struck a chord, and wow!

Mental load is defined as the invisible work involved with running a family that—in most cases, according to the research—falls on mothers. It includes emotional caretaking, day-to-day management and the responsibility of making sure nothing slips through the cracks. 

The women who responded were very emotional—and many were angry. This feeling of exhaustion and stress seems to be accepted as inevitable. We may be able to address this phenomenon now that we have a name.

 

What is the cause of mental load? It is usually:

  • Researching tutors, camps and activities for schools
  • Scheduling playdates
  • Kinder to extracurriculars
  • All aspects of clothing: washing, laundering, changing seasons
  • Last-minute shopping to buy unexpected school projects, bake sales, and other items.
  • Always thinking about where your kids are and who they are with (and planning ahead to ensure coverage).
  • Filling out forms … endlessly

 

Mental load is more than just a list of tasks. It’s all that goes into making a home a home. It is the pressure to make things right for your family. It is listening to your children, who you love with all of your heart, and not letting them down. It’s staying strong and helping find solutions while still empowering our kids. It’s worrying about our kids while they are sleeping, while they are at school, while they are traveling from place to place … Just. Constantly. Worrying.

It can also be a feeling that the load is not being noticed and unappreciated. It is the feeling that we are overwhelmed and exhausted, and our spouses don’t understand why.

This is not necessarily any one person’s fault. It is a social problem, passed down from generation after generation. Perhaps, just like the #MeToo movement we can give it a name and move towards a solution.

 

10 Ways to Lighten Your Mental Stress

Let’s start making the invisible visible, by talking about mental load and how it affects us personally. You can think about ways you can involve your spouse to create a healthier labor distribution. These are just a few ideas to get you started. 

  1. Talk to your spouse regarding mental load. Listen together to my sister and brother-in-law’s podcast episodes about mental load if you need a jumping-off point for the conversation. Here’s the original episode (on which I appeared) and here’s a follow-up on the same topic. 
  2. Talk to your spouse about your worries, fears, concerns, and thoughts. Take that old adage “Never worry alone” to heart.
  3. Find efficiencies. This can sometimes mean letting go of perfection, or learning from our spouse who may have a more efficient way to do things. Make use of technology. As our children get older, we can delegate to others.
  4. Don’t enable. Encourage people to learn how to do things by themselves. This may mean letting go of control and learning from your mistakes.
  5. Take note of Home Control Disease (HCD) as defined by Tiffany Dufu in her amazing book Drop the ball. You may be held responsible for your actions if you are not able to meet your standards.
  6. Consider what role you are modeling. Is this what you want for your kids as they grow up? What can you do differently if this is the case? If this is draining your relationship, see a marriage therapist; the best time to do that is when things aren’t dire.
  7. Encourage your spouse and children to take parental leave together after the birth of a baby. The more that the non-primary parent is involved and helps you to work out the details, the better. (If you hold a leadership position in a company create a generous parental-leave policy and encourage employees who are eligible to take it!
  8. To make things more interesting, see if there are roles and responsibilities that you can swap with your spouse. Think about it like a Halloween candy trade—“I’ll give you my snickers for your Reese’s”—but instead, “I’ll take out the trash if you do the late-night party pick-ups.”
  9. If you need to contact other parents about kid-related activities, don’t make assumptions about parental roles. Reach out to both parents if you need to organize carpools or respond to RSVPs to parties.
  10. Focus on what’s working. Are there ways that you are effectively dividing and conquering? What makes you think this is working? First, take credit for your successes. Second, take a look at what is working and see if you can use it to inform areas that are in need of help.

 

Everyone’s marriage is different, so think about the particulars of your arrangements and how you can share the wealth with your spouse and work as a team. It is our responsibility to our partner, our children, and ourselves.

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