Why We've Always Been Tired
What Is It?
The idea of mental load for mothers has been circulating all the platforms lately, although its existence has probably spanned at least the time since women were staying in caves with the kids. Just in case you are new to the term (I promise – you have lived it without knowing what it’s called), it boils down to the constant and never-ending mental to-do list for all family tasks. In other words, it’s the burden of being the de facto household manager.
I want to start this by saying I know fathers who shoulder this (okay, maybe just one but I’m sure there are more like him), but the concept refers to the phenomenon of women remaining the nucleus of the spinning family wheel, even as most also take on some level of professional life, reducing actual hours a day available to accomplish all the family tasks. Even for those whose full-time work is raising their children, those demands are exponentially higher in our modern world of all we do for our children.
Exceptions and Examples
I am sensitive to overstating gender stereotypes because I know of so many exceptions, including same-sex parents. Despite such variety these days, though, conversations with all the women in my life support the generalization that women carrying the mental load is real; the debate may be whether their partners agree. For those without partners -- either single parents or divorced parents -- there should be another category for mental load, like "extra-plus-size mental load."
In my life, there are many ways my husband and I do not ascribe to traditional gender roles. We met in graduate school so we have a high mutual respect and value for each other’s careers and professional identities. I wanted to marry my husband because of his potential as an involved, hands-on father (which has proven true). He definitely does not characterize me as “domestic,” (I have never sewn, and will iron only as a last resort) and we balance many chores. He is the primary cook in our household because he’s better at it; we have become pretty natural at taking turns with many chores like laundry and grocery shopping.
Even within this balance, though, I have found myself taking on the “mental load” with no awareness I was doing so. Without discussion or delegation, I am in charge of the following: planning birthday parties, buying presents for other birthday parties, making pediatrician and dentist appointments, paying the bills and watching the budget, planning trips, researching childcare options, all paperwork related to childcare and school, researching and signing up for extra-curriculars, planning logistics for extra-curriculars, scheduling play dates, managing our social calendar, tracking the school calendar random days off (I’m notoriously bad at this) and planning back-up care, and the list of course goes on . . . and on . . . and on.
Let’s be clear: My husband is very independent and I do not feel like I’m taking care of him, like many women describe. He attends to much of the household that I have no interest in, like fixing broken appliances, replacing light bulbs, lawn maintenance, snow shoveling. I am very grateful I just know he will take on these tasks without discussion, as I’m sure he is grateful for what I do. Although I’m not sure he knows the scope of what I do, because I’m not even sure I know.
Why Do We Do It?
One of the early episodes of “Black-ish” featured the mom trying to demonstrate to her husband the burden of mental load. She encourages him to take on baking cupcakes for a classroom party, for which he gets all kinds of praise and attention because he’s the husband. I could totally relate to the Mom’s frustration, but I also related to the epiphany by the end of the episode that she actually enjoyed taking on the tasks she thought she resented.
I believe I could find a better balance with my husband, but I also am honest with myself that I LIKE having this sense of mastery over our children’s lives and our family's well-being. If I said to my husband, “I really need you to start doing X,” he would probably do it. So I don’t blame him, I take the responsibility. I found out this is actually part of the definition of mental load – I’m the one knowing what needs to be done, and doing the asking.
Decades of psychological research make clear that women are more socially connected than men (in general), and more emotionally responsive to others’ needs (in general). In many ways, this makes us healthier and happier, as is suggested by studies on women having longer lifespans and doing better overall when widowed compared to men. We likely attach more meaning and purpose to our identities as wife and mother, especially when we are surrounded by the message that “good” mothers and wives know all and do all for our families.
Why Does It Matter?
As much meaning as being a wife and mother can give us, there can be a cost to this, as women are also more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, as well as a multitude of medical problems that are highly affected by stress levels.
Women’s stress has become an image in mainstream media and pop culture: the multi-tasking mother in a business suit looking harried and on the edge with eight arms holding cell phones and babies and a laptop (eg, Bad Moms’ Mila Kunis character, although she didn’t quite sell me . . . she still looked way too put together).
Here is the reality: Our minds never stop because of these household management tasks constantly circulating, running on the engine of fear of forgetting and suffering some consequence. I have garnered late fees after not realizing I hadn’t paid our gas bill for several months (they were sending it to the wrong email address). I have had a car break down on me because I didn’t take care of a known problem. Every time this happens, I feel the weight of remembering too much, and I get defensive, yelling “I just can’t keep track of everything!”
So with our minds running constantly, we know this takes a toll on our health and well-being. This is why we can’t sleep. And when we can’t sleep, that actually does impair our attention and memory, which makes managing the mental load even more draining. Add that to building resentment toward our partner, resulting in the inevitable and regrettable explosions, and we end up with even more stress.
What Do We Do About It?
Others have written about specific strategies to decrease mental load, including writing down every task to spotlight what may be invisible, and finding tasks to outsource (eg, Instacart for errands). I recently started paying someone to clean our house every other month and it immediately made me feel lighter. The most obvious answer is to split more tasks with our partner, but that kind of change can be slow and fraught with resistance. It’s a good longer-term goal, but may actually cause more stress in the beginning.
There's one thing I know well because of my work, which has translated to my daily life and has helped keep me swimming forward rather than just treading water. I am not some zen yogi, but I do teach and practice the simple act of deep breathing, meditation, and yoga (I don't teach that one -- I just do it). All of these physiologically reduce anxiety and stress in our bodies. Calming our nervous systems then helps us quiet the mind. It does take practice, but deep breathing, guided meditations, and yoga can be easy first steps of stopping and being still, for even a few minutes. It is truly amazing how these few minutes can help clear our busy brains and give us more focus and clarity. I say it because I do it. A lot.
It’s not easy. I remember once during the first year of my third child, I calculated how much alone time I had every week: 20 minutes. Total. Not an exaggeration. When I put a number to it, it validated my feelings of absolute depletion. Calculating how much time we are spending on the mental load is more abstract, although I’m sure it would be just as validating if we could figure it out.
At least we are all talking about it. That may be the best start as we all work on finding answers together, each of us a spoke of the wheel instead of the one hub holding it all together.
Headspace Meditation App (first ten are free)
Meditation Oasis (website and podcast)