Mental Load: What It Means and Myths that keep it on your Shoulders

I happened upon a comic that portrayed one woman’s struggle with doing everything.  Not just physical everything, but the mental everything.  Not only did I identify with this comic, but I was immeasurably relieved to find a WORD that describes what I had been complaining about to my husband for almost 25 years: Mental Load.

Mental Load is the (mental) labor of problem solving, thinking, planning, anticipating outcomes, and detailing involved with the physical activity of actual labor.

mental load, mom of seven
Mental Labor of Love

As you might imagine, the mother often carries more than the egalitarian half of the family’s mental load.  Whether the mother has a job outside of the home or not, she is usually the manager of family life.

For example, when you get pajamas for your child to wear after a bath, you might:

  • walk into the child’s room,
  • pick up a few toys and throw them in the toy box (except for your child’s favorite sleeping toy, which you throw on the pillow),
  • open the pajama drawer and select a pair of matching pajamas (based on your child’s current favorite color or character), as well as a pair of underwear,
  • remove clothing (and other items) that do not belong in the pajama drawer,
  • put the renegade clothing in the drawers they belong in,
  • maybe fold a thing or two that was unceremoniously shoved inside this drawer,
  • make a mental note to go through the drawers later and take out a couple of things that no longer fit your child,
  • walk back to the bathroom, only to realize that you forgot the pajamas in the kid’s room…

When anyone else is sent to get pajamas, they return eventually with the top to one set of pajamas and the bottoms of another.  No undies, because you didn’t actually say “pajamas AND undies”.  And you know they didn’t organize the room or any drawers along the way.

Why? For two reasons; 1) We take pride in our work and are always trying to make things better (if not perfect). 2) Because we are seen as “The boss” of the home.  It is easier to be told what to do then to think about what needs to be done.

Myths that keep the Mental Load on Your Shoulders:

If you want the job done right, do it yourself.

Women have been saying this for ages! When you never see evidence that someone CAN share the mental load, you start to believe that you are special.  If you accept that the other members in your family are incapable of thinking things through (a.k.a. critical thinking), they will continue to rely on being told every little thing.

Mothers naturally know what to do, so it’s easier for you.

New mothers observe their newborns unceasingly.  They gradually learn their newborns through trial and error from one morning to the next morning.  Nothing about learning how to comfort, feed, dress, change, entertain, or love a newborn is easy.  Mothers work hard for this knowledge.  If fathers invested the effort to learn their babies (and where the wipes are located on the changing table), it would be easier for them, too.

All you have to do is ask; I can’t read your mind.

[VENTING MOMENT] One of the things that I have found most hurtful in my relationship with my husband was the constant need to “ask” (beg, nag, badger… whatever) him to back me up.  I’ve always claimed that he is a wonderful father, but a terrible babysitter.  When I went out, I expected the household to be run the way it would be if I was there.  Usually, I was disappointed.

When my husband didn’t pick up “my” mental and physical load, I felt like he was telling me that these tasks were beneath him.  I didn’t get a free night out; I only postponed the work I would have had to do anyway.  As a “bonus”, it’s my fault because I didn’t tell him to take care of the tasks, and he can’t read my mind.

You can’t complain about how things get done, if you’re not the one doing it.  a.k.a. Just be glad you didn’t have to do it.

This is a valid point, but only if things are actually getting done.  Doing nothing (or doing the tasks half-ass), won’t be seen as help even in the best of circumstances, and usually it turns out to be double the work later.  In other words, it isn’t “help” if it doesn’t relieve you of both the physical and mental loads.  

Men and Women think differently.

Okay, yes that’s also true, but mental load is not a “female” thing.  Men are extremely capable of carrying a huge mental load, but they tend to focus this resource on their main priority (typically, their day job).  Husbands and fathers also have a responsibility to focus on the family in mind and body.

Nobody Wants to do the Dishes…

the break up, mental load, mom of sevenThe Break Up (starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn) wasn’t a particularly good movie, but it contains a golden nugget of wisdom: When you love someone, you want to do the dishes (because you know he/she doesn’t want to do the dishes).

In this movie, Jennifer Aniston didn’t want Vince Vaughn to just wash the dishes; she wanted him to “want to wash the dishes”.  Vince Vaughn didn’t understand why she would be upset at him because she didn’t tell him what she wanted.  As both characters mature at bit, they realize the importance of self-giving and communication.  Women don’t want to tell husbands and children what to do; they just want them to think about what needs to be done and do it.

If you have ever said…

With all the effort it takes to get someone else to “help”, I might as well have done it myself.

Why is everything always on ME?

I’m not your friggin secretary.

Fine! I won’t get in my car and drive west until I run out of gas, because then my family would be lost without me.

… then you might be shouldering more than your share of the family’s mental load.

Talk to your Partner about Sharing the Load:

Don’t leave the good work ethic at the day job.

Talk about putting down the work mental load and picking up the family mental load on the drive home from work.  Chances are, your partner knows a little bit of his co-worker’s jobs; he can learn a little bit of yours too. Your partner doesn’t lounge around at work, waiting to be told what to do; he shouldn’t do that at home, either.  How can we teach this work ethic to our kids?

Cut out the “middle-man” (a.k.a. I’m not your friggin secretary, mother, Google, Siri, etc.).

Talk about all of the systems you have in place to keep organized, and how your partner can access them.  Encourage your children learn and access these materials, as well.  Texting is great to stay connected throughout the day, but should not be constant requests for information that can be gotten elsewhere. It’s frustrating to have your own tasks interrupted by additional (especially unnecessary) tasks.

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

Miscommunication can derail us easily, so it is vitally important that we understand what our partner says.  Clarifying questions might need to be asked: “What are you saying”, “What do you mean by that”, or “What are you really telling me”? Trying to read-into what your partner is saying takes up valuable mental resources.  Open-faced-honesty might be the best policy if you frequently discover inaccurate ideas about the conversation you just had together.

Mental load isn’t a new fad that’s been gaining momentum the past couple of years.  It has always had a role in stress, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed. This unseen weight is an actual, measurable, phenomenon that hasn’t had a voice until recently.  Partners need to be able to back each other up in order to be effective as parents and as a couple.  Sharing the mental load is just one more way to share the love!

mental load
Share the Mental Load

I'd love to hear what has worked for you!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.