We’ve come a long way from our mothers’ generation. The gender gap is narrowing, and women and men share far more of the household and childcare responsibilities than ever before. Yet women are still tired, stressed, and unhappy. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/04/parenting/working-moms-mental-health-coronavirus.html Partly to blame is a phenomenon known as the “mental load” – the invisible work of running the household and family life.
A growing body of research shows that women perform far more of this thinking labor than men — and it’s leaving them feeling wrung-out and depleted. According to the 2021 Bright Horizons Modern Family Index, Covid-19 has increased the mental load for working women; some 85% of those surveyed report that managing the household duties falls on their shoulders. https://www.brighthorizons.com/~/media/Corporate/MFI-2021/2021-MFI-Report-FINAL
So what does the mental load look like? Read on for practical examples, how this endless mental tracking is impacting women and their relationships, and what to do about it.
What Is the Mental Load?
The mental load can be understood as the invisible organizational work that goes into managing a household and family.
Are you scrolling through an endless to-do list in your mind? Assuming the role of house manager involves staying on top of dozens of tasks. The mental load could look something like this:
We’re running low on laundry detergent, buy pasta and broccoli for dinner, sign Leo up for soccer camp by Monday, schedule the kids’ annual doctor’s appointment, buy a gift and card for the birthday party this weekend, are we out of wrapping paper, schedule the dog groomer for next week.
And on, and on. Sound familiar? That’s the mental load– keeping track of where everyone in the family needs to be, their physical and emotional needs, and managing household responsibilities.
If your family has internalized gender roles from your childhood, passed down from your parents’ childhood and so on, there’s a good chance the woman of the house carries the overwhelming majority of the mental load. And there’s a good chance she assumed the burden without her consent.
3 Types of Mental Load
While the term mental load is typically used to describe this unseen thinking work, researchers understand this dynamic in three parts:
1. Cognitive Labor
Cognitive labor likens running a household to running a company. Alongside the necessary physical labor and logistical demands, a tremendous amount of thinking is required. Making the right strategic and tactical decisions requires brainpower, stamina and energy.
From playdates and piano lessons to laundry and shopping, there’s a lot of mental work that goes into keeping a household functioning at full capacity. Organizing and keeping track of these practical responsibilities is work, and it takes as much commitment and drive as a job outside the home does.
2. Emotional Labor
A home is a safe place – or at least it should be. And as any parent knows, it’s also the place where big and occasionally overwhelming feelings are most likely to spill out. So while the house thermostat is keeping track of the air temperature, the task of regulating the emotional temperatures of the people who live inside the house has to fall to someone.
Maintaining the emotional dynamics of the family in a way that works for everyone can take up a lot of mental space and energy. From soothing a tantrum to investing in the kinds of difficult conversations that will temper future conflict, the task of monitoring and tracking this ever-shifting emotional tableau is another important piece of work.
3. Mental Load
The mental load is where these two very different kinds of work collide, where the practical meets the emotional. The unique challenge of finding ways to be both an efficient household manager and an empathetic and compassionate helper to the other members of a household team is not an easy needle to thread.
That’s why it makes sense to divide the workload among the adults, and try to find creative ways to spread the mental load.
Every day presents a barrage of contradictions in any household, as the demands of routine — school, meals, baths — run up against the unexpected and surprising, the twists and turns of life. Breaking up the mental load in those areas that can be anticipated will make coping with the unexpected that much easier.
Four Components of Mental Load
So how does the mental load play out in the day-to-day? Allison Daminger, a PhD candidate in sociology and social policy at Harvard University, explains in a 2019 study how the mental load can be understood in four parts: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0003122419859007?journalCode=asra
- Anticipating needs
- Identifying ways to satisfy those needs
- Making decisions
- Monitoring progress
Example of Mental Labor: Making Birthday Magic Happen
Something that seems as simple and pleasant as a birthday could look a little something like this, according to Daminger’s structure:
You’re nearing your child’s birthday month.
- “Anticipating” is starting to think about what might be involved in making it come together.
- The next step would be “identifying” everything that needs to be done, from securing a spot for the party to deciding what foods to offer and what games to play.
- “Deciding” comes next, which means committing to venues, making down payments, buying food and sending out invites.
- And then comes the “monitoring” phase, the follow-through to make sure it goes off without a hitch, and the thank-you notes get written and sent.
Taken together, it becomes clear that a birthday is not always a one-day affair, but rather a process that requires planning, execution and follow-up, all of which is another important piece of the mental load women carry.
@thatdarnchat#stitch with @oversharedontcare everyone deserves equitable division of labor at home. #fairplay #divisionoflabor
Why Do Women Most Often Carry the Mental Load?
Some families are exceptions, but more often than not, the mental load of family life falls on women.
In a follow-up to the study, Daminger dug into how heterosexual couples make sense of these inequalities when organizing the household.https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0003122420950208 She found that couples rationalized these behavioral differences by blaming one partner’s heavier professional workload as well as an internalized belief that women are naturally more interested in being organized.
The latter simply isn’t true – women aren’t better at planning and organizing, they’re just expected to be.  https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0220150
Women are also judged more harshly on a messy house or if something goes wrong with their children. In one study, when participants were told a clean room belonged to a woman, it was judged as less clean than if they were told a man occupied it. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0049124119852395 The social stakes therefore are higher for women to maintain an ordered home.
All this pressure is causing women to feel anxious and stressed. A study of 393 married or partnered mothers found that managing the family’s schedule and overseeing the home takes a toll on their wellbeing and places strain on their relationship. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-018-1001-x%5C
How to Lessen the Mental Load
Although figuring out how to ease your mental burden might seem like yet another task to add to your list, it’s worth the effort in the long term.
Here are some concrete steps to take to split the thinking work more equally:
1. Share required reading. Before talking to your partner, it might help to have them read about the concept of the mental load beforehand. You could start by simply sharing this article. This cartoon explaining how the mental load works went viral, and for good reason. It clearly illustrates how the mental load plays out in the family and the negative impact it has on women.
2. Write down every task you’re mentally tracking and share the list with your partner. Help them understand what the mental load is and how it’s affecting you. Then discuss which tasks your partner is willing or able to take off your plate. Maybe that’s keeping track of when you’re running low on groceries, or planning summer camps for the kids. Emphasize that it’s not just about splitting the chores down the middle – it’s about sharing the management of the household.
3. Let go of control. Part of ceding certain tasks to your partner means relinquishing some control. If they’re going to be in charge of gift-giving – thinking about, buying, and wrapping gifts – you’re going to need to practice getting comfortable with their choices. Perhaps you would have chosen a different gift for your child’s best friend, spent less money, or picked a more neutral-colored wrapping paper. Part of sharing the mental load is letting go a little – as long as you have a gift that’s wrapped and ready, that’s what counts.
4. Do less. If you stop trying to think of everything and focus your mental energy on fewer tasks, it should force your partner to pick up some of the slack. At first it might feel a little chaotic, but soon they might start thinking ahead and increasing their involvement, easing the burden placed on you.
5. Practice self-care. The idea of self-care goes beyond simply lighting a candle or taking a bubble bath. In order for mothers to cope with the demands of work and childrearing, “it is essential that mothers receive the nurturance, care, and replenishment that they are expected to put out for so many others,” according to a 2019 study. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-018-1001-x%5C The researchers emphasize the importance of deep connections with friends and colleagues in order for women to feel emotionally supported. Taking care of yourself also means practicing putting in boundaries and getting comfortable with saying no.