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. And wow, we hit a nerve!
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 the emotional caretaking, the day-to-day management of activities, and the burden of making sure nothing falls 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. But now that we have a name for this phenomenon, perhaps we can tackle it.
What contributes to mental load? It typically includes:
- Researching tutors, camps, activities, schools
- Scheduling playdates
- Schlepping kids to extracurriculars
- Dealing with all aspects of clothing: buying, laundering, switching over seasonally
- Last-minute shopping for unexpected school projects, bake sales, etc.
- Constantly thinking about where kids are and who is taking care of them (and planning in advance to ensure coverage)
- Filling out forms … endlessly
But mental load is more than a list of tasks. It is everything that goes into making a house a home. It is the emotional pressure of getting things right for your family. It is listening to your child, who you love with your whole heart, share a difficult experience, and not falling down crying alongside them. 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 is also a feeling of frustration that this load goes unnoticed and unappreciated. It is the feeling of exhaustion and overwhelm and our spouses not understanding why.
This is not necessarily any one person’s fault. It is societal, passed down from generation to generation. But just like the #MeToo movement, if we give it a name, perhaps there can be a shift toward a solution.
10 Ideas to Lighten Our Mental Load
Let’s start making the invisible visible, by talking about mental load and how it affects us personally. Think about how you can engage your spouse and work towards creating a healthier distribution of labor. Here are some ideas to get us started.
- Talk with your spouse about 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.
- Share your worries and fears and thoughts with your spouse. Take that old adage “Never worry alone” to heart.
- 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. Use technology. Delegate to others, including our children as they get older.
- Don’t enable. Let people learn how to do things themselves, which may require letting go and letting them learn from their mistakes.
- Take note of Home Control Disease (HCD) as defined by Tiffany Dufu in her amazing book Drop the Ball. Perfectionistic standards can result in your holding onto that responsibility for the rest of your life.
- Think about your role modeling. Is this the life you want for you kids when they become parents? If not, what can you do differently? If this is draining your relationship, see a marriage therapist; the best time to do that is when things aren’t dire.
- Encourage your spouse to take parental leave after a new baby so that you can figure out parenting together. The earlier the non-primary parent gets their hands dirty and you figure things out together, the better. (And if you have a leadership role in a company, create a generous parental leave policy and encourage employees to take it!)
- Figure out if there are any roles and responsibilities you can trade with your spouse to change things up. 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.”
- If you need to contact other parents about kid-related activities, don’t make assumptions about parental roles. Reach out to both parents when organizing carpools, responding to party RSVPs, etc.
- Focus on what’s working. Are there ways you are dividing and conquering well? Why do you think that is working? First, give yourself credit for your successes! Second, see if there is anything you can draw from what is working to inform areas that need 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. We owe it to ourselves, our partner, and our kids.
Amy Alpert, a graduate of the Certificate in Positive Psychology, is a solutions-focused coach with a practice based in positive psychology. A former human resources executive at Goldman Sachs, she holds a master’s degree in organizational psychology from Columbia University. This article was originally published on Amy’s blog at amyalpert.com.