My favourite part of telling people what I do at The Mental Load Project is about 30 seconds into the explanation. That’s when the expression on (mostly) women’s faces changes from a blank stare to a look of deep comprehension and relief. So, there is an actual term for what they feel and experience every day!
I can’t see your face but, if you’ve not yet heard of the mental load – allow me to give you some illustrations and I bet you’ll be making the same expression. Who remembers birthdays in your household? Who notices the sunscreen is running out? Who remembers that school swimming happens on Tuesdays for Harper and Wednesdays for Jack? Who remembers that this Friday is Harmony Day and finds an orange t-shirt? Who plans vacation care on school holidays?
All of these tasks together are the mental load. It’s all the planning, organising, remembering and noticing that happens in addition to any actual physical task. The mental load is invisible. And it is, by and large, carried by women.
Even if it is invisible, remembering all this stuff takes a lot of time and brain space! That’s why the women I talk to about the mental load get this look of visceral relief when they understand it’s not just happening to them. There’s a reason why they feel tired and exhausted (even if their toddler has granted them a few hours of uninterrupted sleep!)
So, why do women carry the mental load? Over the last generation or two, there have been massive changes in gender roles at home and in the workplace. Women have become much more present in the workplace. Fathers these days are much more likely to cook a family meal regularly. But, although the physical load of parenting may (sometimes) be more evenly shared, the mental load, by default, continues to fall to women.
There’s so much to unpack to achieve mental load equality. It starts in our language. We refer to “Working Mums” but not “Working Dads”. We ask our partners to “help” us with the housework, even though it is as much their house as it is ours!
It’s internalised in our expectations. Women are the first ones to be judged (and probably to judge ourselves) if our mother-in-law’s birthday is forgotten or if the house is untidy when guests come over. In fact, Australian data shows that the highest earning women end up taking on even more of the housework to avoid seeming like a “bad” mum (note: this is not a trend seen amongst high earning dads).
It’s ingrained in our habits. Women do tend to notice the socks lying on the floor or that the kids’ clothes are getting too tight, more than men. But this is not biological. We’ve just been conditioned to notice these things from when we were little girls – and then the more we notice and fix them, the better we get at noticing all these things.
So we’ve ended up here, where women and men may be much more equal in practical parenting and paid employment, but women continue to carry the lion’s share of the mental load. We’re using precious, and finite time, brain space and energy on the mental load while our partners are not. As such, women end up with less mental energy and time to ponder work-related matters. This may not be a bad thing all the time, but solving problems at work creates way more career opportunities than successfully organising swimming lessons for next term. In this way, inequality in the mental load at home actually contributes to the glass ceiling at work.
While it’s satisfying to name the problem, the obvious and more important question is: what can we do about it?
I first became hyper aware of mental load inequality when I returned to work post maternity leave. I was heartened to come across countless articles describing my problems with the mental load. But there were so few solutions. The only options I found were to “put up with it” (getting increasingly frustrated and resentful) or “drop the ball” (stop doing stuff and get increasingly frustrated and resentful while the house falls apart).
This led me to try to find the root cause of the problem. Why do women notice things before their partners? Why do highly capable men rely on their partners to tell them what needs to be done? I realised it was due to generations of social conditioning forming our habits and expectations. Yikes. So, how do we undo this?
Having more gender equal family policies would help. Although women are likely to carry more of the mental load – even before children, studies have shown that longer paternity leave at a child’s birth increases the involvement of fathers in day-to-day childcare-related tasks during toddlerhood.
But we don’t have to wait for better parental leave policies and community expectations on mothers and fathers to change before we can redistribute the mental load within our own relationships.
My Three Biggest Tips to Mentally Unload
1. Do. Do what you can – immediately, rather than waiting. How many times do you think of sending that text message before you actually do? There are lots of “mental load” tasks like that which can be done in less than 60 seconds. Doing them the first time they pop into our head saves mental energy, simply by not having to “remember” them several times before doing them.
2. Drop. Be selective with your finite mental space and energy. Consider what you value most, and on the flipside, what things take up your mental load that aren’t actually important to you anymore?
3. Divide. We need to achieve division of the mental load NOT delegation. This means dividing overall activities with our partners so that one person is responsible for the whole thing rather than just delegating smaller individual bits and pieces. Think; “I will make dinners on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and you can make dinner on Thursdays and Fridays”; rather than; “Can you cook chicken stir fry on Thursday? I’ll defrost the chicken on Wednesday, and I’ll leave the recipe on the bench.”
These three steps sound pretty simple but following them actually requires us to break and re-form habits that we have probably held for decades. At the Mental Load Project, I run a six-week Share the Mental Load course to teach women exactly how to do this and provide all the support they and their partners need to make the new habits, and mental load equality, stick.
It feels pretty good to never organise the dog’s visits to the vet again. It feels even better not to blame myself for any dinner that falls slightly under nutritional standards. It feels amazing to know that my daughter is growing up forming different, more gender equal expectations and habits.
And that is the ultimate goal: that in another generation, our sons and daughters will both be spending equal mental energy on getting promotions at work and remembering to wash the bath towels.