What is the mental load ?
It is the weight of all the things you juggle day in day out. Often invisible tasks that go along with running a household/ working/ organising the children. Modern life is busy and there are often lots of things that need to be done. I’m talking predominantly here about heterosexual couples, and it seems to be the woman who carries this mental load in a relationship more commonly than the man.
A report written in 2015 shows that same gender couples tend to share out the responsibilities more equally. But tell me if this rings true with your household ? Regardless of gender it does seem to fall mainly on the parent who stays at home with the babies, and it never seems to even out again, even if they return to work.
Societal not genetic
When I meet with my Mother’s Mentor clients, this topic ALWAYS comes up, all saying the same thing. They feel invisible, they feel undervalued, overwhelmed and they have to juggle so much stuff that they partner is blissfully unaware of.
I’m pretty sure I’m correct in saying that there is nothing within our female genetic makeup that makes us better or more able to be the mental load bearer. It seems to be societal not genetic. It seems to be habitual and so ingrained in our lives.
Division of labour
I came from a family where it was fairly equal, I remember my stepdad doing lots of cooking, cleaning, shopping, but I’m pretty sure if I asked my mum she would say she still took on the mental load with the household tasks. I remember one day she asked me and my siblings to do some chores and I said “I’ll do the vacuuming for you mum “. Right there was the perfect opportunity to explain to us that we weren’t doing it FOR HER. That it isn’t her task for us to take. It should be a shared responsibility that we are all aware of and equally participate in.
Obviously, we were children then so we may need reminders or lists or allocated jobs, I think it’s fair to say children should not be carrying the mental load. BUT men, come on, in so many families I speak to today the men are like the afore mentioned children. I know it is getting more equal and I see the trend in joint parenting leave being more common but we still have a long way to go.
I know a family where the husband had some extended time off work, for at least 6 months he was at home, not working, children at school, wife was at work. I asked him what he was doing that day and he said “She, [the wife] has given me a list of things to do, shopping, cleaning the bathroom’. Really? Really! Are we still in this place in society where men need lists from their wives before they will get on with the household to do lists.
Mother of boys
As a mother of boys. It is fully my intention to encourage a household where we are all aware of the things that need doing (age appropriately). We already have a household where my husband doesn’t assume that I am doing everything, but mostly we talk about it and I think that is where the key lies. We have divided up some of the chores. He predominantly pays the bills [albeit they are on DD 😊] ,makes sure the cars are road worthy, sorts the bins, and a near equal share of cooking and food shopping. I wouldn’t say it’s equal by any stretch as I still have EVERYTHING else and if you have to ask what that is then you are clearly not the mental load bearer otherwise you would know exactly what a working mother of 2 children has on her plate.
I can see how it starts
Post birth and during maternity the mother, generally speaking, will be thinking everything that needs to happen for her baby. The clothes they grow out of so quickly, childcare arrangements, preparing meals, doctors checks, playdates.
If the mother goes back to work she seems to retain all these things. Then of course her workload expands overnight as she now has her paid work to fit in too.
Also don’t get me started on the gender stereo types with toys, outfits, job roles as these influence our young children’s minds from the outset.
Start making changes
Whatever age your children, wherever you are in the family stage of life. Communication is key. Start having these conversations.
- Who is going to do to plan the meals/ cook the meal/ clear away
- Who is doing the shopping. Even down to detail of how you keep you shopping list. If the tomato sauce runs out, everyone needs to know to add it to the list
- Use shared online diaries/ planners or have a paper one stuck to the kitchen wall
- If formula feeding, who is cleaning and preparing, who is doing which feeds
- Who is getting up in the night to attend to the children
- Who is having which lie in on which day
- Who is researching and looking for the family holiday/ new car/ kitchen upgrade
- Do the kids need new school uniform/nursery clothes, shoes, library books
- Add both parents to the school/nursery email and class whatsapp recipient lists so both parents are aware of what needs doing
- What day is bin day and who is doing it
- Stripping the beds / washing and remaking
This list of household things goes on and on. The above list may make it look every square inch of family life needs to be planned out. This is not my intention and would be impossible and impractical. The point is sometimes it needs to be written out for it to sink in on how much there is to do and it gets the ball rolling for that all important conversation to start dividing up the mental load you’re carrying.
Every household is different and there will be different preferences and working hours and cultural considerations. All this needs to be taken into account and there will be families where a stay at home parent is happy to take the mental/physical household load if the other parent is at paid work. But my underling gripe is the division of labour needs to feel fairer. If both parents are in a paid job then things at home need to be divided too.
It needs to be discussed and allocated so there isn’t one parent, usually the mum, who feels like she is doing it all. We cannot and should not have to do it all. A report I read shows the dissatisfaction over the division on chores is driven by whether couples have had a conversation about it or not. Satisfaction is lowest when individuals don’t communicate their wishes in the relationship.