Do you walk around forming lists in your mind, always thinking a few steps ahead? Regardless if you’re single or partnered, juggling a career, family or just your own life; mental load is the unseen burden of carrying the mental logistics for yourself and others.
The air traffic control of daily life
What will we eat this week? When can I do the supermarket shopping, let alone cook and feed everyone? Don’t forget we’re having friends over for a barbeque on the weekend, so remember to top up the gas bottle, check the sausages are gluten free for Susan, sweep the backyard, clean the house and cater for the vegetarians. And that’s just a small part of thinking ahead over the next seven days. In between there’s appointments to manage, birthday presents to buy, a hundred “where’s my…” questions to answer and a host of “remind me to…” expectations to carry.
Imagine an air traffic controller, making sure the plane stays on course without other aircraft encroaching on their airspace. The pilot might land the plane but behind the scenes there’s been precision planning to make it happen.
Most of what is written about mental load is focused on women in heterosexual relationships. There are good reasons for this as, whether it’s social conditioning or a desire for order, women historically have taken on home management. Despite social changes, women still carry the lion’s share of unpaid and voluntary work (see below). But the lack of balance when it comes to carrying the mental load is an issue in many same sex relationships as well.
While families mean more people to coordinate, single women also talk about the burden of their solo mental load – such as having to do everything and the lack of a partner to share things with.
Regardless of domestic circumstances, women are becoming increasingly aware of their busy interior lives – and don’t like what they’re feeling.
On average, men spent nearly twice as long as women on employment- related activities, while women spent nearly twice as long as men on primary activities associated with unpaid work. Women were also likely to spend more time on domestic activities (2 hours 52 minutes per day compared with 1 hour and 37 minutes per day for men) and childcare (59 and 22 minutes respectively per day)
You should have asked
The cartoon You should have asked, about a man being oblivious to everything his partner was doing, went viral for a good reason. This humorous depiction of domestic life resonated with so many women. In many homes women are cast as the manager of household chores – the one who anticipates what needs to be done and when. Cartoonist Emma cleverly pulls the phenomena of mental load apart and offers insights into how this division of mental labour came about and how to change it. It’s not so much about her partner being unwilling to do his share, rather the lack of anticipation of what needs to be done then doing it without waiting to be asked or praised for it.
The same cartoon from a man’s perspective could be equally as illuminating. Melbourne university researcher Leah Ruppanner believes that men carry a similar load to women but more of their headspace is taken up with work issues. However, these days women are also thinking about their own careers, as well as copping more of the domestic load.
The first step to reducing your load
We need to take responsibility for our own mental load before others will change their actions. Owning up to our underlying beliefs and conditioning is a useful place to start.
For example I’ve got to ask myself, who appointed me to be the organiser of my partner’s life? It certainly isn’t him. While at times I resent being asked to “remind me about…”, I still find myself anticipating the things I’ve not been asked to do. For example, when I recently woke up at 3am thinking of what he needed to pack for a night away.
Does it really matter if he forgets the phone charger? Will the consequences be devastating for either of us? Questioning the absurdity of this can sometimes make me laugh. Even at 3am. Perhaps at the heart of this “load” is anxiety or a much harder question, does being “useful” make me more lovable?
What can we let go of?
For many people, it is the reaction to the mental load more than the actual load, which takes up the most emotional energy. When you relish logistics or feel you’ve actively chosen to take on certain chores, it may consume less mental energy.
What both feeds and complicates mental load can be a host of of complex emotions, often fed by social conditioning. For example:
Guilt: that the house is not clean enough, you don’t always cook from scratch, that you’re not a good enough parent and not meeting other impossibly high standards you set for yourself.
Resentment: that you’re always the one who has to anticipate everyone else’s needs, do more of the domestic work and that you’re not appreciated.
Passive aggression: doing the tasks with a scowl or biting remarks such as “angry cleaning”, when you expect everyone in the house to pick up on your vibe and magically offer to help.
Martyrdom: sacrificing your time and joy for the sake of others, yet feeling secretly annoyed when this goes unacknowledged.
People pleasing: do you fear people won’t like you if you don’t give them what you think they want?
If you relate to some of these, ask yourself:
- How do these feelings serve you?
- How would it feel to learn to let go of these emotions?
“You can’t change other people. You can only change yourself.”
Does all this mean we will never change other people? No. It just means we can’t really control it and therefore cannot be attached to the outcome. All we can really do is control what we decide to do.
Tools to lighten your mental load
Outsourcing as much of the domestic drudgery is, according to Emma, the middle-class solution. This can be helpful but doesn’t always solve the underlying problems. I raised these issues on a forum recently, and when prompted further about the ongoing load that sometimes comes from hiring additional help, the following response was typical:
“I love my nanny that I have twice a week, but I am responsible for writing instructions, planning what she will cook (she cooks!) doing handover at the start/end of the day and organizing an alternative if she’s sick. Not to mention that I had to source, interview and train her to start with!”
So too are helpful suggestions about household google calendars and apps to keep everyone on board with decisions and responsibilities. They only work when everyone actively participates.
Change can begin with a conversation. For one of my busy clients juggling a business and family, sharing the cartoon with her husband was the starting point. For a male client, it was finally choosing to share with his frustrated partner, fears that the business was failing and facing bankruptcy.
We all carry some kind of unseen load. But it’s the invisibility and silence that often harbours a host of resentments. The clean washing sitting unfolded on the table for days might be the tip of the iceberg. In some relationships, what lurks underneath can feel a lot more threatening.
Learning mindfulness and meditation, can also help reduce the background noise in your mind and offer new perspectives. These practices can create a bigger gap between feeling and reacting, creating an opportunity to approach our thoughts from a different angle.
Mindfulness is a tool that renoun researcher Brene´Brown also recommends. She has an interesting perspective on how our brain loves to make a story, regardless of it’s accuracy. It’s worth catching up on some of the highlights from her talk about how we can own and rewrite our story.
Ultimately each one of us is responsible for our own happiness, anxiety, stress or depression. Too often we grudgingly put up with our mental load until it becomes overwhelming or unbearable. Becoming aware of and learning how to voice our feelings, before it gets too much, is a major key to changing behaviour. If you struggle with how to do this, getting some professional help from a psychologist, naturopath or mindfulness teacher to improve your physical and emotional wellbeing, can be a useful place to start.
Gill Stannard has been helping women and men improve their physical and emotional health for over 25 years. For more tools, explore the articles, recipes and other resources on this site, sign up for the free monthly newsletter or book a naturopathic consultation.