What is the Mental Load?
I was first introduced to the mental load through a clever comic by French illustrator, Emma. She argues that in traditional home dynamics, the husband views the wife as the household manager and himself as an “underling”. Rather than taking initiative in the home, he waits for his wife to tell him what to do.
Emma suggests that the wife must always be a few steps ahead of her family’s needs. She must remember that the baby grew out of her clothes and that their older child needs a booster shot. She alone knows that they’re out of mustard, that they need to pay the daycare, and more. It takes a mental toll that often goes unrecognized and unappreciated.
The comic specifically addressed women’s mental load, as it’s more common thanks to our culture. But it’s not a rule for every family. There are certainly plenty of men in the world who carry part or all of this mental load.
This comic and follow-up articles have caused “household managers”, whether wives or husbands, to realize that they feel more stressed because they carry a mental load their partners don’t. But the real question is…what can we do about it?
What We Can Do About the Mental Load
We can comment on the comic and articles on social media, share the posts, and get worked up about it. But should we accept the mental load as a given? Are we doomed to carry the mental load of our family for the rest of our lives? Maybe. But maybe not. Here’s what has recently helped me to even things out a little more:
First, communicate with your spouse.
This may seem like a given, but does your spouse know that you feel this way? Bring it up at an appropriate time. I can’t stress that enough.
My husband and I are both more open to these types of conversations when we’re relaxed and not preoccupied with something else. Don’t bring it up in the heat of an argument or when you’re feeling extra emotional about the subject. That usually leads to my emotions taking over, which makes me less considerate about how I word and present my concerns, which makes the whole thing less effective.
Don’t accuse your spouse (that never goes over well), but explain to them that you’re feeling overwhelmed. Detail all of the things that you feel are on your plate. If they don’t take the cue to offer help, don’t be afraid to let them know exactly what they can do to help lighten your load.
I once read a study that found both spouses tend to feel as if they’re carrying more of the workload than the other. Keep that in mind, and remember to stay open to hearing your spouse’s point of view as well.
Second, stop automatically doing things before your spouse or kids even ask.
I’m guilty of this. My husband occasionally mentions when the house looks like a tornado of toys ripped through it.
I used to automatically receive this comment as a complaint. I assumed he expected me to fix it. So I would roll my eyes and start cleaning. Meanwhile, I’d think, “You could clean it instead of complaining about it”.
But when I actually brought it up to my husband, he was surprised that I assumed he meant that. Even when your spouse or kids voice a need, remember that they are usually just as capable as you are.
My daughter is big enough to open the pantry and grab another applesauce pouch. My husband is capable of doing dishes and picking up toys. Your family might surprise you with how much they would do on their own if you just gave them the chance.
Third, accept that your family may do things differently than you.
If I want to really benefit from my husband or child’s help, I can’t come behind them and fix everything that they do. No, he doesn’t load the dishwasher right. Nope, my daughter doesn’t put her toys away in the right bins. Not even close.
We could nitpick everything our spouse and kids do help with, but that would discourage them from taking on more in the future. If a task is completed and you didn’t have to do it, is it really that big of a deal if a few things are done differently than you might have done them?
And finally, leave some things undone. Don’t just do them assuming your family won’t.
If your spouse says they’re going to take out the trash, don’t take it out a few hours later when they haven’t yet. They said they would do it, so let them do it. If it’s a few hours (or days) later, they might need a reminder.
Often my husband just honestly spaces. He gets caught up with work emails or something on his phone and forgets the trash until he notices it again. Most people will accept a polite reminder (not a rehashing of your entire lives together and their history of not helping) relatively well.
Even if we can mostly handle the mental load ourselves, we don’t want to feel so burned out every day that we can’t enjoy our families, or find some time for ourselves. (Selfish moms know this is a necessity!) I don’t believe it’s our fate to carry the mental load alone for the rest of our lives.
Communicate with your spouse and stop automatically doing things before your spouse or kids even ask. Accept your family doing things differently and leave some things undone. They might just surprise you!
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*Updated November 15, 2021.
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