- Jo-Ann Finkelstein, PhD (for The Feminist Parent)
It’s All in Her Head (and It’s Exhausting)
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
The 'mental load' is hurting relationships. It's time for a cultural shift.
New Yorker Cartoon by Suerynn Lee
One thing I know I don’t want my daughter to shoulder alone if she ends up in a long term relationship with a man is the “mental load” that almost always falls on women. Unfortunately, if the next 20 years looks anything like the last 20, it’s almost inevitable that she will. This is especially true if she chooses to have children. Research over the last two decades by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has consistently found that women employed outside of the home shoulder 65 percent of child-care responsibilities, and their male partners 35 percent. This holds even when women earn more in their actual paid jobs than their male partner.
Anecdotally, it’s ubiquitous too. Friends, and the women I see in my psychology practice both individually or as part of a couple, complain about the mental exhaustion of managing all the tiny details of making a household run. And they’re deeply frustrated (enraged, resentful…divorced) that they can’t seem to make their male partners understand. It’s the kind of work that is usually taken for granted and is dubbed invisible labor for a reason.
What Exactly is The Mental Load?
The mental load, also referred to as cognitive labor or worry work, is carrying around that never-ending to-do list in your head. It’s remembering what needs to get done and when, who needs to be where and when, delegating all the tasks to respective family members, and making sure they actually get done. It can also include emotional labor, meaning being the one who listens, comforts and problem-solves. Even in the most progressive households where couples split the physical chores equally (e.g., sharing laundry, dishes and grocery shopping), the woman is still the steward of the family’s well being. At work, it's called project management and people get paid a lot to be a project manager. It’s a whole job. Yet when it’s at home, we call it "no big deal”.
If you’re still not getting it (I’m looking at you cis-het men), let me spell it out. School, for example, is not just about drop-off and pick-up. It’s the relentless mental awareness of everyone’s unique needs (science fairs, class parties, birthday snacks, recalling which class has someone with a strawberry allergy, remembering tuition deadlines and parent nights). It’s also exceptions to the regular schedule (early release days, field trips, random days-off), and the very high likelihood that the school will call mom no matter how many times you ask them to call dad when the child is sick.
But there’s more (there always is): it’s remembering the gardener comes on Thursdays so the dog poop is picked up. It's getting the birthday gifts for your family, her family, and the kids’ friends. It’s remembering Jenny has practice, finding the address to the park, and taking her or setting up carpool. It’s remembering that Nathan likes ketchup on his chicken tenders and Stella likes BBQ sauce. It’s play dates, forms, doctor’s appointments, new boots, sending the condolence cards and meals, remembering the hats, suncreen and toys for the beach. It’s all the decisions about activities and camps, and registering for those programs. It’s constant attention to the clock and giving the 20-, 10-, and five-minute warnings. Are you tired yet?
Why the Mental Load Exists
People are so accustomed to the sexist norms in society that they’re often unaware they exist. Even among couples who say they’ve achieved equal partnership, studies find that their mutual decisions tend to favor the needs and goals of the husband much more than the wife. And when they are aware of double standards, even progressive men don’t always live their politics at home. Research shows a significant proportion of men admit they believe women should do more homemaking and child-rearing than men. That translates into benefitting from a second income without taking on the extra domestic work.
Men often weren’t raised to take equal initiative at home and it wasn’t modeled for them by their parents. Unpaid domestic and emotional labor can feel foreign to or beneath them. Surrendering that privilege would be difficult for anyone. Women on the other hand have a lifetime of experience attending to others’ needs and de-prioritizing their own.
Women often also feel pressured to "perform gender,” meaning they’ve internalized society’s values of what a “good” mother or “good” homemaker looks like. Men may tell their partners not to worry, but the truth is, it’s almost always the woman who is judged when her house is messy or her three year old shows up to school without underwear on under her skirt.
Bottom line, inequality in the home is bad for women’s progress and the economy, bad for marriages, and bad for children.
The pandemic is amplifying what has always been true. Women disproportionately take on unpaid child and elder care responsibilities, causing major work obstacles. With ambitions chronically on-hold, receiving adequate wages, promotions, and a sense of fulfillment are less likely. But it’s not just bad for women, it’s bad for the economy. When more women work, economies grow.
Inequality in the home also leads to unhealthy relationships. Women who report that they do more child care than their husbands experience high resentment and are much less likely to describe their marriages as “very happy” than women who say responsibilities are shared. Research from the U.S, U.K. and Sweden has found that couples are more likely to separate when male partners participate less in the domestic sphere than couples in which men do more.
Finally, Children soak in parent dynamics. If we want them to grow up and expect equality in their relationships, we have to model an egalitarian household. That doesn't mean each partner must cook the exact same number of meals each week. It means, with all there is to do as a parent, ensuring one parent doesn't feel overloaded and under-appreciated. And that neither partner feels like they have to rigidly adhere to conventional gender roles. It’s difficult to model equality when one person is tasked as the air traffic controller, alerting everyone when and where to fly the planes while also flying some of the planes herself.
How to Explain the Mental Load to Your Partner and Make Changes:
1. Share this blog with your partner. Explain that you want to share the household management, not just the chores themselves.
2. Most definitely show him this awesome comic by French cartoonist Emma for clear and easy-to-understand examples.
3. Stop being grateful. You heard that right. Women are conditioned to expect little help at home so when they get anything, they feel like they should be grateful. Darcy Lockman in the Atlantic writes “misplaced gratitude, by supporting a couple’s unequal status quo, can help destroy rather than maintain a romantic relationship.” It’s okay to expect him to do his fair share.
4. Give him the stats: Men benefit more from marriage than women. Women are less satisfied in their marriages than men and tend to be the initiators of divorce. They are also happier than men after the divorce. Oh, and did I mention that taking on more of the childcare duties is associated with a better sex life? So yeah, gently remind him his happiness and his sex life is dependent on his marriage.
5. Ladies, thumb your nose at the culture. Forgo the homemade dessert for the potluck. Think of a messy house as revolutionary. Think of it as more time for your children or your writing or whatever. That certainly doesn’t solve the mental load but it’s one tiny thing off your plate.
6. A message to the guys: Don’t ask what you can do to help. Figure it out by yourself. You’re an equal partner not a junior associate. Scan the room for the mess, do the legwork for whoever needs to be hired, make the doctor’s appointment.