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Mental Load: Women’s Invisible Workload

You are probably familiar with the term gender care gap, but are you familiar with the term “mental load”?

Over the past few years, the subject of mental load (sometimes also known as cognitive load) has garnered more and more interest. Especially since the French comic artist Emma published her now-famous comic about women and mental load in the Guardian.

Mental load can be defined as all the work that keeps a household running but stays invisible – and in heterosexual couples it’s often women taking on this mental load. Studies have found that women spend more time on tasks like childcare and domestic chores than men.

In this article, we take a closer look at what the term means and how you can overcome it.

Table of contents


What is mental load?

Take a look at this example where an apparently equal share of labor isn’t what it seems.

To celebrate their birthday, a child takes a homemade cake to daycare. Dad does the grocery shopping, mom bakes. Seems like a fair division of work, right? But who wrote the shopping list? Who checked whether all ingredients were at hand? Who asked teachers at the daycare about any food sensitivities they should be aware of, and then took them into account when looking for a recipe?

At first glance, it seemed that the work to prepare this cake was shared equally by both parents, but on closer inspection we discover that the woman actually has a number of invisible tasks on top of the cake preparation.

Women take on most of the mental load

According to a study by Families and Work Institute women do most of this “invisible work” in heterosexual relationships.. Partners declaring: “You should’ve just asked for my help” are, in fact, no big help, because this doesn’t share the mental load.

Taking on the mental load turns the woman into the project manager of the whole family and household. She bears the responsibility, delegates tasks and follows up with them, while also having to take care of her own tasks.

If she stopped organizing and planning, there would soon be consequences: No appointments with the doctor, no birthday gifts, no milk and toilet paper. Even though mental load is often more evident in families with children, it can also manifest itself in child-free couples, office workers or a group of friends.


Work, leisure, relationships: the consequences of mental load

The pressure that comes with mental load has far-reaching consequences. Energy is a finite resource and multiple responsibilities can lead to women giving up on a more ambitious career or a full-time job.

Not to mention, mental load can also directly impact your job performance. Most people cannot pay the same amount of attention to two tasks, so how does the never-ending to-do list in women's minds influence their work? It keeps them from focusing on it. Leisure time can also suffer: After all, who can relax if the next birthday party needs to be planned? Additionally, it leaves little time to take care of romantic relationships and might even result in burnouts.

Luckily, there are plenty of actions you can take to share mental load with your partner. Here are a few of them.


Readjusting mental load

1. Raise awareness

Since the mental load is invisible, you can make it more tangible by raising awareness of it. You can forward a few articles about the issue to your partner. When you are addressing the topic, try to be clear by explaining that you wish to share the tasks as well as the responsibility. Prepare some examples to explain the issue better.

2. Take inventory

A good way to tackle the topic is by taking stock of all the visible and invisible tasks concerning family and home. Write down everything. For example, instead of just “bake a cake”, break this task into all the little ones that make it up: “find a recipe, write a shopping list...”. Don’t forget about tasks that you perform less frequently, like taxes, dry cleaning or cutting hedges. Finally, note down who is usually responsible for these tasks.

In the next step you will divide these tasks in a way that seems fair for both of you. Before you start, ask yourself if there’s anything you’ve listed that you enjoy doing so much that you would like to be responsible for at all times. For example, if your partner enjoys buying shoes for the children, they can volunteer to be the only one responsible for their shoes. They would take the children shoe shopping and keep in mind when new shoes are needed. Maybe, on the other hand, your partner is tired of always trimming the hedge and you would like to take over this task.

By splitting all tasks into subtasks and assigning them to one partner, they vanish from the other partner's inner to-do list, thereby lowering their mental load.

Of course, there are probably tasks none of you would volunteer for. If you find them really odious, you can delegate them to an external service (e.g. food delivery), buy a dedicated device (like a Roomba), or take monthly turns.

Who knows, you might even find tasks that you could take off your list permanently.

3. Knowledge transfer

Often, when you go on a vacation or are out sick, there’s someone at work who covers for you. Maybe they don’t do all of your work, and probably they don’t do it your way, but they have all the intel on the most critical topics. This is exactly how you should handle information in your family.

Though everyone might have their very own areas of expertise, important information – like your doctor’s contact information or the phone number and names of your kid’s closest friends – should be accessible to all. You should also ensure that you and your partner’s contact details are available to teachers in school and kindergarten. That way, it hopefully won’t always be the same parent who is called to pick up a sick child from school.

4. Good enough is good enough

We all have our ideas of how tasks should be carried out and there's probably been moments where you caught yourself thinking, “I might as well have done it myself!” And to be clear, because mothers often spend more time with household chores and childcare, they tend to be more experienced. But moms weren’t born with the knowledge of how to select the perfect winter coat for a child. They did research and learned from experience. Dads can do this, too.

Maybe things don't turn out perfect straight away, but what’s the worst that could happen? The worst case is usually not as dramatic as we imagine and learning to let go could help you alleviate your mental load. When in doubt, the less experienced person in the couple can ask their partner for advice, but then perform the task on their own.

5. Digital assistance

Whether it’s through a shared shopping list or a shared calendar, you can organize your private life with digital apps and task management tools, which makes the organization of work more manageable.

6. Regular check-ins

Significant changes often require some adjustments every now and then. This is why you should plan regular check-ins, where you can review the process. What worked well and where you see potential for improvements? Are you sharing the mental load equally, or do you need to modify the workflow? Did you forget any tasks that you’d like to add?



Final thoughts

Mental load can be a real headache, but is not a law of nature that you have to put up with. By openly addressing the issue at hand, you can take matters into your own hands and actively work towards a relationship based on true partnership.


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