Dinner was the final straw. If I had to think of one more meal that somehow managed to suit the temperamental taste buds of three small children, I was going to scream. Planning what to cook stressed me in ways that barely made sense to me. Why was I getting so worked up over whether I had enough ingredients for another pot of spaghetti? The weight I felt had a name: the mental load, or more informally, the mother load.
"The mother load is this invisible, ongoing running list of all of the to-dos you carry around in your head," explains Morgan Cutlip, PhD, a relationship expert for Love Thinks, LLC, an evidence-based relationship education company. "These are the things that you research, you worry about, you take care of that nobody notices, and this sort of load that you carry is invisible.”
While anyone can carry the burden of mental labor—the small details and tiny stressors that no one sees but require attention—in cis-hetero romantic partnerships (especially those involving children) this work often falls on women. A 2019 study published in the American Sociological Review involved 70 in-depth interviews with 35 couples. Researchers found that the mental load is a unique component of household management that involves "anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress." The researchers also concluded that cognitive labor contributes to gender inequality at the household level.
What's more? Carrying the cognitive load impacts overall wellbeing. Suniya Luthar, PhD, developmental and clinical psychologist, helped conduct a study published in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research in 2019 that explored the attitudes of 393 mothers in the United States who had children in their homes. Dr. Luthar and her colleagues found that most of the women in the study felt they alone carried the burden of organizing and their children's lives. They also found that this responsibility put a strain on overall wellbeing and satisfaction within the respondents' relationships. So if you're dealing with the mental load and it's making you unhappy, you're not alone.
In my case, my husband and I had decided years ago, I would cook, and he would wash the dishes. Still, I was slowly driving myself up a wall trying to find creative dinners for my 9-year-old (who only ate cooked vegetables), my 5-year-old (who only ate raw veggies), and my 2-year-old (who only wanted cheese). Remembering and catering to the everchanging quirks and cravings of my children turned a daily meal into a high-stakes logistical nightmare. I knew I had to pony up the nerve to tell him our arrangement no longer worked for me.
For caregivers facing burnout, the mental load is likely more apparent to you than it might to your partner. Invisible labor, as it is sometimes called, may have to be verbalized for someone else to see it. But how can you approach this delicate topic with your partner? I spoke with Dr. Cutlip and Dr. Luthar to find strategies for talking to your partner about easing the mental load.
5 Ways To Talk to Your Partner About Carrying the Mental Load
1. Take note of all the things you do
It might surprise you (and your partner) to see all the tasks you take care of in the house. Big or small. But don’t limit this list to the visible roles you perform; include your thought processes. Try and think of concrete examples wherever possible. Even if you don't slide your list across the table when discussing it with your partner, the exercise will help you to put language around your contributions (and the toll they're taking on your wellbeing).
Dr. Luthar suggests keeping a voice diary of the various household responsibilities you think about from the moment you wake up in the morning. "I would say, have a separate file for the stuff that’s invisible," she says, explaining that you can start it as an exercise for yourself first.
2. Choose a good time to talk
Finding the right time to talk about the mental load is almost as important as the discussion itself. "Make sure that you're approaching the subject at a time when both parties are relatively calm, and nobody's tired or exhausted or depressed or stressed, or any of the above," Dr. Luthar says. "In other words, have the most propitious circumstances also approaching this delicate set of issues." If you go into the conversation ready for combat, the outcome may not end how you hoped.
3. Agree to let go of one thing at a time
Couples might hit snags when deciding how to reapportion household tasks (or deciding whether to do it at all), but there is a creative workaround to this impasse. Instead of focusing on one particular chore or activity, you may be able to lessen the load elsewhere. Dr. Cutlip advises asking a partner, “What can you do to help me [carve out time for myself] in other areas, if this is not something you're willing to take?”
4. Once the load is lighter, keep it that way
If (and hopefully when) your partner agrees to carry some of the invisible labor you’ve been shouldering, Dr. Luthar suggests that you prepare for the idea that your partner might not perform a task to your standard. That’s okay. "Learning to be comfortable with letting a partner fail and figure it out a little bit is another way of helping them get a better understanding of what you do because a lot of times we just take care of it before they have a chance to,” Dr. Cutlip says. The goal is not just to balance the housework, but to help your partner develop empathy for the invisible weight that you carry.
5. Schedule your next conversations ahead of time
Lightening the mental load probably won't be completely resolved with one conversation about household chores. And it shouldn’t have to. It’s helpful to make checking in with your partner a regular occurrence. Since women are usually the ones tasked with initiating the conversation, says Dr. Cutlip, "schedule it on the calendar, [and] that’s one thing off of her list." The more you normalize an awareness of the things you do that go unnoticed, the more the labor becomes visible.
As for my nightly dinner doldrums? My husband agreed after a chat that we could alternate cooking and washing dishes. Now he shares the worry about planning a toddler-approved dinner, I can bust suds in peace.
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