The final straw was dinner. I was going to scream if I had to prepare another meal for three children with temperamental tastes. Cooking stress me to the point that I struggled to make sense of it. Why was I so worried about getting enough ingredients to make another pot of spaghetti? Informally, the weight I felt was referred to as the mother load, or mental load.
Morgan Cutlip, PhD, a relationship expert for Love Thinks, an evidence-based education company, defines “the mother load” as this ongoing running list of everything you want to accomplish. There are things you spend your time researching, worrying about, and worrying about that no one notices – something invisible.
In cis-hetero romantic relationships (especially those involving children), women often shoulder the heavy burden of mental workload – the smaller details and tiny stressors that no one sees, but demand attention. The American Sociological Review published a study in 2019 involving 70 in-depth interviews with 35 couples. According to researchers, cognitive labor is a unique component of household management that involves anticipating needs, determining options for addressing them, making decisions, and monitoring progress. The researchers also concluded that cognitive labor contributes to gender inequality at the household level.
How about more? Being cognitively burdened impacts wellbeing in general. Psychologist Suniya Luthar, PhD, helped conduct a study published in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research in 2019 that explored the attitudes of 393 United States mothers with children at home. According to Dr. Luthar and her colleagues, the majority of the women in the study felt solely responsible for managing their children’s lives. Moreover, respondents reported a strain on their relationships as a result of this responsibility. So you are not alone if you are dealing with the mental load and it makes you unhappy.
In my case, I was planning on cooking and he was planning on washing dishes years ago. Still, I was slowly driving myself insane trying to figure out what to cook for my nine-year-old (who would only eat cooked vegetables), my five-year-old (who only ate raw vegetables), and my two-year-old (who only ate cheese). Keeping track of and catering to my children’s ever-changing quirks and cravings made preparing a daily meal an enormous logistical challenge. The time had come for me to break up with him.
The mental load you are experiencing may be more apparent to you than to your partner for caregivers suffering burnout. Having to describe invisible labor verbally may enable someone else to see it. But how would you deal with this delicate topic? To discuss strategies for easing the burden of mental load with your partner, I spoke with Drs. Cutlip and Luthar.
How to Talk About Mental Burdens With Your Partner
1. Make a list of everything you do.
All of the jobs you handle around the house may surprise you (and your partner). Big or small, it makes no difference. Include your thought processes in this list as well as the visible roles you play. Wherever feasible, try to think of concrete examples. Even if you don’t pass your list across the table when talking to your spouse about it, the exercise will help you put words to your contributions (and the toll they’re having on your health).
From the minute you wake up in the morning, Dr. Luthar recommends maintaining a voice journal of the different domestic chores you consider. “I would recommend having a separate file for the things that’s unseen,” she advises, adding that you can begin by doing it as a personal exercise.
2. Schedule a conversation time that is convenient for both of you.
It’s almost as crucial to find the perfect time to talk about mental load as it is to have the conversation. Dr. Luthar advises, “Make sure you’re discussing the matter at a time when both parties are relatively calm, and nobody is fatigued, exhausted, depressed, upset, or any of the above.” “In other words, are you tackling this complex group of topics in the most favourable circumstances?” If you go into the conversation expecting to fight, things may not go as planned.
3. Make a commitment to letting go of one thing at a time.
Couples may run into difficulties agreeing how to distribute home responsibilities (or whether to do so at all), but there is a creative solution to this impasse. You might be able to lighten the load elsewhere instead of focusing on one single duty or activity. “What can you do to help me [carve out time for myself] in other areas, if this is not something you’re ready to take?” Dr. Cutlip suggests asking a spouse.
4. Maintain the lesser load once it has been established.
If (and preferably when) your partner decides to help with some of the unseen work you’ve been doing, Dr. Luthar advises that you be prepared for the possibility that they won’t do a task to your standards. That’s OK. “Learning to be comfortable with letting a partner fail and figure it out a little bit is another way of helping them gain a better grasp of what you do,” Dr. Cutlip explains. The idea is to assist your partner develop empathy for the invisible weight you carry, not only to balance the household.
5. Make a list of your upcoming conversations ahead of time.
A single talk about domestic tasks is unlikely to totally alleviate the mental load. It shouldn’t have to be that way. It’s a good idea to check in with your partner on a frequent basis. “Schedule it on the calendar, [and] that’s one thing off her list,” Dr. Cutlip advises, because women are typically the ones who initiate the topic. The more you normalise a sense of self-awareness about the things you do that go undetected, the more work becomes obvious.
What about my nightly dinner drudgery? After a brief discussion, my husband agreed that we could alternate cooking and dishwashing. Now that he’s worried about preparing a toddler-approved meal, I’m free to bust suds in peace.
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