The mental load: What is it and how to help manage it?
mother baby playing on concrete

Parenthood

We need to talk about… The mental load

by Jessica Bosco | posted 9th February, 2021

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A friend once told me that she had given herself the title of ‘Minister of Home Affairs’ when she was on maternity leave. She had suddenly found herself doing all the things around the house, and after leaving her fancy job in the corporate world she liked having something that felt a little more official for all the extra tasks she now found herself doing.

Her husband was very hands-on with the kids but still like so many mums, the home and everything to do with it suddenly fell under her jurisdiction.

Even with a partner who helps out and is “hands-on” the thing is, the mental load still falls predominantly on the mother.

We’re guessing if you’re a mum you already know what it is, but it usually goes a little something like this…

You’re cooking dinner – yelling out a 10-minute warning to the kids to start packing up their toys knowing full-well they won’t – whilst checking the muffins in the oven that you’re making for school lunches because you feel guilty about all the store-bought ones they’ve been taking lately. You’re adding items to the shopping list on the fridge whilst checking emails and singing along to the wiggles and answering questions like, ‘what happened to all the dinosaurs?’ as you serve up dinner. No tomatoes on one, cucumber cut long ways for one and sliced for the other.

You survive dinner, trying to be present and ask the kids about their day whilst mentally taking note of the proportion of nutrition that actually entered your toddler’s mouth versus how much ended up on the floor. The next hour is a flurry of baths/chasing naked bodies around the house trying to get them dressed/read books/bottles/teeth (did they brush their teeth well enough? Do I need to take them to the dentist yet? Mental note to google that later…) whilst trying to get them to help you clean up their toys (which you just end up doing yourself).

You finally get them into bed and they want to snuggle but you know there is a bombsite waiting for you to clean up in the kitchen. But you want to be present with them. Cue the guilt. You suddenly think back over the course and of the day and realise you didn’t really have any 1:1 time with them at all. So you agree to 5 more minutes. You fall asleep. You wake up disoriented and walk out to find the mess still waiting for you. Your partner helps but it’s never quite 100% done. You finish cleaning up and then sit down and try to ask your partner about their day but find your mind wandering as you realise the uniform your kid needs to wear the next day is dirty. You quickly throw a load of washing on.

You watch approximately 13 minutes of TV before falling asleep on the couch. You wake up at 11:30 pm and stumble into your bed where you find yourself lying wide awake. Did I check on kids? You jump back up and go back in and check that they’re breathing/not too cold/hot/have their favourite teddy and spend god knows how long staring at them and thinking how perfect they look whilst they sleep. You double-check you locked the front door before crawling back into bed. Did I remember to book the plumber? I forgot to pay the electricity bill. I haven’t been to the gym in months, maybe I should just cancel it… I hope I’m a good mum. I hope I’m a good wife. Then you finally drift off when suddenly you’re woken by your toddler having a bad dream…

Does this sound familiar?

The mental load is everything we do as mums or primary caregivers, all the behind-the-scenes invisible labour that no one else sees because we just get it done. And mums are awesome at “getting shit done”.

It’s the household that runs smoothly, it’s the appointments that get made and met. It’s the gifts that we take to birthday parties, the groceries we buy to make the healthy snacks that get eaten all day long. It’s the research we do about how to toilet train our kids before we embark on it. It’s the spare roll of toilet paper that’s hidden so we never run out. It’s washing your toddler’s favourite t-shirt every night because they demand to wear it daily.

mother holding baby looking out window

As mums, our minds are always on. Whether it’s our mental to-do list, multitasking or needing to be 3 steps ahead of our dare-devil toddler at all times making sure there’s nothing they can injure themselves on. It’s the planning, organising, delegating. And the worrying. And this is why mums are exhausted.

As the children get older the sleepless nights become less and less but the mental exhaustion only seems to grow. We wonder why we still feel tired when our baby starts sleeping through the night.

Sure motherhood is physically exhausting, chasing after busy toddlers/preschoolers or keeping up with bigger kids is a lot. But the mental and emotional load that you don’t see is just as taxing.

Now look we’re not dissing the dads/partners here and we’re not saying this is 100% true for everyone and every household. But the stats are pretty clear that in most Aussie households the mental load is falling predominantly on the mother.

A 2019 survey found that women who earned the same income as their partners were still doing seven hours more housework per week (plus an extra seven of childcare). And even where the woman was the main income earner they were still averaging five more hours per week unpaid work than their partner.

If you embrace the role of ‘Minister for Home Affairs’ or ‘Household CEO’ and it brings you joy that’s great. But if you find yourself drowning under the weight of it, then it might be time to think about how it is affecting you and what you can do.

In reality, we know, that if half the stuff on our lists didn’t get done, we would probably all survive.. but we love our families and we want the absolute best for them. So what do we do?

Ways to help you manage the mental load

Talk to your partner

Explain to them how you are feeling, don’t go in accusing them of not doing enough, but explain to them why you are struggling. If you just continue to do everything then you will burn out. Partners are often much more willing to help out than we think they just don’t know what to do. Sure you wish you didn’t have to ask, but the reality is sometimes things just need to be spelled out for everyone’s sanity.

Make the invisible visible

Part of the problem with the mental load is that it’s invisible and that’s where the problem lies. So plan regular check-ins, once a week or once a month sit down and plan out what’s coming up and who needs to do what.

Delegate

But don’t just bark orders once something is not done or when you’re at breaking point. Have these conversations in advance about what jobs/tasks need to be owned and completed by your partner/kids. Kids love taking ownership and feeling important so make them a part of the process. And hold them accountable for their responsibilities.

Outsource

If your partner has a demanding job, or certain tasks aren’t their strengths (and you know you’ll end up doing them anyway) look if there are ways to outsource them to take them off both your plates. Create a list of priorities and work through them from the most important to the least.

Lower your expectations

This is an important one for us mums. Both for specific tasks but just for motherhood in general. And as women, we often joke, ‘if you want something done right just do it yourself’. But this doesn’t always serve us. We might love a pristine house but the reality of life with young kids is that mess is unavoidable. You will get your immaculate house back eventually but for now, cut yourself some slack.

Look after yourself

The reality is us mums are probably always going to carry that load a little more. It’s in our nature because we love our family and want the very best for them. But make sure you don’t forget about yourself in the mix. Take time out for yourself, schedule some mum-time into the family calendar and find ways to switch off your brain and put that mental to-do list on snooze. Whether it’s listening to a meditation or a trashy TV show, time for you is just as important as the rest of the stuff on your to-do list.

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