The “mental load” is a relatively new name for an age-old concept: “the emotional labor of being responsible for the management of your family.” Family management is most easily described as “being in charge of all of the remembering.” Remembering to schedule everybody’s doctor’s appointments; remembering to keep up with the laundry; remembering to do the meal plan and grocery shopping; remembering when to sign up your six-year-old for baseball; essentially remembering to do all of the things that keep your family moving along smoothly. This mental load has been on women for as long as families as we know them have been a part of society, but many other things that factor into our lives have changed drastically. More and more women are working in demanding careers outside of the home, on top of being more involved in their communities: in outreach programs, social justice work, and politics, to name a few examples. With all of these added complexities in women’s daily lives, it would make sense for the household responsibility to have shifted toward a more even split between partners. However, this is often not the case.
So why do women still carry the majority of the mental load in family management? This is how many of us were raised, and it feels normal for the moms to be in charge of the house. As a society, we reinforce this stereotype by portraying dads as lovable but goofy around the home, who simply aren’t capable of being able to keep up with the demands of a household. Not only is this setting up mothers (especially mothers who work outside of the home, and have household responsibilities to come home to after a full 40-hour work week) for failure, but it is insulting to most fathers who are absolutely capable of managing households.
The mental load is something that is absolutely crucial to be talked about, especially within our families. Because the societal norm that many people grew up with was that of the mother being in charge of the household, many don’t realize exactly what the problem is. If you don’t know what the problem is, you can’t begin to know how to fix it. This requires open and honest communication, which is crucial in a marriage. When you feel overwhelmed, you have to tell your spouse, in a loving but honest way, exactly why you’re feeling this way and what they can do to help. This does not mean delegating chores to your spouse, as that will only breed resentment. It’s important, rather, to have honest discussions about what household tasks are expected to be done and then work through splitting them somewhat evenly between both partners.
If you’re not quite ready for splitting everything down the middle, start small. Ask for help when you need it, and then let them help. A problem many mothers and women have is asking for help, and then getting frustrated when that help isn’t exactly what we would have done ourselves. This is familial micromanagement and can be damaging to relationships. Consider if it is really that important for your shirts to be folded in the exact matter that you prefer they be folded, or if it’s most important for them to not be in a giant pile on your corner chair. And yes, we know about the chair. We all have that chair.
The most important thing to remember when splitting these tasks up is not to focus only on the chores. Yes, they’re important, and should be split relatively evenly (noting that this equality will ebb and flow depending on what else is going on at the time in your lives), but more importantly, what often doesn’t get discussed is splitting up the family management tasks. Maybe have one partner in charge of managing the sports (signing up junior for baseball and handling snacks, etc.) and have the other partner in charge of medical appointments. If one partner is in charge of meal planning, have the other responsible for maintaining the household shopping, such as toilet paper and bathing necessities. This balance will look different for each family, but it is worth the time you put into figuring it out for the amount of stress that you will remove from your life with this choice.