The Mental Load

By Emma Atkinson, Midwife

Mental Load

Is this phrase something you have heard of? Mental load which includes emotional labour, is the invisible labour and brain effort made to manage a household, family, employment and relationships. It is the preparing, organising, anticipating, planning work needed to keep life running smoothly. This is an important concept to understand so that it can be discussed and shared, then everyone gets the benefit of and takes responsibility for, leading full and complete lives.

Carrying the mental load of life gets a bad rap as it can be very stressful and takes up a lot of time and energy. The tasks involved often go unnoticed, are repetitive, time sensitive and relentless. However, these tasks are vital to keep the wheels of life turning. Examples include, knowing where things are kept, seeing tasks that need to be completed, food likes and dislikes, planning uniforms, activities, and birthdays. Unequal shares of emotional labour can lead to resentment and burnout and diminish the quality of relationships.

Completing emotional labour improves our quality of life as it maintains social connections and gives us meaning. It is positive in that it means we are completely engaged in our lives, making active choices and deepening relationships.

Generally, women are socialised to do this, and men are not. When women let go of control of these components of family life, they invite their partners to learn how to do them. Creating balance in this work is a lot to do with playing to strengths and personality types and so people in same sex relationships often have these conversations more actively as they are not relying on gender norms.

So, how do you have this conversation in your family? It may start by having to explain what emotional labour is and how it is impacting you. Talk about how you have both been raised and cultural expectations on you both. And your expectations of each other and all family members. Sit down together and discuss how much emotional labour each person is doing, and how this could be more evenly shared to suit your family. Children can be encouraged to participate in the emotional labour of the family so that they too are fully participating in family life. This may be an ongoing conversation as more layers are uncovered.

It can be difficult to let go of and support the uptake of control, by other people, especially as they may not complete tasks as you would. If you are used to completing all the laundry, laundry will still be on your mind, but how and when the laundry is completed will no longer be your decision. It can be hard to not judge different approaches and to expect people to fail at their new responsibilities. There may need to be some teaching involved and trial and error expected in taking on new tasks. Trying not to micromanage and giving positive feedback go a long way in encouraging new skills to develop. It is a process. It is common to feel guilt in releasing what has been seen as a female domain, and it is hard to let go of perfectionism. However, sharing this work improves everyone’s lives by having a partnership working towards the families values and goals and giving everyone space to develop their relationships and feel connected and seen. Knowing and understanding your social network and prioritising deepening connections improves health and wellbeing for everyone. Feeling like a productive and necessary part of a team is incredibly rewarding and increases happiness. Sharing the load allows everyone to play to their strengths and reduces resentment and burnout or overwhelm. Therefore, it is worth working through any feelings associated with changing the balance. Start setting boundaries and identifying your values as a family, and do the work that aligns with these, even if others, such as extended family members, are disappointed or inconvenienced.

For more information

Check out “Fed Up” by Gemma Hartley, or the work of Elyse McNeil and Eve Rod who have handy checklists and resources, and Gretchen Rubin who shows the value of this work.

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Western Australian Centre for Perinatal Mental Health & Parenting Support (WACPPS) provides services to help parents navigate the challenging but rewarding journey of parenting.

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