Mental Load: What Is It And How Does It Impact Our Wellbeing? 

Recognizing the burden of invisible labor

Even in the most progressive, forward-thinking households where tasks are “equally shared” and the partnership dynamic is “egalitarian,” there’s often one person who defaults to a role known in workplaces as the “project manager”. This person often finds themselves planning behind the scenes, managing the day-to-day chaos, and the general “thinking” work it takes to get a family out the door. This invisible work – often happening inside this person’s head – is unrelenting and never-ending, and can often lead to a sinking feeling of overwhelm. That sinking feeling is known as the mental load. 

The mental load, also known as cognitive labor, refers to the invisible and ongoing tasks involved in managing a family, which typically defaults to women. A study by American Sociological Review identifies the mental load as the work of "anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress.”

On top of the mental load, there’s the very real and often, very messy, work of household labor; defined as a set of physical tasks like cooking, cleaning, and shopping, that are required to keep a family afloat. The difference between the mental load and household labor is that one isn’t as easy to categorize in a chore chart. 

The mental load, which is also referred to as “worry work,” is all about overseeing the intricate web of tasks and schedules that chug along behind the scenes. If you’re performing cognitive labor, you’re the one with to-dos running on repeat in your head, the one remembering where the lost helmet is always hiding, the one delegating the tasks, and following up to make sure they actually get done. 

Though women make up half the workforce, their paid labor and the economic drive it informs are barely reflected in current United States policies. In fact, about 70% of U.S. moms can expect to be primary financial providers before their children turn 18. As if unpaid household labor and the mental load aren’t enough, there’s the reality that caregiving has hardly changed in the past century. Despite roles outside of the home, women dedicate an average 3.2x more time to unpaid care work than men. That’s 4 hours and 25 minutes per day for women against 1 hour and 23 minutes. These daily commitments materialize as inequality in earning potential for women when they reach the parenthood stage. This effect is known as “The Motherhood Penalty”—where mothers make 58 cents for every dollar paid to fathers.  

How Mental Load Manifests

We know the mental load is real. But you might be surprised at just how often it can show up. Here are a few examples:

“Let me know if you need anything!”

This well-intended refrain repeated by partners around the world was immortalized by a comic that shed light on the mental load in 2017.  

A last-minute sick day call from the nurse

Women are 8x more likely to manage their kids' schedules and care for them when they're sick.

Making to-do lists, grocery lists, or chore charts

Giving reminders or offering praise for the completion of necessary chores around the house

Giving reminders or offering praise for the completion of necessary chores around the house

This idea was captured brilliantly in Gemma Hartley’s 2017 essay in Harper’s Bazaar titled “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up.”

How The Mental Load Effects Women

Since the mental load is incredibly taxing but often invisible to both the cognitive laborer and their partner, it can easily be a source of relational conflict. Anticipating and executing the needs of a family, especially while balancing work and hobbies of one’s own, can feel impossible. It’s worth noting that anyone can find themselves carrying a relationship’s mental load, regardless of gender. Based on a 2015 report, same-gender couples tend to share household responsibilities more equally. This is done by dividing tasks up based on things like preference and work hours.

A 2019 study of 35 heterosexual couples found that the women in the relationships tend to take on more of the cognitive labor. This was found to be particularly true when it came to anticipating the needs of others. This ongoing anticipation can wear down the margins in a person’s life, the spaces where they could find time for their interests, their work, and even to be alone. Invisible labor is labor. Here are some helpful ways to begin to share the mental load. 

3 Tips For Minimizing the Mental Load

  • Talk about it.
    Talk about what your partner might not be noticing. And talk about your fears and hopes for dividing labor, seen and unseen more equally. Offer concrete examples. Share studies. Try reading Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home by Kate Mangino or gamifying the conversation through The Fair Play Deck: A Couple's Conversation Deck for Prioritizing What's Important.
  • Aim to share management, not just tasks.
    Starting by splitting household labor and care work is great. Take the exercise a step further by working to share the mental load of management. Maybe your partner lists their number on the classroom parent volunteer list. Perhaps they own this fall’s soccer league—from sign up to snack duty. Clinical psychologist Lina Perl, Psy.D., even has a script. “I feel uncomfortable delegating activities—it's a big job to be a manager. I'd rather we look at what needs to be done and decide together how to divide it up. Then I won't feel like I'm nagging everyone all the time.”
  • Release control.
    It’s not always perfect. And especially after years of managing a task, or using the rationale, “I’ll just do it,” old habits die hard. When you trust your partner to take on the mental load, you loosen your grip on the details. If your partner takes over laundry, they might use a detergent you’ve never seen or dry the dinner napkins you always hang dry. Resentfully swooping in with a redo only reinforces the cycle of cognitive labor. 

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