If you were able to enjoy a more leisurely pace this summer, it’s probably becoming a distant memory now that September is here. If you have kids, you’ve taken care of back-to-school shopping. Now you’re filling the calendar with the kids’ school events and other activities while trying to keep the household running and juggling everyone’s packed schedules.
And you’re probably doing most of this on your own, right?
Researchers have long noted that women still spend more time on household chores and childcare than men do (although men are doing better than they did in the past). But there’s another aspect of inequality in domestic responsibilities that’s starting to come to the forefront. And that’s the idea of mental load.
What Is Mental Load?
Mental load encompasses all the planning, scheduling, strategizing and anticipating that go into managing your home and family. It’s all the information you routinely keep track of: your kids’ teachers, best friends and clothing sizes — and on and on. It’s the running list of errands or home projects you keep in your head.
Women carry a higher mental load than men do. Being the only person who knows what needs to be done is extra work for you — even if your husband happily helps with household tasks when you ask.
You might see a lot of yourself and your husband in “You Should’ve Asked,” a comic about the mental load by an artist known as Emma.
“When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he’s viewing her as the manager of household chores,” Emma writes. Being the household manager and organizer, she adds, is basically a full-time job.
Part of women’s mental load is also thinking more about the “big picture” than their male partners often do. Did you cringe at the scene in the comic where the woman asks her husband to take the baby’s bottle out of the dishwasher? He does — but leaves the rest of the clean dishes inside.
How to Share the Mental Load
Shouldering the majority of your household’s mental load over the long term is a recipe for resentment that will ultimately damage your marriage.
So how can you and your husband redistribute the mental load differently?
First, it’s always best to talk about the situation openly. He may notice that you’re stressed but not understand that this stress is related to your mental load — which means that he doesn’t know what needs to change. And if you’ve been dropping hints, it’s not a very effective way to communicate.
We all go into marriage with our own “scripts” about how things should be. Those scripts are shaped by the families we grew up with and by the culture as a whole. It’s easy to think that our script is the same as everyone else’s, but that isn’t the case. For example, your husband might assume that the way his parents’ marriage worked is just the way that all marriages work.
Remember, though, that inequities in how the two of you handle your family’s mental load could also stem from your script. As women, we grow up hearing lots of messages about how we should tirelessly devote ourselves to the needs of others.
Compare your scripts so that you can understand and empathize with where the other person is coming from. Once you’ve opened the conversation, the next step is working together to negotiate who is fully responsible for managing various tasks. Maybe that means he takes over planning meals and making the grocery list while you cook. Perhaps he takes the lead with your daughter’s gymnastics lessons while you manage her school activities. It doesn’t matter how you distribute the work. What’s important is that it feels fair to both of you.
If particular tasks need to be done by a certain time, identify the time frame so both of you have the same expectations. If one of you is better at a task, go ahead and play to your strengths and let that person be responsible for it. Same thing if you care more about a particular area — you should be the one in charge of it.
As more of the mental load shifts to your husband, you may find yourself having difficulty letting go. You will have to grapple with your own perfectionism or anxiety about not being in charge. If you find yourself micromanaging tasks that you both agreed he would manage, he’s likely to get upset with you.
You have to trust your husband and give him space to figure out his own system for managing his responsibilities. After all, he is an adult. He may not do things in the same way you do, or do them to your standards. But it’s healthier to redefine your definition of “good enough” than to continue to carry your whole family’s mental load.
Talking about mental load with your husband and working together on changes might not be easy. But it will improve your marriage and help you set a better example for your kids. If you’d like more practical advice on balancing marriage, family and career, you’ll enjoy my book Strong Women, Strong Love.