Women are realising that they continue to hold the responsibility of making sure things get done, and that this mental burden takes a toll on wellbeing.
In most progressive households, couples often split the household responsibilities quite evenly. However, studies have found that there is often still one person who ends up with a heavier “mental load”.
This has recently become a topic of discussion, despite the fact that men are contributing more to the care of children and the household now than ever before. However, women are realising that they continue to hold the responsibility of making sure things get done, and that this mental burden takes a toll on wellbeing.
What is this mental load?
The mental load, sometimes referred to as “cognitive labour” or “worry work” is a term used to describe the invisible labour that comes with managing a family and a household.
This mental load, perhaps unsurprisingly, typically falls on the shoulders of women. Many studies have shown that women still do the bulk of housework and childcare even though the majority of couples aim to split their responsibilities 50:50.
Research has also indicated that women tend to perform more cognitive and emotional labour than men when it comes to household responsibilities. They are more likely to worry about childcare even when they are away from their children. This adds an extra layer of stress as the worry is constantly present, even when you should be focusing on other things that require your immediate attention.
At the end of the day, picking school drop offs and pick-ups are not only about the physical act of driving there and back. It also encompasses the perpetual awareness of schedules, carpools, lunchboxes, playdates, which kid need which supplies for which day and so on. These are some of the things that are constantly on a mother’s mind and that require constant mental presence.
Generally, the mental load is not about physical tasks, but about the management and oversight of these tasks. It is about having a to-do list that seems never-ending and so ends up constantly running through your head all day long.
There might be a voice in your head that reminds you of everything that needs to get done, by what day and what time. That voice may also be reminding you to delegate tasks to other family members or close friend, but at the same time might also warn of you of the risks of doing that- emphasizing the need for follow up to ensure that they actually get done.
A study published by the American Sociological Review described the mental load as the feeling of accountability and responsibility of “anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions and monitoring their progress”.
Experts have categorised this hidden mental load into three overlapping categories: cognitive labour, emotional labour, and mental load.
Cognitive labour refers to thinking about the different practical elements of household responsibilities. Examples could be organising playdates, preparing shopping lists and planning different activities for the family.
Emotional labour is, as the term suggests, supporting the family emotionally, calming things down when the children are anxious or acting up. It could even be worrying about how the children are coping in certain situations and how they are doing in school.
Mental load is where cognitive labour and emotional labour intersect. It involves organising, preparing, anticipating what needs to get done and when in order for life to flow” normally” (both the emotionally and practically).
Why does this mental load often affect women more than men?
A study that looked at gendered outcomes to de-gendered processes in the household described how men and women explained the different gendered behaviours.
Both suggested that the unequal division of mental labour was due to one partner working longer hours than the other. Another reason that was mentioned by both women and men was that women tend to be more “temperamentally interested in being organised”.
Therefore, to a large extent, the study showed that a combination of both personality differences and work constraints were the driving force behind these inequalities.
However, other studies have debunked the myth that women are better organised, explaining that they aren’t naturally better at planning ahead or multitasking- they are just expected to do it more often than men and so, eventually, they become better at it.
There are additional, more structural reasons as to why women continue to carry most of the mental load such as the notion that women will often find ways to work flexibly whereas men’s jobs are considered more rigid, and their careers are traditionally more linear.
Having this perceived flexibility allows women to be more available for childcare and so, since they have to do more of it, they think about all the tasks and requirements associated with it more.
In addition, gendered expectations resoundingly have an influence over gendered roles and expectations.
Gendered expectations often start from birth, and this can explain why ideas around how the housework are split and why how managing childcare is ingrained at a very early stage.
Traditionally, the home is mainly seen as the woman’s domain and women have been scientifically proven to be judged more harshly than men when it comes to neatness and organisation. These ideas eventually become self-perpetuating.
How does the mental load affect health?
Studies have shown that an increased mental load is, perhaps unsurprisingly, linked to strains on mothers’ mental health and overall wellbeing.
In addition, women tend to report lower relationship satisfaction as a result. Almost nine in 10 mothers say they feel solely responsible for organising their family’s schedules and that this has triggered feelings of exhaustion and left them feeling overwhelmed and unable to make time for their own self-care.
A large percentage of working mothers who also feel like it’s their job to manage their children’s schedules end up feeling burnout from the weight of these responsibilities.
Since the start of the pandemic, the link between gender equality at home and women’s participation in the workforce have been more in the spotlight than ever before. Even with the systemic, ingrained issues that play a role, tackling hidden household labour (be it physical, mental or emotional) could help ease this mental burden on women.
Only through explaining to your spouse and family members and talking about explicitly how much planning is involved in every aspect of the household when it comes to chores, responsibilities and childcare, will the hidden work will be much clearer.
Given that men generally want to be more involved in their children’s lives, talking about things honestly and openly and dividing mental load and physical tasks can provide much needed relief.
Maha El Akoum, MPH, is a public health professional currently working as Head of Content at World Innovation Summit for Health [WISH].