Picture this, you’re holding your 1-year-old, and your toddler comes crying, asking if you have seen her favorite teddy bear. The kitchen is a mess, you haven’t gotten dinner started, and that load of laundry is still waiting for you to fold it. Sounds like a lot, right?
In most families, a point person (read: mom) takes care of all the family and household responsibilities. These responsibilities can range from taking care of the kids to cleaning, cooking, and everything in between. Basically, they handle all the tasks required to keep the home and family functioning.
But the list of things to do can feel endless, and the mental toll of handling it all can overwhelm and tire even the best of us. This mental toll is also referred to as the mother load, and for many women, it weighs us down, leaving us wondering whether we got the short end of the stick.
What exactly is the Mother Load?
This blanket term refers to all the invisible work that goes into taking care of the family. It is the cognitive labor that goes into the unseen but necessary tasks needed to keep the family and home running. This includes the planning, remembering, organizing, and worrying about everything tasks require. It is a lot of work, and unfortunately, most, if not all, of this mental load is shouldered by mothers.
When my client’s son was 2, she got invited to dinner by her husband’s colleague on a weeknight. At first glance, it looked like a great way to spend a Thursday evening. Someone else was cooking, and she could kick back and relax. Since they also had young kids, she assumed she didn’t have to worry about dinner running too late. Perfect, right?
But while her husband simply guaranteed they were available, he figuratively washed his hands of any further responsibility. She, on the other hand, had a growing list of all the things that needed to get done for this dinner to happen, even though she wasn’t the one hosting it. While all he had to do was show up on time, she had to arrange a babysitter, prepare everything for their son, leave work early, pick up a gift, and get there on time.
No one asked her to do all these things. She just thought of all the things that needed to get done for them to make it to this dinner and did them.
How Does It Affect Your Life As A Mom And Partner?
Every task has a mental load. Even simple things like buying groceries, doing the laundry, taking the kids to soccer practice, or planning a playdate. This happens so often, every day, but the mental toll this invisible load takes on women is evident. A survey by Bright Horizons found that over 85% of working moms still handle all their family and household responsibilities, while over 50% said they were burning out because of all these responsibilities.
Since this load is often mental, it is invisible, and your partner has no idea that it is overwhelming you. A study by the Australian National University found a 20% increase in drinking during the pandemic lockdown. The women who had extra caregiving responsibilities drank even more. The stress of dealing with their paid work and the added family and household responsibilities was too much.
Handling this mental load by yourself can have other negative effects such as:
- Increased stress, anxiety, and even depression
- Anger and irritability
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Resenting how ‘easy’ your partner has it
- Breeding contempt for your partner (link to why so many couples fight)
- Defensiveness and stonewalling, especially when you feel like your partner leaves you to handle everything by yourself
What Can You Do To Split The Load With Your Partner?
When asked, most women want help with pretty much everything. So, where do we start? Here are several tips on splitting the mental load with your partner.
- Help your partner understand what sharing this load means
Sharing the mental load isn’t as simple as asking your partner to take out the trash, help the children with their homework, or put them to sleep. The whole point of offloading these tasks is not feeling responsible for them or needing to tell your partner to do them. You are trying to remove yourself from the position of responsibility.
That is why it’s essential to help your partner understand what sharing this load means. They need to take responsibility for not only doing the actual tasks but also thinking and knowing about what is required. While talking about this, you need to be open about your experiences, so they can understand what it would require to take a portion of your metal load.
Make an effort to not get angry or defensive when they question some of the tasks. It’s easy to feel hurt when your partner doesn’t understand how you feel. Rather than shut down the conversation, choose to see their curiosity and address it.
- Delegate Tasks
Another step to lessening your mother load is delegating. This means giving others complete control over the task you need to be done; that is, no micromanaging things (aka: maternal gatekeeping [link to maternal gatekeeping blog]). Doing so will have you bear the task’s mental burden, which beats the whole point of delegating.
While delegating tasks, ensure your partner understands what you need them to do, and keep their strengths in mind. For instance, if your partner is not good with numbers, don’t hand over budgeting. This will overwhelm them and lead them to fail the task. You then end up angry, and the cycle of resentment and fighting will continue. Play to what they are good at.
- Make The Invisible Visible
Write down everything you do that adds to your mental load and sort them into 3 groups: keep, delegate, or eliminate. This will enable you to break down your cognitive load into smaller, more manageable pieces. While sorting them, try not to get hung up on certain delegable tasks because you want them done in a particular way. You are only making your mental load heavier. Remember, your partner is capable of handling more than you think. Also, together you can decide what tasks might be worth outsourcing to hired help, like cleaning the bathrooms or doing laundry.
- Keep An Open Mind
Life is unpredictable, and responsibilities won’t always fall as equally on both of you as you would like. Keep an open mind and be flexible. Know when to bend, compromise, and communicate before you break. Allow them to do things how they choose to, and help out when you can. It sounds counterintuitive here, but stepping in to shoulder more of the load, here and there, shows your partner they have your support.
- Check-In And Talk About How Things Are Going
Lastly, schedule some time (once a week or so) to talk about how things are going, what’s working, what’s not, what needs to get done right now, and what each of you can do differently. Creating time to talk when both of you are relaxed allows for better conflict resolution and decreases the chance of brewing resentment on either side. Everyone gets a chance to say what’s on their mind.
The challenge with splitting the mental load is it takes a conscious decision, communication, and an agreement between you and your partner to share these responsibilities. Without this, nothing will really change. That said, things won’t happen exactly as you plan or go as smoothly as you think. However, with some guidance, practice, and a lot of patience, you can rebalance the cognitive load in your household, one task at a time.
Life is full of responsibilities and to-dos, and those get piled up even more when you have kids. In most homes, moms end up taking charge of the never-ending lists, regardless of whether they work or stay at home. So much of what moms do is “invisible” and goes unacknowledged. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed and resenting your partner.
Instead of letting your relationship take a nosedive, have an open and honest conversation with your partner. Look at everything that needs to get done, and figure out a way to balance the tasks in a way that feels manageable. Remember that this is not something where you “set it and forget it”. Schedule check-ins to discuss how things are working out, what’s going well, and what needs to be improved. Over time, you’ll find your groove and develop a system that works for you.