The Invisible Workload And How To Talk To Your Partner About It

8 min read

I’m in a taxi on my way to a meeting and the noise in my head is deafening. I am making random mental notes of all the bits and pieces I have to do today. Before long, I whip out my iPhone to write it all down because I know if I don’t I’m going to forget something:

Buy more eggs, milk and bread before the weekend – buy and post cards for Mum’s birthday next month — buy stamps – wash the kids’ soccer kits before Saturday (needs soaking – pick up Napisan) — check if the dishwasher has salt — running low on toothpaste and toilet paper, add to online grocery order – submit online grocery order – leave keys and money out for the cleaner — book kids in for holiday camp ASAP, places filled fast last year – update the school diary with my daughter’s reading progress — book vaccinations — RSVP for Sarah’s birthday party — buy presents for Sarah – set up playdates for older kids — find halloween costumes — hire a personal assistant…

The Mental Load comic that we all need to read

The effort of organising my family and myself now has a name. It’s called You Should’ve Asked and a talented comic called Emma outlines it beautifully:

Invisible workload comicMental Load comicemotional workload Invisible workload Invisible workload comics Invisible workloads mental workload comics Mental workloadsDid you find yourself nodding in vehement agreement with this scenario? Me too.

What is Mental Load?

Mental load is the term for all the thinking and planning that goes into organising a family home. It is the ‘organiser-in-chief’ role that women tend to play, regardless of whether they have full-time careers or not.

Women tend to carry an unequal Mental Load in most families

Typically, women who have jobs have to be a 100% effective professionally, while also making sure that all these small but important everyday tasks are taken care of at home.

There are certainly some exceptions to this; stay-at-home fathers are similarly burdened. There are also many couples who divide the mental load evenly, and it’s reasonable to expect full-time home-makers to take on more of the mental load than their partner working outside the home.

Is the Mental Load shared equally in your relationship?

A few weeks ago, I started raising the mental load theory with friends who are either married or living with partners and who have full-time jobs. The initial response was that the mental load is more or less equally shared by both partners. However, as I began to enumerate what constitutes mental load, it became evident that the heavy lifting tends to fall to the woman. That is not to say that their partners or spouses do not help them with the domestic chores. Most men are willing to pitch in, provided they are told what to do. But that’s the point. Women are expected to be the COOs of the family.

Of the five couples I spoke to, only one woman said she truly believed that her husband shared the mental load equally. However, they don’t have children yet, so I might revisit this question with her in a few years’ time!

The line, ‘but you’re just better at it’ is total BS

Interestingly, I was also told by both women and men I spoke to that the mental load is carried by women simply because they are just so much better at this stuff. Women want things done a certain way. So, it’s just more efficient if they organise the home the way they like it. Men are happy to play a supporting role.

But women have a ‘seeing superpower’, right?

This expression of women’s superior abilities seems like an easy way out. Lisa Wade, in her article in TIME, talks about a poem about being the person who notices the toilet paper is running low. Seidman writes that perhaps she has a “seeing superpower” absent in the other members of her family. That is obviously not the case. It’s just that when the woman of the house does all the seeing and thinking, the others don’t have to and don’t bother to, unless their favourite peanut butter has run out.

Is Mental Load really an issue?

If one person in the household has all this mental noise going on every day in their noggin, it is likely that she (or he) will ultimately suffer from fatigue, sometimes even before getting to work in the morning.

I had a full-time job until a few months ago. On a typical day, I would coordinate my two daughters’ parallel and intersecting social lives remotely from my office, keep a tab on their diets and hygiene levels, attend school concerts, make sure the reading was getting done, take them for any medical appointments, order groceries before too many things ran out, make sure that our cleaner turned up and got paid, settle accounts with our nanny, keep upcoming birthday parties in mind, order presents online, respond to any school notices, meet the teachers, attend class coffee mornings, figure out dinner, check if the children need new shoes… the list is endless.

All of this while I worked a typical workday from 9 to 5, five days a week, like a lot of other people and like a lot of men. By 6pm, every single day, I had to be home to relieve the nanny and take care of baths and bedtime.

Is Mental Load holding you back?

All too often, after I say ‘yes’ to attending an after-work or social event, my children would mysteriously fall ill or my husband would announce a more important work event of his own or some trip that he had forgotten to mention sooner. I ended up cancelling these events so often that in the end I stopped accepting invitations; partly because of my embarrassment at my poor attendance record and partly because I gave up on doing anything over and above the bare minimum that kept me employed and my family running smoothly.

Being so indispensable to running my household, I simply cannot afford to drop that ball. At the same time, I don’t have the energy to be the COO at home and be razor sharp and switched on at work, all year round.

The invisible workload at home

The mental work that goes into running a family consumes a large part of your mind, so much so that you may finally give up on the professional part of your brain and resign yourself to being the family’s full-time manager.

When you are negotiating multi-million dollar contracts at work but are the only one worrying about dishwasher tablets, nappies and toothpaste at home, the emotional labour takes a toll on your self-esteem because it is your time and intelligence that have been deemed dispensable; leaving the man (as Emma says in her cartoon) free to “go on fascinating adventures away from home.”

My husband’s resistance to the Mental Load

All this being said, one should not ignore the mental load that men carry which often prevents them from taking on domestic tasks. I was talking to my husband about my ideas for this article and he was quite resistant to the theory that the mental load is carried by women alone.

He listed all the things that he brings to the table: even when I was working, he is the main breadwinner. He travels frequently for work, manages our finances, looks after the bills, travel arrangements and major expenses. And, when he isn’t travelling, he helps out with the chores and is hands-on with the children.

The stress that comes with having to be the main source of income is substantial. But, the difference as I see it is, that his work is valued because it is visible and he gets the credit for it – he’s paid a salary and can demonstrate a tangible return on his investment. When there’s no milk in the fridge on Monday morning, I doubt I’d be credited for having a well-stocked fridge for the 364 days prior. The mental load is a significant burden that tends to go unrecognised and unrewarded. It’s high time we started valuing it.

Mental Load – can we set ourselves free? 

At the end of her article in TIME, Lisa Wade talks of the need to free our minds. She writes,

“Of course, someone will always have to remember to buy toilet paper, but if that work were shared, women’s extra burdens would be lifted. Only then will women have as much lightness of mind as men.”

She concludes, “And when they do, I expect to be inspired by what they put their minds to.”

Perhaps we can start by having an open discussion with our partners about teamwork. While this may seem difficult to do without igniting a row, it is important for women to articulate that the uneven distribution of mental load contributes to professional setbacks and in the long term, encourages the same stereotypical behaviour in our children.

As Georgina Dent says,

“…creating an even playing field starts with a 50/50 split of domestic chores. If the children and the home are predominantly the mother’s responsibility their careers are limited before they even step out the door.”

How to approach the conversation with your partner

Gemma Hartley points out in her article for Harpers Bazaar, that this is a difficult conversation to have with your partner, not least because you don’t want to come across as a nag or end up arguing. She writes,

“Even having a conversation about the imbalance of emotional labor becomes emotional labor. It gets to a point where I have to weigh the benefits of getting my husband to understand my frustration against the compounded emotional labor of doing so in a way that won’t end in us fighting.”

So, to prepare yourself for this conversation, it might be worth writing down your own thoughts and then initiating the discussion with your partner. It might help to set aside some time to have a calm conversation about it. Try and address it as something that is hampering you professionally, rather than as an issue that is making you feel resentful. Find a way to pass on some of the mental load tasks to your partner. Start small and see how it goes. These things are deep-seated patterns in all of us, so we cannot expect ourselves to change overnight.

Despite the challenges, mental load is not something to resign ourselves to just because it has always been so, but rather something to address. Once the conversation starts, we might start to notice ways to shift the balance, thus giving ourselves the choice to also go on fascinating adventures, should the opportunity arise.

Here’s to your next adventure!

Neeti x

Do you carry most of the mental load in your household or is it even-steven? Have you spoken to your partner about the extra workload?  Share your experiences in the comments below.

You might also like Can I Have A Successful Career And Be A Great Parent? and The Perfect Morning Routine Is Dead.

  1. Kristin says

    My husband and I had a discussion about that early on in our relationship. “You should have asked” should very quickly get replaced by “I live here, too.” The lead in was – if you were living with a roommate and not a spouse, would you expect that person to pick up your laundry, make sure the things you want to cook were in the fridge, do all the cooking, and so forth? Why should you treat a roommate better than your significant other?

    1. Iris Lillian says

      Hey! That’s a clever way to position it. Did it work, Kristin?

      1. Kristin says

        Pretty much! It was also a good way of differentiating an adult from a man-child, according to my husband. Because a man-child acts like he just has to survive doing chores long enough to transition from his mom taking care of him to his wife, and an adult realizes it’s his responsibility if he wants to live in a clean and organized house.

      2. Kristin says

        So far, so good 😀

        1. Iris Lillian says

          Awesome 😉

    2. Neeti Jain says

      Thanks for reading and sharing your experience Kristin. I really like the analogy that you used to get your point across. I’m going to try using it too!

  2. […] you the cash”. Yeah, no. (By the way if this has ever come by way of your significant other, here’s a read to share with […]

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