Carrying the Mental Load

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How many things did you have to plan ahead or think about just to get out of the house this morning? If you’re like me, you lose count and all of these steps like making your lunch, feeding the dog, and double-checking that you locked the door because the steps become automatic. While these thoughts may seem like they’re on autopilot, the process of multitasking and using mental energy to anticipate needs, make decisions, and assess progress is referred to as the Mental Load. Naming this process is an important step to better understand how it influences your experiences in order to have constructive discussions with your support systems, partners, and coworkers. If we don’t name these things, they are alive and well yet invisible. A woman sitting at the desk working to signify carrying the mental load

While many people carry this mental load at different points in their day, a recent study of heterosexual couples found that a majority of women engage in a higher proportion of this mental load compared to their male partners. The invisibility of these efforts can lead to conflicts within relationships and result in frustrations stemming from women feeling underappreciated and men lacking awareness about why their partners may be stressed. Further research is needed in the field to explore how this difference looks outside of heterosexual relationships or binary, cisgender individuals. 

This mental load issue also comes up during downtime. Researcher Dr. Vagni used time diaries broken into 10-minute intervals to look at how individuals within 1,427 heterosexual couples from the U.K. spent their time during a day. The main findings of this study revealed that there is a gender difference in how individuals spend leisure time, even when together with one another. Ultimately, this study found that during this shared leisure time men are more engaged in leisure activities such as watching TV while women are more engaged in domestic work or childcare. 

So what can couples do? Be proactive. Start talking about this dynamic early on in a serious relationship and be mindful about the division of labor while being sure to include a focus on the mental work –  all of the thinking, planning, and organizing. It’s important to know your own boundaries and communicate them early on in a relationship to collaborate proactively about the division of responsibility. An author and female computer science engineer captured the toll of mental load through this comic strip that illustrates the importance of open communication when balancing tasks in a partnership. Couple sitting on the couch to signify the importance of talking about carrying the mental load

Identifying and understanding what the mental load is can be helpful, but it’s not enough to resolve the burden or conflict that comes from it. Just like with time diaries, it may be helpful to track the time each person spends on specific activities to quantify the problem and use it as a starting place to have a conversation. Not only can this lead to relief that comes with shared understanding, but it also opens the door to brainstorm solutions that respect the time and effort of each individual. This can be a difficult process to start out with, trusting that someone else will handle the tasks that constantly run through your mind as worries. However, in order for a shift of responsibility to occur, allowing yourself to step away is imperative. You might need to lower expectations initially for how tasks get done, but sitting with this discomfort in the adjustment period allows both partners to feel heard and respected in the transition period. These open conversations can also model the importance of collaborative relationships for children. If you decide to have children help with chores, it can help to reflect on how different values, gender roles, and norms are influencing what chores you view your children capable of doing. If you highlight their strengths and collaborate on which chores they feel capable of completing, they are more likely to complete them and maybe even have fun taking responsibility for things they’re confident doing. In the end, being proactive, open, and collaborative will improve contentment for each family member and allow everyone to enjoy more quality time together. 

Carrying the mental load is difficult and often unhealthy. If you are a woman or mother wanting to clarify your boundaries while taking better care of yourself in the process, I would be honored to coach you through those transitions.

Contributor Statement: Olivia Knizek (oliviaknizek@my.unt.edu) contributed to the research and writing of this blog. Olivia is a PhD student in counseling psychology interested in athlete mental health, performing artists, and resiliency from trauma.