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The Mental Load: How “Thinking of Everything” Hinders Mums, Stopping them from Fulfilling Their Potential

Updated: May 10

Colourful women with an anxious face and the contents of her mind exposed
Anxious mum with a lot on her mind

Arranging playdates or scheduling health check-ups for the children, finding ingenious ways to incorporate vegetables into their dinner, or ensuring the grocery list is comprehensive enough. Concerning oneself with questions like whether your son is progressing well at school, whether your daughter requires new footwear, or when it's time to replace the family's washing machine—when viewed individually, these tasks may appear relatively minor, but collectively, they can be overwhelming. Within heterosexual couples with children, when asked which partner predominantly manages these tasks, the answer is frequently the same: the mother.

Research after research illustrates that within heterosexual partnerships, the responsibility for domestic chores and child-rearing falls predominantly on women. Despite many couples aspiring to an equitable 50:50 split of home duties, ingrained societal structures and economic factors often lead to gendered delegation of tasks. Even in relationships where there is a perception of equality in shared duties, it is typically the woman who undertakes the less visible, yet demanding forms of caregiving.

Growing literature suggests that in terms of household oversight, women engage in a significantly greater amount of cognitive and emotional labour than their male counterparts. Gaining clarity on the causes behind this disparity is key to understanding the apparent regression in gender equality, despite its increased discourse in recent years. A more profound comprehension of these unseen responsibilities could pave the way for more balanced distribution of duties, relieving mothers of some of their burdens, despite the initial challenges such a reorganization may entail.

This intangible workload falls into three interconnected categories. Cognitive labour encompasses the planning and thinking about family and household management, such as coordinating social engagements for the children and devising meal plans. Emotional labour involves the upkeep of the family's emotional welfare—pacifying children during meltdowns and managing concerns about their academic or social development. Mental load lies at the intersection of the two, encapsulating the ongoing preparation and orchestration needed for the smooth running of the familial unit.

The difficulty in quantifying this hidden labour lies in its invisibility and the internal nature of its performance. In a study conducted by Allison Daminger, a Harvard University doctoral candidate in sociology and social policy, many participants acknowledged the disproportionate share of cognitive housework shouldered by women, yet this was not commonly acknowledged as a formal type of work. The study, which involved 35 couples, found that women frequently took on the roles of "project manager," overseeing the preparatory stages that precede decision-making, despite the participation of both parents in the final decision-making process.

Beyond the immediate family dynamics, this asymmetry in the distribution of hidden labour can create wider impacts. Studies indicate that women harbour worries about childcare even outside the home, leading to a persistent undercurrent of stress. This can be exacerbated when these concerns intrude into work life, creating an omnipresent tension around family-related decisions and their long-term implications.

Daminger's studies provided insights into the absence of conflict over these imbalances in mental labour. Explanations range from one partner having longer work hours to women being perceived as naturally more adept at organising. These rationalisations perpetuate misconceptions, despite evidence dispelling the notion that women inherently surpass men in planning and multitasking; instead, such abilities are cultivated through experience and societal expectations.

The reinforcement of traditional gender roles and occupational structures further entrenches this dynamic. Women often opt for flexible work arrangements, making them more accessible for childcare and subsequently more enmeshed in associated planning. Deep-rooted gender stereotypes—stemming from societal expectations established from childhood—also influence the household division of labour, where girls are typically assigned more domestic chores than boys.

Maternal gatekeeping further compounds these issues, where the societal image of a home as the woman's domain can lead to stricter judgements on women based on the state of their household, influencing them to undertake more shared childcare tasks. This not only highlights the pressure on women regarding family outcomes, but also suggests that despite advancements in societal norms, there's lingering sentiment that the ultimate responsibility for the family rests on the mother's shoulders.

These disproportionate burdens have tangible effects, such as increased stress and depleted happiness among mothers compared to fathers. Research demonstrates that fathers often engage more in the enjoyable aspects of childcare. Disparities in the responsibility for more mundane household tasks can lead to marital strife and heighten the risk of relationship dissolution. Unequal distribution of caring duties can also manifest in the workplace, contributing to an expanding gender pay gap, fewer career advancement opportunities for women, and even complete withdrawal from the workforce for some mothers.

Addressing hidden domestic labour within partnerships can be key in achieving a more equitable burden. An honest and detailed dialogue about task management is necessary; simply participating in activities isn't sufficient if planning responsibilities remain unshared. Adopting new habits requires the intangible aspects of childcare and household management to be recognised and discussed.

The more equal distribution of care between same-sex couples evidences that openly negotiating tasks can lead to fairer sharing. For society as a whole, there's a need to redefine entrenched beliefs about gender-specific roles. According to research, including work by Daniel Carlson, fostering egalitarian views on domestic tasks is imperative, and this should coincide with examining structural factors limiting flexibility in the workplace.

Ultimately, for women to effectively lighten their mental load, doing less might be the answer, despite potential initial judgement or discomfort this may provoke. Over time, it could encourage more active participation from partners and provide women with more freedom to focus on their personal ambitions, ultimately fostering greater happiness. Learning through experience remains one of the most powerful methods for effecting change.

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