The Mental Load

Girls are raised to romanticise taking on the mental load

The mental load – that invisible, intangible weight often borne by one partner in the relationship who takes on more than their fair share of the duties and responsibilities. The most common example of this is the women in a male/female couple. Sure, we may have reached a level of equality where men cook more regularly and hang the washing out now and then. But who is the one thinking about whether there is enough laundry detergent or if the rates bill was paid or how you are going to balance work and childcare during school holidays? That is the mental load – managing the less obvious tasks of running a household.

Many TV shows and movies have made comic gold with the scenario of the man saying, ‘I’m happy to help, just tell me what you want me to do.’ And the woman replying in exasperation, ‘I don’t want to ask. I just want you to know what to do.’ It seems like the woman is being unreasonable and asking their partner to read their minds. She’s nagging. However, what she is expressing is frustration at being responsible for knowing that things need to get done. The woman wants her partner to notice that the dirty clothes are piling up and put a load of washing on without being asked. If you are wearing the clothes, take responsibility for cleaning the clothes.

The 2016 Australian Census reveals that women do between five to fourteen hours more unpaid domestic work than their male partners. As singles, men and women take an almost equal responsibility for managing their homes. However, when they move in together, the woman’s tasks increase and the man’s reduces even if they are both working full-time. This split deepens when children come along. This inequity can have a significant impact on women’s careers as they are more likely to reduce paid work hours to compensate for domestic duties. Long term it reduces their experience and opportunity for promotions and means they have lower earning capacity during their working life, resulting in significantly less superannuation than their male colleagues.

Women are conditioned from a young age to be caretakers and it can be a hard habit to break later in life. Marketing still portrays the myth that domestic bliss is a woman running the household and the male as a hapless man-child. However, thinking that nothing will get done if you don’t do it, is a disservice to men. Of course they are capable of domestic duties, they may just do it differently. Rather than giving your partner a detailed run-down of how you want tasks completed, empower them to take responsibility for it themselves. Recognise that it may be difficult to let go of the control you’ve previously had, but in the long run your relationship will be more equitable and that is worth it.

Here a few tips to help divide the mental load.

Be firm, but kind. Discussions about the division of labour in a household can lead to arguments as people’s feelings get hurt thinking they are being accused of being lazy. Talk about the different ways you may have been raised and how cultural norms affect our senses of responsibility, to reduce the notion of blame being place on anyone. This is a chance to create a happier, fairer dynamic in the home, not a reason to personally attack each other.

Make a List. Write a list of all the things that must get done. Chances are you both do tasks that the other one never thinks about.

Consider your skill sets. Discuss what skills and interests you each have for delegating tasks. Perhaps one of you loves to tinker in the garden and the other can’t stand being outdoors. Maybe one of you is a Marie Condo fanatic and loves folding washing. Allow each person the chance to express something they absolutely detest doing too, so you can work around who is better suited to the task.

Create specialist jobs.  Once you allocate tasks, own the whole task. You need to take on all responsibilities for it, for example if you are in charge of laundry, you need to keep track of when the laundry liquid is running low.

Let it go.  Let your partner do it their way and empower them to ask if they need help. Don’t micro-manage and take over because you prefer it your way. You each have your tasks now and you need to let go of the mental load of your partners tasks.