Why women’s mental load is a mental health issue

Why women’s mental load is a mental health issue

I recently listened to an episode of Yumi Styne’s podcast, Ladies we need to talk… about mental load, and it got me thinking.

The concept of mental load takes the gender-normative household division of work to a whole new level. Beyond who does the housework and cares for the children in a heterosexual domestic partnership, the concept of mental load raises a new frontier for women and feminists alike to tackle.

If you’re a feminist in a hetero-relationship, like me, you probably pride yourself on making sure the household chores are divided equally between you and your partner. You might share cooking duties, insist your partner help out with the laundry, and equally divide the responsibility of shopping for groceries.

But the truth is that actually carrying out these tasks is only part of the equation. The bigger (and some could argue biggest) factor to consider is that running a household requires significant mental effort, and this role still typically falls to the female in the relationship.

From organising a couple’s social life, making mental to-do lists of things that need to be done and when and remembering important dates, names and places, to thinking about and planning what to have for each meal during a week, a lot of thought and planning ahead goes into organising a couple (or family’s) life, and typically these are the types of things women think about. This is what is referred to as mental load. It’s invisible, tiring work that never ends.

I’m very lucky to have a partner who is better at most household tasks than me: he takes the bins out, does the dishes, cooks, cleans, mows the lawn, and wouldn’t complain about doing laundry if I wasn’t around (that’s pretty much my one regular household responsibility). However, despite being intelligent and more than capable of making his own decisions, I’m constantly asked questions like, ‘what are we doing next weekend?’, ‘have you seen my belt?’ and ‘do you know if we have any x/y/z?’

What does this mean when it comes to mental health, especially for those who have a pre-existing mental health condition?

Why mental load is a mental health issue.

As someone who has anxiety, I’m used to dealing with the constant inner chatter about what could go wrong, the ‘what-if’ scenarios and the forecasting of all potential outcomes that could play out in various different scenarios. I know how mentally and physically exhausting it can be when you can’t switch those thoughts off.

According to mental health nurse Naomi Elizabeth, mental load is becoming a key trigger in the development of chronic stress, depression and anxiety, due to the perceived constant need to be ‘switched on and ready’ to go (in Green, 2017).

Mental load is becoming a key trigger in the development of chronic stress, depression and #anxiety. Click To Tweet

Just like there’s generally no benefit to obsessing over things anxious people worry about, because most of the time the things we worry about won’t eventuate, there isn’t any long-term benefit of being the sole person in a couple responsible for carrying the mental load. For example, even though if you performed the same mental tasks in the workplace you’d expect to be paid for it, being the sole person responsible for carrying the mental load isn’t something you will get paid for – you can’t even add it to your resume.

The greater problem is that if all your mental energy is being spent on the unpaid work of running a household in addition to the mental energy your mental health condition consumes and paid work, it’s unlikely that you will have much leftover to spend on your own health and wellbeing (hello, vicious cycle!), or to really invest in your paid employment. And that, obviously, puts women at a long-term economic disadvantage to men.

So, for your health and wellbeing, as well as your long-term economic success, here are six tips to help you reduce and manage your mental load. 

1. Reduce your expectations

Just like those with anxiety will obsess over things that are unlikely to happen, not all of the mental tasks we assign ourselves at home are 100% necessary. Achieving a certain level of household cleanliness before a guest arrives, for example, need not be such a stressful, all-consuming task, if you choose not to make it so. Accept tidy over perfection and learn to let the little things go.

2. Share the mental load

Share the responsibility of some of the tasks you’ve taken on by asking your partner for their help. It’s also a great idea to set up digital reminders and to-do lists (ones you can both contribute to from anywhere would be the best for this!) for both of you. This will reduce the mental pressure on you to remember everything that needs to be done.

3. Don’t judge others

Everyone has different priorities in life, and while you may decide to accept tidy as good enough, someone else might make the decision to send their children to school with packaged food rather than something homemade. If that means their mental load is slightly reduced, more power to them; it’s not your place to judge. We’re all just trying to get by and do the best we can with what we have.

4. Avoid being a martyr

Now that you are aware of how certain organisational tasks can contribute to your mental load, do something productive and positive about it to facilitate change. Continuing to do all the work without asking for help or micromanaging your partner (or children) will not help, and is likely to lead to feelings of resentment, discontentment and more stress and fatigue. Your loved ones can’t be blamed if they can’t read your mind, so if sharing the housework would be a new concept to them, they might just need a little nudge in the right direction.

5. Prioritise self-care

By lightening your mental load, you should hopefully have some more time to prioritise your own self-care. Do something for yourself that doesn’t involve thinking about the endless list of things that need to be done or organised. Be a little ‘selfish’. Take a long, hot bath with magnesium salts to help you relax, get a massage, do a yoga class or go out to dinner and let your hair down. Life is meant to be enjoyed, after all.

6. Make a pledge

The way the podcast episode ended was with real women making pledges that would help them move forward in regards to reducing their mental load. If they can do it, so can we. Your pledge doesn’t have to be big to start. After all, it can be difficult to change established habits and domestic patterns, especially when they’re supported by societal norms.

My pledge is to ask my husband (politely) to look for his own belt if he asks me where it is (why would I know the answer to this? Does he think I secretly wear them or hide them from him?).

What will you pledge, in an effort to reduce your mental load and make more space for looking after yourself?

While we’re in a positive, pledge-making frame of mind, you might also like to check out these 6 unexpected benefits of having social anxiety.

Green, S. (2017). ‘We need to talk about mental load and how to manage it.’ http://shedefined.com.au/wellbeing/need-talk-mental-load-manage/

Feature image sourced from Death to Stock photo.

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