What Is The Mental Load? The Invisible Labor Falling On Women's Shoulders
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Even in the most progressive households where couples split the chores pretty evenly, there's still often one person who ends up doing most of the "thinking" work—also known as the mental load.
What is the mental load?
The mental load is a term for the invisible labor involved in managing a household and family, which typically falls on women's shoulders. Also sometimes referred to as "worry work" or "cognitive labor," the mental load is about not the physical tasks but rather the overseeing of those tasks. It's being the one in charge of having the never-ending list of to-do items constantly running in your head, remembering what needs to get done and when, delegating all the tasks to respective family members, and making sure they actually get done.
One study published in the American Sociological Review describes it as the responsibility of "anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress."
Or here's the explanation from a recent report on the mental load from the children's nonprofit Bright Horizons:
A child's school day isn't just about the physical jobs of pickup and drop-off. It's also about the perpetual mental awareness of schedules including early release days, carpools, doctors' appointments, play dates, special events, field trips, class parties, science fairs, who needs to bring what, and which day requires special supplies. And those are only some of the items on the family list that require a working mother's constant mental presence. The mind share versus time share equation is at the heart of the mental load—the requirement on women to be not just parents and caretakers but also unofficial keepers of where the entire family needs to be and when and perpetual guardians against anything falling through the cracks.
How the mental load affects women.
The mental load is a particularly exhausting type of labor that's distinct from the tangible, physical chores like cooking and cleaning, according to Lucia Ciciolla, Ph.D., a psychologist at Oklahoma State University who has researched the impacts of invisible labor on mothers. In addition to sapping time and energy, this type of household labor is typically taken for granted. In other words, women don't even get acknowledged for doing this work.
"I think it has become a topic of discussion in recent years in part because men are contributing more to the care of children and the household, and even though women may be physically doing fewer loads of laundry, women are realizing that they continue to hold the responsibility for making sure it gets done—that the detergent doesn't run out, that all of the dirty clothes make it into the wash, that there are always clean towels available, and that the kids have clean socks," Ciciolla explains. "Women are recognizing that they still hold the mental burden of the household even if others share in the physical work, and that mental burden takes a toll."
Research conducted by Ciciolla and her colleagues has shown that the mental load is linked to strains on mothers' well-being and lower relationship satisfaction. Nearly nine in 10 mothers in committed partnerships say they feel solely responsible for organizing the family's schedules, for example, and the burden left them feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and unable to make space for their own self-care. The Bright Horizons report similarly found 72% of working moms feel it's their job to stay on top of kids' schedules, and 52% are facing burnout from the weight of these responsibilities.
"Invisible labor and the mental gymnastics associated with it can be a heavy burden that saps one's energy," Ciciolla explains. "Recognizing the reality that our mothers are disproportionately carrying this burden might help us understand why many moms are feeling burned out."
The problem with "You should've asked!"
One of the clearest demonstrations of the mental load is when a woman's partner frequently tells her, in relation to getting dinner ready, or the kids cleaned up, or any aspect of household chores: "Let me know if you need any help!"
Or, after a woman opens up about how tired she is or breaks down under the weight of all the housework she's been managing, her partner says something to her along the lines of: "You should've asked! I would've helped you."
"When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he's viewing her as the manager of household chores. So it's up to her to know what needs to be done and when," the artist EMMA explains in a viral comic explaining the mental load. "What our partners are really saying, when they ask us to tell them what needs to be done, is that they refuse to take on their share of the mental load."
Women don't just need help with accomplishing each and every chore around the house. They also need relief from being the one in charge of knowing what needs to get done and from the responsibility of making sure you're doing your part.
Organizing and planning are full-time jobs that people get paid to do. (Ever heard of a project manager?) Simply expecting women to take on this role, in addition to half of the physical chores, means that in reality she's taking on way more than half the housework. Invisible labor is still labor.
How to explain the mental load to your partner:
1. Share this article with your partner.
Seriously, just shoot him over the link. Share any articles you find that helpfully explain what the mental load is.
This original comic about the mental load does a good job of illustrating the mental load with clear and easy-to-understand examples. Gemma Hartley's viral essay about emotional labor also demonstrates some of the more exhausting aspects of the mental load (she blends the concept of the mental load with the related concept of emotional labor, but it's still a useful and eye-opening read).
Send all of these links, and then ask if you can sit down to have a conversation about this.
2. Offer concrete examples of what the mental load looks or feels like in your life.
What are some of the mental, emotional, or otherwise invisible tasks you're in charge of? Are you the one responsible for planning weekends or trips? Delegating all the chores? Remembering important events and dates, plus what to bring? Knowing what's going on in the kids' lives?
Here's another very clear example Aliya Hamid Rao, Ph.D., a sociologist and author of Crunch Time: How Married Couples Confront Unemployment, recently told mbg:
"Even when husbands do unpaid work (like housework and child care), they still depend on wives to tell them what to do and when. So let's say a husband is going to grocery shop for the family. The wife will be the one who looks at their fridge, their pantry, thinks about what they are missing, what they will need in the next week or so, and makes a list. The husband goes and shops, often even calling the wife if he can't find an item to get her to guide him."
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3. Explain that you want to share the management, not just the chores themselves.
At its core, this is about your partner stepping up when it comes to household and family responsibilities. You want them to take initiative, not waiting for you to ask them to do things. Ideally, you should hardly ever have to ask them to do anything—they should just know what needs to get done because they are as involved in managing the household as you are. And they should just do these things, without being asked.
Clinical psychologist Lina Perl, Psy.D., recommends saying it like this: I feel uncomfortable delegating activities—it's a big job to be a manager. I'd rather we look at what needs to be done and decide together how to divide it up. Then I won't feel like I'm nagging everyone all the time.
4. Emphasize that this isn't just about you "worrying too much."
When women tell their partners about the mental load—especially about how hard it is to be constantly trying to remember all the things that need to get done around the house and for the kids—their partners will sometimes simply tell them to "stop worrying so much."
Maybe you do worry too much, but that's not the point.
There are things around the house that just need to get done. If a woman is constantly worrying about these tasks, it's because she recognizes that the tasks are not going to get done if she doesn't do them.
Think how different the situation would be if, as soon as she remembered that she needs to change the bedsheets, she enters the bedroom only to see that her partner has already done it. Or if her partner starts saying "Hey, I'm going to stop by the grocery on the way home—we need more milk and eggs" before she even notices they're running low. The more these moments happen, the more she will be able to start worrying less.
Just saying "Stop worrying!" won't help. Actions will.
How to share the mental load:
1. Talk about it.
Have an open, direct conversation together about what the mental load is, how it affects you, and why you want to change the dynamic. (Reference the above section on how to explain the mental load to your partner.)
You need to have a full, sitdown conversation about this—not just a passing mention, and not just an exhausted cry for help when you're completely strung out. Your partner needs to really, truly understand what the mental load is and how it's affecting you before they will truly be able to commit to change.
"Having this aspect of household labor recognized can allow steps to be taken within marriages or partnerships to address inequalities," Ciciolla says. "When we know what constitutes invisible labor and what aspects seem most burdensome, then we start considering ways to address that burden."
2. Include planning and management tasks when you divide up the housework.
Trying to divide chores in half works for some couples, but often it falls short and still leaves one person feeling overwhelmed or overworked. That's usually because one person is getting saddled with the mental load, even if on paper the chores are split "evenly."
You can't only divide up the physical tasks like cooking, cleaning, and putting the kids to sleep—you also need to divide up or account for the mental tasks of planning, delegating, scheduling, remembering, taking stock, and holding each other accountable. "Any negotiation of housework should incorporate this kind of work too," Rao says.
It's hard to neatly divide up many of these aspects of mental labor, but the key is to make sure both people are equally involved. So if your partner tends to be the one who carries most of the mental load, it's your responsibility to step up and take initiative on these mental tasks until it simply feels more balanced to both people. You'll need to continue checking in with each other. Over time, you'll be able to sense when the weight is truly equally distributed between you.
(Here's our full guide to sharing housework chores equally, including ways to share the mental load.)
3. Relinquish control.
Oddly enough, women tend to do more housework when they're living with a partner than when they live alone (even if they're a single mom with kids!). According to the researchers of that study, it's because women feel pressured to "perform gender" once they live with a partner.
"Women may have internalized the expectations of what their home and family should be like, and even though they are told not to worry, it is very difficult to let go of ingrained, societal expectations of what a good mother and good homemaker do," Ciciolla explains.
That means that part of sharing the mental load also involves change on the part of women. For example, women can often fall into the habit of gatekeeping when it comes to household labor, which might include monitoring, criticizing, or correcting the ways your partner does his chores—which may actually discourage him from fully engaging.
You need to be able to trust your partner to get things done. If you care about something being done a certain way, you can explain why it's important to you. Frame any such requests not as criticism but as a way your partner can show they love you—by caring about the small details you care about. (Acts of service is one of the five love languages, FYI!)
4. Keep checking in.
You're not going to figure this one out in one conversation. Learning how to share the mental load will take time, lots of conversations, and lots of adjustments. It's worthwhile work for sure, but do make sure to be patient with each other. Check in regularly to see how things are going, what's working and what's not, and how everybody's feeling.
"In the business world, lots of companies use 'standups' or daily/weekly team meetings to lay out the priorities for the week, as a way to get everyone on the same page and make sure the details are covered," Ciciolla recommends. "Doing the mental work together might be a helpful way to make things fairer, or at least, shared."
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