Most women are familiar with the feeling of physical and mental exhaustion. If you’re permanently feeling overwhelmed by all the obligations you have to meet, you might be dealing with the so-called mental load phenomenon. In this article, I’m going to share with you what mental load is and how best to deal with it.
Photo: Stacey Gabrielle Koenitz Rozells, Unsplash
What exactly is mental load?
Mental load is a term used to describe the mental exhaustion that occurs when family and household organisation rests on only one of the partner’s shoulders. In heterosexual relationships, this is usually the female partner. Waking up the children in the morning, preparing breakfast, doing the laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, organising the children’s leisure time, and much more are all things that women often feel responsible for. These unpaid household chores and childcare duties are a leading cause of major mental- and physical health problems. It is not uncommon for people with a high mental load to experience a state of exhaustion – also known as burnout. According to the Equality Report of the German Federal Government, women spent one and a half times more time doing unpaid care work compared to men in 2012 and 2013. Care work includes all care processes done in service to others. It refers primarily to things like raising and looking after children, caring for relatives, housekeeping, and volunteering. This work is often done in addition to a part-time or full-time job.
In her famous comic strip “You should have asked” as well as in her most recent one called “Where does it go?”, the French illustrator Emma Clit accurately portrays the concept of mental load.
A Possible Origin of Mental Load
So where does it originate from, and why is it so common for women to overload themselves with all these responsibilities? Do women do this consciously and voluntarily? Is it a question of biology or perhaps rather socialisation? Even if it seems self-evident today that women are “allowed” to work, vote, open accounts and much more, we still live in a society with deep-seated patriarchal structures that shape us from an early age.
Or, as a friend of mine recently said, “no matter how emancipated, equal and modern my family may be – in the end, it’s always the women who get up to clear the table at big family gatherings.”
Think back to your own parental home. How did you grow up? Which parent took care of the household, and who earned the money? What books, series and films influenced you? What were you shown there? Many of us were taught traditional roles from an early age, and so it often seems perfectly normal to continue to fulfil these roles without questioning them.
These centuries-old patriarchal structures should no longer play a significant role in today’s modern society. Yet, women are still taught that they are simply better suited to take care of the family and the household. Our society socialises women (and, of course, men accordingly!) in such a way that women automatically feel responsible for care work and even take it on “voluntarily”.
How to reduce mental load
To protect your health, it is important to reduce the amount of mental load you are experiencing. Here are three ways to do so.
Communication is key
Things can only change when your partner knows how you are feeling. Just like with any form of confrontation, it is best to address the issue using “I”-statements. Instead of “You don’t help me enough around the house”, it is often better to say something like “I wish I had more help” or, even better: “I wish we divided certain tasks better between us”. Ideally, try not to use the word “help”, as it suggests that the household chores are the responsibility of one person, while the other person is just “helping out”.
Gather all family tasks
Sit down together and write down every family and household task that has to be done weekly. Note down every little thing, even if it seems trivial. Especially the accumulation of these small things can lead to a high mental load. You may learn that your partner engages in tasks you don’t even notice. It is also important that the jobs taken on are equal in how much time and energy they require. For example, taking the car to the garage for servicing once every few months is not the same as washing the dishes every day. After collecting all the tasks, go through them together and, if necessary, generate a new division of tasks that both partners feel comfortable with.
Responsibility and trust
It is important that the partner does the (newly acquired) tasks on their own accord and does not need reminding to complete them. Otherwise, a division of tasks is of little use. Your mental load can only be reduced, when you know that you can hand over a responsibility and can, therefore, mentally let go of it. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that your partner may have their own approach to carrying out the tasks, possibly quite different to how you would do it. Trust in your partner’s abilities and accept that there is not only one correct way to do things. What’s important is that there is confidence that the tasks assigned will be carried out, whichever way they choose to do it.
Use other support options
Shared family calendars and various tools such as Trello can be very helpful in keeping track of assignments. Trello is a project management tool but can be just as helpful for distributing household tasks. It allows you to view tasks on two different devices and move them from “to do” to “in progress” or “done”. Apps that “gamify” task distribution are also very popular. Nipto, for example, can help you make washing the dishes more enjoyable by playfully dealing with to-dos.
If you find it difficult to relinquish control, you are not alone. Many of my clients with whom I discuss this problem find that there is often more to it than meets the eye, especially when it comes to issues like responsibility and control. It’s often worth taking a closer look to see what else might be behind it, perhaps with professional support from a counsellor?
Does this kind of exhaustion sound familiar to you? How do you deal with it when everything becomes too much for you?
Photo: Liza Summer, Pexels