The Mental Load - You Should Have Asked

9th May 19

The everything else.

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Many of us watched the brilliantly written and produced Motherland (Sharon Horgan) which depicts the ups and downs of motherhood in middle-class London suburbia. Focussing on one mother and her friends and associates, we follow her as she navigates her way through the jungle of trying to balance everything whilst maintaining a relatively healthy relationship with her partner, raise her kids and be her own person. Something a lot of us noticed was the apparent absence of her husband. In most stressful scenarios where she phones him to check his whereabouts or ask what she should do, he’s happily chatting with friends or go-karting (!) And whilst he cheerfully insists that ‘whatever you decide, I support you’, the viewer is left reeling on her behalf.


So what is ‘The Mental Load’? In our recent meeting we discussed our thoughts on what it is and what we can do to help reduce the associated stress and feelings that come with it. Comic Author Emma writes ‘the mental load means always having to remember’ (The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic, Emma, Seven Stories Press, 2018). Whether it’s organising play dates, remembering to buy products, keeping chores going or meal choices - amongst others, we carry both the day to day and the future planning for our families.

In a recent study, (Invisible Household Labor and Ramifications for Adjustment: Mothers as Captains of Households) published Tuesday in the journal Sex Roles, the paper offers original data to illustrate the widespread phenomenon of invisible labour — and its depressing impact on women's emotional and psychological well-being.

"Do [mothers] disproportionately feel like they're running their ship on their own?" said Suniya S. Luthar, co-author of the study and foundation professor of psychology at Arizona State University. "Just putting a number to that alone is a service to womankind."


Based on Luthar's survey of 393 American married or partnered mothers, many of whom were upper middle-class, the answer to her question is a resounding yes. Nearly 90 percent of the participants said they bore sole responsibility for organising their family's schedules. Seventy percent said they were "captain" of their ship and routinely completed and assigned household tasks. That includes the everyday drudgery of getting birthday party accessories, finding someone's socks, or coordinating lifts to and from activities. Or as Luthar puts it: "All that nonsense that keeps churning around in our heads all the time."

And just to clarify, we aren’t just talking about SAHM’s here. If you’re the higher earner, the issue doesn’t discriminate. In a study by Bright Horizons, data shows that ‘women who are primary breadwinners are doing more at home than their male counterparts and even more than working mothers who are not providing their family’s primary financial support’. It states that ‘breadwinning mothers are three times more likely than breadwinning fathers to be keepers of their children’s schedules and responsible for them getting to activities and appointments (76% vs. 22%)’.


It’s not just the physical and emotional side that takes a hit, it’s also the psychological. In fact, most of us said we felt a huge sense of responsibility (hello mum guilt, good to see you’re back) to ensure that everything ran smoothly. Our own families and friends would refer to us in the first instance (even if they weren’t our own family and friends!) And many of us have taken a step back and refused to act as a go between unless it was necessary (life and death, house and/or dog/children are on fire).

Rosa Silverman, Telegraph writer sums up some interesting points here but she does also question whether we take pleasure in intervening and if we can’t let go for fear of things going awry? Is this really the case? Many of us have taken a step back because our circumstances have forced our hand and one of us described how nothing went wrong when this did happen. Tasks perhaps hadn’t been met with the same level of forethought but the children were happy and no one caught fire (house included).


However, ‘stepping back’ isn’t just as straightforward as it appears. Emotional labour is complicated and laden with intricacies. It’s not a case of handing over your workload to a colleague or leaving a list, we are dealing with emotion, and our children’s emotions are at the top of that list. They may be fed and watered and clothed but we want them to be happy and fulfilled and that’s no easy task for you, let alone someone else. Emma writes about ‘you should have asked’ - often the mantra uttered when things appear to have gotten too much and either you lose your rag or, if you’re like me, cry because things aren’t getting done. It’s often the mere task of having to ask which makes emotional labour, labour. Having time to figure out what it is you need help with is a big part of it so wouldn’t it be nice for things to just be done?

How can we do that? Make lists or is that just an out? Breathe heavily until the hint is picked up? Or should we try and stop doing certain tasks and pass them over? You do A,B,C and they do XYZ. As far as we were aware, none of us thought any worse of other mothers stepping back and doing less - we applauded them and revelled in their ingenuity. We can do it, it just needs little push in the right direction.

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