Mental load: what’s the worst that could happen?

Are you suffering from the effects of ‘mental load’? It is defined as the burden of remembering (and executing) all the tasks required to run a household and was coined by French illustrator Emma. It is not just felt by women (and mothers) though they are often deemed in charge of the house (and the primary caregiver).

In fact, it is a narrative I hear all too often. Clients, friends and family talk about having to do everything themselves, to doing it perfectly and being a good example to their kids. We believe that our households will fall apart without us. It’s not just at home either, most of us carry some form of mental load, about our work, financial obligations and personal life; but what makes up that burden is unique to each of us and how it’s distributed within households is not always equal.

Signs you might be suffering from mental load

When you are the manager of your home it’s not the ‘just’ the carrying out of household tasks that take time – and anyway, much of these are easily delegated to others in the house. It is the organisation of these tasks.

There are a number of common things that people do when they are struggling with mental load:

  1. Make lots of to-do lists – but don’t complete (m)any of them
  2. Give very detailed and complex instructions to someone else before you go out/move team/go on mat leave (verbal and/or written)
  3. Micromanage by stepping in and/or delegating but watching on
  4. Worry about the consequences of not doing it yourself and so hold onto it

I’d like to give you a personal example if I may? I suffer more from mental load now than ever before. From remembering what day it is and where the girls need to be and when to ensuring I have food in the fridge or juggling the gazillion things I need to do as a self-employed-solopreneur. I find it hard to let go and to ask for help. I worry that no-one can do it as well as me – this is common for mothers and for business owners! This means I suffer myself from trying to do it all. My partner wants to help but I don’t always let him and if I do I worry about it, even though he’s more than capable.

The pros and cons of taking on the mental load

Taking on management of the home does give you a certain power and control in your domain, however, it’s also a role which carries additional responsibility without long-term benefit. You can’t add ‘sock-sorter’ or ‘lunch-maker’ to your CV. It doesn’t help you get a job, a salary increase or promotion…although there are some skills you pick up which will help.

There is satisfaction in helping those around you and having a well-run home but on the other hand it can feel relentless, exhausting and can be stressful. It can affect your health, both physical and mental. If you’re using your mental energy thinking about this unpaid work, then one of the things you are not thinking about is actual paid work, and this is can have long-term economic consequences for you (and your family). The mental load also disrupts other more valuable time that can be spent simply relaxing or doing things we enjoy.

One thing you can do to reduce the effects of mental load

Through listening to the experiences of others and from my own experiences there is one question that I consistently ask:

What’s the worst that could happen? 

By which I mean – if you didn’t do it (the to-do list, the task, the micro-management etc) – what if you did nothing? This might seem like a really scary idea but if you are suffering from the mental load then it’s likely that you need a break. You also need to evaluate and you can’t do that if you are too busy doing all the things!

So perhaps you would be willing to pledge to do less and see how you fare? To see how others cope and to have a conversation. If you only do one thing, do this:

Take a break – for a day, week, month…as long as you need to be able to step back and evaluate what you do, where you can delegate and what you can get rid of.

Three steps to get rid of mental load

If once you can take a break you are ready to do more then follow these 3 easy steps to help you get rid of your mental load:

  1. Reduce your expectations – We all have that friend who seems to be able to do it all and we are all bombarded by images of successful career women with beautiful homes and clean children! The truth is that most of us get along. We do enough and we either have a clean home or children who are fed. We may or may not have a job. It’s ok. In fact, it’s more than OK, it’s normal.
  2. Delegate – there are very few things that only you can do. Whether you delegate to your partner, age-appropriate tasks to your family or you pay someone to come in and help, do it. Delegating responsibility means absolving yourself of all responsibility (including thinking and planning!) but also of any judgement for the choices other family members make (e.g. washing whites with reds). If you delegate a task, take it off your list – do not put it on ‘snooze’ and go back and nag/check. Unless it’s a life or death situation arising from poor domestic decisions, step back, support and allow others to learn from their mistakes.
  3. Stop the judgement – of yourself and of others. Whether it’s judging your friend for always being late or commenting about a family member who lives on crisps and chocolate. Maybe you judge those who work or don’t work or maybe you are harsh on yourself. It doesn’t matter – just stop. Start accepting your own and others limits. Recognise you and the rest of us are doing the best we can and let’s start a conversation about the truth behind the mental load.

Give yourself permission

This is all about giving yourself permission. It is OK to let things get messy – literally and figuratively if needed. Yes, it might feel chaotic and you might feel it adds to your stress levels but if you can get through it then you will do yourself and those around you a favour. No-one can grow unless we make mistakes and it doesn’t help our partners or kids to feel that we think they are incapable or to get annoyed if they do it ‘wrong’ i.e. differently to us. Give yourself permission to say you’re not going to do it all and give others permission to help you.

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