By Valentine Lacour
It’s not a super-power, it’s the mental load
Have you ever realised how amazing your mum was growing up? How she would always think about everything for everyone in the house and anticipate their needs? How she would always remind your dad about his dentist appointment, take care of ironing your dress before your friend’s birthday party, and leave a £10 note on the counter before leaving for work so that you could buy lunch?
If you haven’t heard about the mental load before or are not sure you fully understand it, grab yourself a cup of tea and keep reading!
What is “The Mental Load” or “Women’s Invisible Labour”?
In 2017 I received a message from my big sister saying: “You need to read this!” and a link to a blog. I had no idea what this was and knowing my sister, I expected to land on the page of a scientist talking about some obscure new discovery.
Instead, the link led me to “Emma Clit”, the rather fun blog of a French feminist activist author and illustrator, Emma, who writes about diverse topics including climate change and sisterhood. The post I clicked on was titled “Fallait Demander” (translated from French as “You should have asked”) and it was going viral at the time.
It was my very first introduction to The Mental Load.
The mental load is often described as “women’s invisible labour”. It represents the overwhelming feeling that most women know (maybe you!) – that you are solely in charge of everything and everyone in the house.
It is not just being responsible for the domestic chores; it is also the mental burden of having to anticipate every task and everyone’s needs.
Emma illustrates how women tend to carry worries in the back of their mind such as “What’s for dinner tonight? Do we still have veggies for the kid’s lunchbox tomorrow? I need to remind him of what to pack for his work trip!” because they know that no one else will take over if they don’t think about it. These worries may disturb their work life and impose additional mental pressure.
Decades of sexist habits
Unfortunately, the mental load is very rarely shared between the partners in a (heterosexual) relationship because the attitude is internalised.
Although the term “mental load” was largely popularised by Emma’s blog in 2017, the idea behind the concept has been studied since the 1970s. In 1984, the sociologist Monique Haicault intellectualised the idea of a “domestic load” that would systematically fall on women’s shoulders.
Fourteen years later, sociologist Susan Walzer wrote Thinking about the Baby: Gender and transitions into parenthood. The essay, published in 1998, explains how women became implicitly and over time the sole manager of the household.
In other words, as soon as a couple starts living together, and especially if they decide to have children, the house and family members naturally become the woman’s responsibility. There is little discussion on the matter: it is simply what is done, what our parents used to do, and what their parents did before them.
Sharing is caring
Besides being a burden for women, not sharing the mental load creates an unbalanced and unequal relationship that leads to frustrations.
Emma illustrates these frustrations with little anecdotes that we can all relate to. For instance, when a woman “complains” to her boyfriend that he hasn’t washed the dishes, he answers “Well you never asked”, implying that, as the woman of the house, she is the one to distribute the chore to the rest of the family.
The “double day” syndrome
The practice of assigning the domestic chores to women stems from centuries of deeply rooted, and paternalistic, traditional gender roles, in which women would stay at home as housewives and take care of the family.
Since the post-war period, women have been working alongside men in factories, companies and have undertaken careers in diverse professions. However, the social model has not modernised and the historically unequal and sexist partition of the mental load within the couple persists.
One of the major issues with the mental load is that women end up having a “double-day”: one working day at the office and one working day at home.
Not only is it unfair, but it is also mentally and physically exhausting. Since Emma’s article was published in 2017, she has received countless messages and testimonies from women explaining that the mental load was a major factor in their mental health. Many women feel like they are doing too much for others, to the detriment of their own needs.
The fact is that you should not be doing all of that alone. Beyond sharing the physical chores, you should be sharing the mental load.
If you recognised yourself or your boyfriend/husband in the description above, don’t worry! It does not mean you are a dysfunctional couple! But maybe, some aspects of your relationship are, and you might want to look for solutions. Luckily, we have plenty of tips to offer you to make your relationship more equal and balanced.
As you probably know by now, the first step to take to ensure that your relationship does not suffer from the mental load is to share it between both partners.
Each partner should take some responsibility for the management of the house. You can use tools like phone apps or good old-fashioned paper calendars to remember appointments, activities, and plan in advance meals for dinner.
But whatever you do, share the organisation, share the responsibility, and share the blame if something goes wrong!
If you are a woman and you feel the pressure of the mental load growing in your relationship, you need to sit down with your partner and talk about it.
I can assure you it will only make things better. In a loving relationship, there is always space for discussion and the mental load is an under-estimated pressure, too often ignored.
Most people have not even heard about it, even though it can be the origin of depression, burnout, and break-ups. As a woman, try to think about how you could share your mental load with your partner. You don’t need to be a super-woman/mother.
Being yourself is enough. You are enough.