Managing the Mental Load

Exhausted woman asleep pouring coffee.
Image © Shutterstock/Lena Ivanova

Carrying the mental load for a family is a heavy burden for one person, and its effects on mental and physical health are being left unacknowledged or completely overlooked. So, Aleney de Winter asks, what’s a girl to do?

I‘m stir-frying with one hand, responding to an urgent text from work with the other. My daughter, feeling clingy, is wrapped around my waist: a human-octopus hybrid impersonation that is a common enough practise for this multi-tasking mama. At that same moment my son lumbers into the kitchen to ask me to help him find the t-shirt that he’s no doubt filed on his bedroom floor and my husband makes the near fatal mistake of shouting from another room to ask if I’d collected a package from the post office for him. I had not.

The tipping point…

Overcome with anxiety, I promptly burst into tears, leaving the stir fry cremated and my family more than a touch confused. I hear my daughter whisper to my son as they hastily retreat.

“What’s up with Mum?”

The simple answer is I’m mentally overwhelmed. Of course, the kids don’t see the huge list of the invisible work involved in managing our lives. Even though they watch me perform my organisational magic, they don’t really grasp that on top of my already full work day, I’ve been moonlighting as a chef, accountant, cleaning lady, age carer, tutor and Uber driver, schlepping the kids all over town to their respective extracurricular activities so they can pursue their respective future careers as a rock star and a ninja. And while those tasks alone see me skipping meals, missing exercise, and losing sleep, it is my unacknowledged role as chief logistics strategist that has, on this occasion, left me in a puddle on the kitchen floor.

What is the “mental load”?

It would seem I am not alone with the mental overwhelm.  In Jean Hailes 2020 Women’s Health Survey of more than 9,000 Australian women, a staggering one in three respondents reported feelings of anxiety while one in four reported symptoms of depression. While the reasons behind these statistics are varied and complex, some well-deserved finger pointing must be directed straight at the mental load women carry.

The Mental, or cognitive, load refers to a gendered phenomenon that is seeing women the world over disproportionately responsible for the anticipating, planning, organising, remembering and monitoring of family life. It’s more than just an occasional kitchen floor thumping tantrum, it’s a mind share versus time share equation, where we women are tasked with balancing an invisible Jenga tower of family needs. And we take it on because we know if we don’t, it won’t get done and the fallout will be the whole stack collapsing into a very messy pile. The result is often us falling into one.

This mental overwhelm on working mothers can wreak havoc on the mind and body leading to increased incidence of depression, sleep deprivation, tension headaches, impaired thinking, memory gaps caused by an overload on working memory resources and, increasingly, substance abuse.

So, what are we supposed to do about it?

Take it from me, sobbing in the kitchen doesn’t really help. What does is taking a step back and stopping taking on so much. This can be easier said than done, especially in those instances when there’s no one to help share the load. But recognising you have limits and learning to say no to things is a great place to start in managing the omnipresent load.

If you have a partner, start a conversation and let them in on all the invisible tasks that they probably aren’t even aware you’re managing, then hand over a few of them. It’s not about just dividing chores, it’s about passing over the whole job, including responsibility for planning and management of them. Even if it’s just paying the bills and stocking up on groceries, it’s two less tasks you’ll need to mentally manage.

If you’re in a situation where there’s no one to help, outsource tasks by automating bill payments, subscribing to meal planning companies, and programming appointments into your calendar so you can remove it from your memory banks and rely on an electronic one. And don’t be afraid to give your kids, whatever their age, a little credit for being able to take on some responsibility for themselves and delegate a few age-appropriate tasks like making their own lunches or taking responsibility for planning and making dinner once a week.

Let go, at least a little. We’re not suggesting you should let the whole Jenga tower fall but allowing the odd brick drop provides a golden opportunity for someone else in the household to step up. “If you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself” you say. Well, we need to give our partners and children credit. Sure, they may not quite manage things the way you would but give them the chance to try.

The most important step is to reallocate a little of that mental space you’ve freed up to you. Leisure is not a luxury and dedicating time to self-care is vital to both mental and physical health. Let go of the unearned guilt and allocate even 15 minutes a day to you. Whether its practising mindfulness or regaining clarity of your mind through meditation, reading a book or taking a walk, use that time to focus not on what needs to be done for everyone else but on the simple pleasures that make you feel good. Log it in the calendar alongside Junior’s nose flute lessons, set reminder alarms on your phone, and follow through. You’ll thank yourself for it because the result will be a lift in the load, a clearer head and a happier, healthier you.

Disclaimer: This article provides general information only, and does not constitute mental health or medical advice. If you have concerns regarding your mental health, seek appropriate medical care or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.