The mental load: Helping manage the workload and create equal domestic partnerships
Starting a family creates a workload you likely didn’t see coming. I’ve created this handy workload checklist to see who does what in your household.
What is the mental load?
Ever get the feeling that the local circus clown who juggles fire sticks whilst balancing on a tightrope ain’t got nothing on you? You’re probably right.
Let me set the scene…
6pm: you’re stirring the pasta; kids are asking for a predinner snack (because they’re staaaaarving!). You’re trying to call the electrician. He said he’d be here before 5pm but hasn’t showed (the reason you left work early). Did you send that last email at work? Or is it sitting in drafts? Check that before bed. The toddler is pulling every pot out of the drawer. Don’t forget to buy a birthday gift for your daughter’s friend’s party this weekend. And don’t forget she needs a superhero costume. Snot is dribbling from your five-year old’s nose. Please be well enough for school tomorrow. That’s right, that school excursion is next week – got to sign that permission slip. And get back to that math’s tutor for your son. And rebook the tax accountant appointment as your son has swimming that day. Is that the washing machine beeping with an error message again? Where is that damn warranty card? You clear a spot on the kitchen bench for dinner. Who knows when you’ll have time to fold the washing covering the dining table?
Finally, your partner pulls into the driveway. But he stays in his car for ten minutes to make a couple of work calls (he needs the peace and quiet, you see). Doesn’t he realise it’s arsenic hour?
This is about two minutes of the mental load carried by primary caregivers all day every day.
It’s the planning, the organising, the mental and physical list-making and all the items that take up both your time and your mental capacity to keep your home and family running.
And one and two Australian women will be diagnosed with a mental health problem in their life.
The domestic manager and the helper
Most of the time, the primary caregiver becomes the ‘domestic manager’ overseeing and organising all aspects from childcare to dinners to social get-togethers. Partners tend to fulfil a ‘helper’ role where they believe they need direction and guidance on what’s to be done.
Why do we do this to ourselves? A lot of it is socially ingrained. Our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers did it, and we have learnt to do it.
Examples of the mental load
Once I was cooking minestrone. I left to teach a class and asked Mr C+F to throw some cabbage in to finish it off. I got home and it was sludge. He had thrown in the whole cabbage. Dinner was ruined. I lost my shit. How could he not know to not throw the whole damn cabbage in?
But it’s hard to even explain the mental load to our partners. Sometimes Mr C+F will tell me “I unpacked the dishwasher, so consider your mental load lighter.” If only it were that easy.
Here are just a few examples that may ring true to you:
- Thinking about and planning family dinner every single day
- Remembering what kids’ activities are on each day and what they need for them
- Remembering to book medical appointments when they’re due
- Making sure there’s enough food in the fridge for school lunches
- Doing all the booking and packing for family holidays (and remembering to bring extra jumpers for everyone because you looked at the weather forecast and there’s a cold front coming in)
- Reminding your partner to pack an extra jumper for the holiday because there’s a cold front coming in
- Knowing which item of clothing belongs to which family member and where each of these live
- Planning and buying all the Christmas gifts, including for your partner’s side of the family
- Reminding your partner it’s Mother’s Day on Sunday (and buying their mum a card)
- Cooking dinner with your ‘helpers’ whilst your partner does the gardening work solo, noise-cancelling headphones on (I like to call them wife cancelling headphones)
- Writing a to-do list for your partner’s weekend tasks
The list goes on… and on… and on.
The smug zone (when your partner starts to realise a fraction of what you do)
There’s a lot I enjoy about family holidays. But one favourite holiday joy is entering the smug zone. Not sure what that is? Let me explain.
Whenever we go on holidays, Mr C+F goes from a 100% fun dad to slightly tired, grumpy, frustrated dad. He gets to experience full-time parenting day in and day out. And it’s not all fun and games. It can be exhausting.
Comments thrown out on our most recent holiday which had me smiling like the cat that got the cream:
“How much stuff do we have to pack just to leave the house for a day? This is insane.” – Yep, there’s planning and forethought that goes into every outing (even to the grocery store).
“Have you realised how many hours a day we spend putting food into their bodies just so they can make poo with it?” (Welcome to #snacklife Mr C+F).
And my particular favourite when I was on a solo outing (Yep, no kids… dreams really do come true:
“How long are you going to be? How long? This is all a little boring here. This whole two kids at home alone thing.”
Yep, the smug zone is enjoyable. But it also reminds me what an epic job us primary caregivers are doing. We juggle a lot. Kids and babies need a lot. And it’s okay to be exhausted. To sometimes feel frustrated with it all. And maybe a little bored.
So next time you’re on a family holiday… why not check into the smug zone? I give it five stars.
A handy workload checklist to help you
It’s not going to eradicate your mental load (just like unpacking the dishwasher doesn’t lighten mine!). But getting a clearer picture of who does what and assigning tasks to each other for full ownership will help.
Often partners don’t even realise how much you do to keep the house and family running. Please be aware that doing this checklist may create some big feelings for you both. It may also cause arguments. It’s important to take on discussions like these in a safe space.
How to approach these conversations
This is where HALTS is very handy. A psychologist recently shared this with me. Don’t begin an important conversation if either of you is:
H – Hungry
S – Sad, sick, stressed
So 2029 may be the next chance you get to go through this
Reality aside, communication is key. I’ve been told a lot that in same-sex relationships, the mental load is not necessarily bigger or smaller, it’s just better communicated. The aim of this checklist is to start constructive communication so it can help you. It’s not an overnight fix, it’s a way into a much bigger conversation between you and your partner.
The Gottman Institute has done some epic research into couples, including their communication. They could predict with over 90% accuracy couples that would divorce. These were based on multiple factors but one was how couples interacted with one another, including their levels of criticism, defence, contempt and stonewalling. Communication is key as is how these conversations are approached.
Download my handy checklist, sit down with a glass of wine and a well-deserved block of chocolate and get stuck in. And if it starts going south, abort the mission and try again another day.
Book: How not to hate your husband after kids – I found this book really helped me feel less alone, plus gave some epic tips on navigating family life and the domestic workload. I’m not affiliated with it – I just found it useful.
Book: Crucial conversations – Another great book that helps navigate important discussions.
Course: Mr C+F and I are currently doing this epic course from Lael Stone. It’s to help us each work through our own stuff whilst simultaneously navigating some of the hurdles and challenges we face in our relationship. All in order to parent with more awareness, kindness and agreeability.
Over to you