How the Mental Load Sneaks Into Your Everyday Life—Whether You Realize It or Not
The physical and emotional labor of parenthood can manifest in ways you don't even realize. Here's how.
My husband and I have been together for more than a decade and thought, surely, we had things all figured out. And, yet, when our son was born just about two years ago, our relationship barely survived.
I'd heard similar things from friends. The first few months are especially rough, they'd told me, and I'd be in the minority if I didn't feel even a little resentful because I'd be the one handling most things when it came to the baby. I laughed it off, because we'd always split responsibilities; we were truly equal partners. I hated to cook, so he took that on while I handled laundry. We both worked full-time and were busy, so we each picked up whatever needed to be done when it came to domestic duties. But, surprise surprise, having a baby changes literally everything. And, surprise surprise, I was the one really feeling it.
I didn't know it then, but what I was experiencing was the mental load of being a new mom—and the endless to-do list that seemed to come along with it. My husband was hands-on and helped as much as he could but, from day one—and especially once he went back to work after having taken a week off—caretaking seemed to fall mostly on me.
"[Mental load and emotional labor] are becoming more frequently used in regards to motherhood, and it’s so nice that there is finally a label that captures—or attempts to capture—the essence of all of the things that mothers do, especially in their minds, that partners and others just don’t realize," says Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW, founding director and chief external relations officer at The Motherhood Center in New York City. "And how much emotional energy it takes up to be on top of everything."
It's not just moms feeling this burden, but it does seem to weigh more heavily on the primary caregiver in a family. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 69.4 million opposite-sex partner households and 1,012,000 same-sex partner households in the country. Stay-at-home mothers make up more than a quarter of married-couple families, compared to 1 percent of stay-at-home fathers. For many American families—especially now during a pandemic—moms are bearing the brunt of child care on top of work and household responsibilities. According to a New York Times survey, 66 percent of women say they're responsible for child care and 70 percent say they're in charge of housework. The pandemic gender division is real: Women are having to choose between their jobs and child care, while some are tackling both at the same time.
"Intergenerational trends often create stagnancy within family units," says Leela R. Magavi, M.D., psychiatrist and regional medical director of Community Psychiatry. "In some cultures, women are expected to take care of all the household tasks even after a long day at work." While some partners are helping more with the day-to-day and every family has a different structure or culture, experts are hearing most complaints from moms.
"So many women will come to us feeling this irritability—and I’ll go so far as to say rage—in particular towards their partners because they feel like they are doing everything by way of planning and caring for their children," says Bellenbaum. "And their partners are showing up maybe 5 to 20 percent of the time."
Whether you feel the mental load or not, chances are that your home does not have a completely equal distribution of labor. In some cultures, there may be less of an opportunity for women to seek careers and it's expected that they will solely take on the role of Mom. In others, Mom might be the one to decide to stay home and happily take on domestic and child care duties. Even in divorced-parent homes with a perfect co-parenting solution, at least some of the time a parent will have to juggle work and child care. Any way you slice it, the mental load still exists in some capacity—whether you've chosen the setup you're in or not.
Here's how the mental load shows up and changes over time that you may not even realize:
Tracking Fertility and Scheduling Doctor Appointments
From trying to conceive and tracking ovulation to in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and everything in-between, the mental load can actually start way before a baby arrives—with the woman typically bearing the brunt of it.
"I think that the bulk of the mental load starts to happen in pregnancy," says Bellenbaum. "When we think about scheduling our appointments with our OB and what she tells us to do as far as staying healthy. And we are in tune with our bodies and so we know if something doesn't feel right or if we have a pain or a cramp or something."
For pregnant women, every appointment, every test, every kick is a reminder of new life and responsibility to come. As involved as a partner may be, more of a support role is taken on right out of the gate.
Feeding and Caring for the Baby
With nearly 4 million babies born in the U.S. each year, there's a tremendous group of new parents just trying to navigate everything a newborn brings to the table. And we're not just talking about changing diapers and feeding the baby—mothers quickly take on a larger role when it comes to caring for Baby, whether they mean to or not.
The concept of maternal gatekeeping—when a woman unintentionally prevents her partner from helping or micromanaging when they do—is not uncommon, explains Bellenbaum.
"Let’s use an infant as an example," she says. Mothers typically spend the most time feeding their baby—whether through breastfeeding or bottle feeding, which means they are also awake with the baby most of the night. When a partner returns to work, mothers are the ones caring for and soothing the baby. "In doing so, we have learned specific ways that the baby responds best to. Because we’re the ones who are doing most of it. And when our partner tries to intervene or tries to remedy a situation and doesn’t do it the exact way that we do, we get very frustrated." This maternal gatekeeping can actually cause partners to avoid pitching in even more, further adding to the cycle.
"Partners also need to experience a sense of accomplishment and mastery as well," says Bellenbaum. "And if we give them an opportunity to try—even if it’s not exactly the same way that we do it—they build confidence in caring for the baby as well. And they’re going to be more likely to come in and tackle a situation with a baby or a child of any age if we give them permission to try. It’s not easy to just relinquish power and control. But once you practice a few times it gets easier, and then we invite more of what feels like a balance in caring for our children. And that can make a really big difference."
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Preparing for Travel
Even for Bellenbaum, who understands the mental load and helps women at The Motherhood Center work on a fair distribution of labor at home, the mental load still exists. Take a recent vacation with her husband, 11-year-old, and 14-year-old. "Whenever we go on trips, without anyone ever talking about it, it is my responsibility to pack us up," she says. This includes packing all of the toiletries, sunblock, and making sure the dog sitter has what they need. With all that, she forgot to pack the towels and everyone "lost their marbles on me."
Planning, caregiving, laundry, meal prep, doctor and dentist appointments, parent-teacher conferences, and playdates often fall on Mom. They're the ones planning days, weeks, and months in advance for their families. In fact, women are actually eight times more likely than men to manage their kids' schedules and care for them when they're sick.
"Women often think and worry about what to purchase from the grocery store or what to prepare for meals, especially when family members have various sensitivities, preferences, or allergies," says Dr. Magavi. "Women and mothers often correspond with their children’s teachers and keep track of their children’s assignments. Additionally, women often manage upcoming play dates for their children and provide transportation to various events and activities."
How to Balance Your Family Dynamic
Bellenbaum advises expecting parents—though all parents can do this—to practice an exercise where they sit down and identify a distribution of labor—what needs to be done around the home or with the kids and who's going to do what—because "even if it feels transactional or mechanical—it’s so necessary." Roles should be divvied up based on who's better at them or who has more time, and not gender. Yes, alleviating the mental load of the primary caregiver still sort of falls on the primary caregiver. But it's a step in the right direction toward more equality in the home.
"I do think that it’s possible to get partners more involved," says Bellenbaum. "Listen, I’m always a little skeptical when someone says that it’s 50-50. I don’t know that that’s possible. I think that couples might think that they’re doing 50-50 or feel like they have to say that they’re doing 50-50, but I think it’s probably unlikely, especially in the very beginning. But if there are couples out there that have cracked the code and figured out how to create a very equitable distribution of labor and something as close to 50-50 as possible, I encourage that couple to write a book, write an article, and please scream it from the rooftops because the rest of us haven’t quite figured out the formula. It just might make life a lot easier for a lot of couples and a lot of families."
For Erica Djossa, a psychotherapist, maternal mental health specialist, and founder of Happy as a Mother, it's all about being open, honest, and transparent in your relationship. "If one partner is becoming frustrated or resentful it means that they have an unmet need or feel unsupported," says Djossa, who's also a mom of three boys. "Sit down together and write out all of the invisible tasks that you each do daily, weekly, and monthly, and then assess the balance. Does it feel fair? Is there room to offset some of the load? One parent may be the primary caretaker of the children or home due to the structure of the family, but both partners need to feel well supported and that the division of responsibilities is fair."
Invisible labor remains invisible until it's articulated to your partner, says Djossa. "It is so critically important for moms to learn how to articulate their needs and ask for help. This is something many mothers struggle with because there is a misperception that we should be able to carry and do it all. There is a lot of guilt associated with asking for help or unloading some of the mental load, but we aren't meant to do it all, and we are burning ourselves out trying."
Read more of Parents.com’s special report on the invisible labor—aka the mental load—of parenthood here.