Let's talk about the mental load

Ever get the feeling that you're a human octopus, juggling tasks?

You know the scene — you're making dinner, calling the plumber/doctor/mechanic, checking homework and answering work emails — at the same time.

All the while, you are being peppered with questions by your nearest and dearest "where are my shoes?", "do we have any cheese?", "what time's my basketball game?", "what are we doing next Saturday night?".

But even if you know this experience well, you may not have the language to describe it.

The mental load is all the mental work, the organising, list-making and planning, that you do to manage your life, and that of those dependent on you. Most of us carry some form of mental load, about our work, household responsibilities, financial obligations and personal life; but what makes up that burden and how it's distributed within households is not always equal.

Like a phantom

The mental load includes the planning work required to ensure the children make it to Bollywood dancing, the refrigerator is stocked for dinner and the smoke detector battery gets replaced. It's incessant, gnawing and exhausting, and disproportionately falls to women.

While we, as a society, have had many public discussions about the gender distribution of housework and childcare, the mental load is like a phantom — felt by many, but, without the language to describe it, very difficult to discuss.

But earlier this year, a French cartoonist by the name of Emma gave form to the concept in her cartoon "You should have asked". Women described seeing Emma's cartoon as a 'light bulb moment', which gave them the language to explain the constant nagging associated with running a household.

Census data clearly shows Australian women spend, on average, five to 14 hours per week in unpaid domestic work, whereas men spend less than five hours a week. Women also spend an additional hour a day looking after children.

Yet these measures fail to capture the additional time women spend organising these daily domestic and childcare activities, the mental load. When you take over the organising of your family's daily activities, you become the manager of your household and this casts all other members in a "helping" role.

It's true, being the domestic manager of the home does give you a certain power and control in your domain. It's also a role that carries additional responsibility without long-term benefit.

Ensuring all members of your family have clean socks and packed lunches is not a resume builder. It won't help you get a job, nor does it lead to a higher salary or a promotion. 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 women.

Helping to maintain a functional family has intrinsic benefits, the joy of knowing everyone had a wonderful day and satisfaction that comes from helping others. But the work of household manager is often relentless, exhausting and can be stressful. It can affect your health, in particular your sleep, and women are known to have more disrupted sleep than men.

The mental load also disrupts other more valuable time that can be spent simply relaxing or doing things we enjoy.

Why do we do it?

Women adopt the mental load in part because we've been socialised that way, (our mothers and grandmothers did it, so we do it). But it's also because we anticipate that the blame for any family or domestic failures will fall at our feet.

For me, this manifests through obsessive cleaning prior to the arrival of dinner guests, anticipating that they will see my true barbaric (i.e. messy) nature.

In an era where "good" mothers are those who are unequivocally invested in our children and "good" women always have a squeaky clean home and fresh biscuits on display, the mental load is on steroids, requiring women's constant attention.

It is no wonder that when faced with the work of childrearing and employment, most Australian mothers opt for part-time work as the requirements for being a good mother and worker are incompatible. The mental and physical load is just too high.

But by assuming the managerial role in the home, women are absolving other family members of this exhausting work.

For married couples, this means men have more mental space to plan for work and to decompress in leisure. For many women, housework and the mental load are cast as ways to love and care for the family.

Yet, questions of equity are important here, especially if women's absorption of the mental load and the managerial role are at the expense of their employment, sleep, leisure and health.

Time for change?

While this is a huge issue for many women, do not despair. There are some ways you can cut back on your mental load, and empower others in your life to step up. Please follow the list in order and repeat.

Take a break. While many women know they perform the mental load, they are likely unaware to what extent the mental load affects their lives. So, take a break. Take a day. Take a week. Take a month. This will allow you to feel your mental load and for others to see the gaps. It may also help everyone to acknowledge which portion of the mental load is essential and which is superfluous. The ultimate goal of the break is to identify, reduce and redistribute the mental load.

Reduce your expectations. To have a house like those in the magazines requires two things: (1) a huge amount of labour (usually women's and usually unpaid); and (2) to never be at home to mess it up. Yes, we all have a friend who seems to have cleaning and domesticity embroiled into his/her DNA, but most of us are hedonistic slobs who leave water rings on the tables and crumbs on the floor. So, let's start accepting that and reduce our expectations. We won't have perfect houses or children who will be fluent in several foreign languages, play tennis and grow up to be neurosurgeons. Life is just too short to be spending this much time indoors.

Delegate. Once you stop the charade of perfection, it is time to delegate. This means putting your partner in charge of the school fete decorations and your child in charge of packing their lunch. This also means allocating the responsibility for general household tasks to certain family members. 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). Unless death is impending from poor domestic decisions, step back, support and allow others to learn from their mistakes.

Stop judging. This includes your friends, your family and yourself. Have a friend who always picks her child up three minutes after childcare closes? Stop judging. Have a friend who never irons her clothes? Stop judging. Have a husband who thinks cheesy toasties are appropriate for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Stop judging. Rather, start accepting and shifting the norms about domesticity.