3 dimensions of mental load
We at melo are a bloody lucky bunch. We have had a chance to learn from some of the leaders in the research on mental load, and one of those titans of study is Leah Ruppaner. She has been someone that we have learned so much from, that has inspired us and that has provided support in our journey in figuring out how tech can support the shift and re-imagination of the cognitive and emotional load of caregiving.
An amazing piece of research by Leah and her colleagues Liz Dean and Brendan Churchill was one of the first points of learning that has influenced so much of how melo is built. The full paper can be found here.
The three characteristics of mental load that came through in that research, that make this issue so though to solve are that that it is:
So, let's go into the details of each and see why this is so problematic.
Mental load is inherently invisible to others around us as it is processed internally. Small exception are those times, if you are like me, when we are running around and talking ourselves through all the things we need to remember or do, but in those moments, people are more worried about your mental health, rather than your mental load.
But most of the time, it is just happening in our heads, completely invisible to the person sitting having dinner across from you. And that makes it awful.
It makes it really hard for anyone to appreciate the burden, the work, and the effort that is being exerted thinking through things, planning, worrying about and when we forget something flagellating ourselves for it. It is hard for anyone to offer a helping hand when they do not know it is even there, or even to say a thank you. Because, honestly, even a thank you would make it better.
See because the mental load is done in our brains it can be done any time! Or for some carers it feels like it is going on ALL the time. Leah loves to say that you can't bring your dishes to work to do, but you sure as heck can bring the mental load.
This is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, cognitive capacity is a limited resource. So if we are trying to show up at work, are with a friend or just reading a book, whilst at the same time churning through our list of plans to make, errands to schedule, schedules to build we are not really showing up properly. We are constantly only partially participating as part of our attention and cognitive capacity is elsewhere.
The other issue this brings is the inherent inequality it breeds. If only one parent, statistically more likely to be women or those in female coded roles are hauling additional this cognitive load around, they are at all times showing up with one hand tied behind their backs compared to their colleagues who do not have the same burden.
And this last one is important. Because the mental load can be carried and be "worked on" anywhere, and because it is inherently connected to loving others it never stops. If we are careful, there is no break. There is no time "off" and this can have significant impact on mental health. We know from research that mothers are some of the most stressed-out demographics with poorest wellbeing outcomes.
So what can be done?
I think we all need to first start with the realisation that how things are done today is just not right anymore. When a large majority of families are dual income having one person be the "primary" and with that carrying the majority of mental load is just plain not fit for purpose anymore, not to mention completely unfair and unnecessary. See, our research shows us that the motivation to re-imagine and do things differently is high on both sides of the partnership :those who are the primary carriers and those who are not.
The people carrying the lion share of the load are overwhelmed, exhausted and frustrated that they just do not seem to be able to shift this. Those who are not, but genuinely care about their families and partners hate the impact that it is having on their relationships. Both with their partners but also with their kids. They may not see the mental load, but they see the frustration that then turns into arguments, resentment and in some cases leads to relationship breakdown.
The first step is to see and recognise this and start from a point of understanding that we find ourselves here due to hundreds of years of human history that has built norms and expectations. And that it will take work and time to unpack it, re-imagine it, and build some new habits.
The second is to recognise that no amount of just "getting better organised" will crack this nut. It will take us doing this differently. Bringing different mindsets ( like compassion and understanding for each other) and willingness to try new things even though they may be hard.
We need to make and then take the time to make the invisible visible - not just focusing on the big ticket events, but getting down to the nitty gritty details that need to be planned, thought of, and prepared to make them happen. And then we need a plan and a system to share the absolute, complete load and work as a team. Once we have one in place ( ahem, we suggest melo of course) then, and only then can that primary mental load carrier start setting some boundaries and giving themselves the permission to not be ruminating on it all.the.time. And everywhere.
Solving the unequal distribution of mental load, and through that enabling families to live better, more connected lives is going to be hard. The best place to start is by getting to understand the research behind it. And then deciding to embark on an adventure of doing things differently. 'Cause all my goodness is it worth it -for the whole family, and most importantly the kiddos.