Mental Load is a Family Issue

The discussions about the distribution of household labour within families are not new. Dual income families in countries like Australia are becoming the norm, and as women’s participation in the workforce has increased so has the division of household labour changed. Research shows us that we are not yet at equitable levels but we are getting much better.

What has changed in the last number of years is the nuance in the conversation – separation of physical vs cognitive/emotional labour associated with households and caregiving. Even though many households are getting close to physical labour equity, the cognitive and emotional labour (or mental load) of running a family and a household is nowhere close to where it needs to be to be equitable, but also more importantly fit for purpose for the lives we lead.

The one problem with the current conversation is that the mental load is showing up in a form of a ‘women’s issue’. And if we look at the data and research, we need to recognise that we need to broaden this. The mismanaging of mental load is a family issue – impacting both partners albeit in different ways, but also very much having a negative impact on our children.

See, our research shows us that the motivation to re-imagine and do things differently is high on both sides of a good partnership – those who are the primary carriers and those who are not. In launching melo and having hundreds of conversations with families and individuals about it, we are certain of this.

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. They also tell us about the frustration and sometimes sadness of feeling like a passenger in their relationships, and how being seen as a ‘secondary’ parent by their children hurts.

This is also showing up in research that tells us that both men and women experience psychological distress due to inequity in their relationships and that both men and women have a decreased marital quality due to unequal division of labour in the household.

We believe that we can truly fix this issue only when the impact on both partners, as well as their motivation, is seen as just as important and necessary of consideration.

And before we throw up our hands in the air and say “well why don’t men just take on more then?!” , or “why do women keep on just taking it all on” we need to understand that it is not that simple. The roles we find ourselves in are not the result of conscious choices but are an aftermath of years of socialisation into deeply gendered norms. As the amazing Kate Mangino in her excellent book Equal Partners says – we need to stop blaming men and stop fixing women. We can’t blame the person, we need to blame the norms.

The only way we move on from here is starting from a place of mutual compassion and see that at the same time it's neither of our fault and both of our fault. But what is more important is the understanding that is hurting all of us, including and very much our children. Only then can we move on in a direction that we both decide is right for us.