What is the mental load and what can we do about it?
It’s your kid’s birthday. Your property fence has been ravaged by termites and looks like something out of Hogwarts. Work requests are flying through your inbox faster than Omicron. And it’s Christmas in two weeks. There are teacher presents to organise, Christmas "drinkie-poos" with class parents, kids’ Christmas parties, playdates, work celebrations and dinners.
You’re making mental to do lists in your head for each of these tasks, managing multiple conversations and switching from parent mode to tradie quotes to client calls to Christmas chaos at lightning speed.
And no one has the slightest clue you’re buckling under the pressure. Except maybe your partner, whose head gets bitten off every 5 minutes – just for breathing.
Because the mental load is often invisible. And it drives us crazy... And we know you have been trying to fix how you and your partner share it, but the aforementioned head biting is not getting you anywhere.
The silent assassin
The mental load is a sneaky beast. As it mostly takes place in our heads, it can be hard to get a handle on - until we reach breaking point. At which point, run for the hills. Because it ain’t pretty.
But what exactly is it?
Mental load is the cognitive labour our brains engage in to plan, remember and manage family life alongside everything else in life. Even if both partners are getting tasks done, there’s always one person responsible for carrying the load and making sure no one drops the ball on family life.
It often falls to one person
Research shows that the mental load is not shared evenly in families. This creates frustration, stress and burnout. Left unchecked, it can lead to the breakdown of relationships and often filters into other aspects of life, like work.
It impacts how parents show up at work
When parents are struggling to keep their heads above water at home, this affects how they show up at work. They are less effective, productive and engaged. And, over long periods, this can lead to parents opting out of work altogether. This is not surprising given the increasing pressures of modern-day life.
But why is this happening?
When one person carries the mental load, it’s not usually a rational decision. It’s not like families sit down and decide that all the family stuff should be dumped on one parent. It’s something that just happens. In part due to bias, societal expectations and unconscious conditioning.
Couples fall into traditional roles. For the most part, one parent stays at home with the child (most commonly the mum) and is responsible for everything to do with the child and home. And the other goes to work.
As the years go by, we become set in our ways. We identify with the roles we’ve created, and this makes it hard to shift into different, healthier dynamics. Resentment builds. Communication breaks down. And before we know it, we’re a bunch of hot messes dreaming about, well, nothing. Because we literally have no bandwidth left for anything.
This needs to change
As a society, we need to help families move from this model of having a primary care giver and work towards one of a team.
How we can change it
One of the ways we can do this is to look at family life through the lens of work life. The best work environments are made up of strong, supportive teams. And great teams create solid families.
It starts with teamwork
If families mirror what we know about teams, they can start sharing parental responsibilities and reduce the mental load. We’ve identified 5 characteristics of good teamwork that families can adopt:
1. Decide what is important
Like all great teams, it’s helpful if families work on shared values and decide what’s important to them – as individuals and partners. This makes it far easier to decide what they give their time to, what they outsource and what they can delete from their lives altogether.
2. Create structure
The best teams use tools to support their workflows and efficiency. In the same way, families can embrace existing support systems. This might include tools, processes and their networks of family and friends.
3. Communicate early
Communication determines the strength of our relationships. It’s how families move from shitshow to dream team.
Like everyone, parents need time to think, plan and reflect on what needs to be done and what works best for them. They often just don’t have the time to do this. But, if they increase visibility of everything that needs doing, this will free up time for both partners and ensure family life’s not just falling to one parent.
Setting aside a time that works for both parents to talk is key, too. Often couples wait until an issue has become so big that one parent fantasises about being in iso just to get a break.
4. Support each other
The best teams are built on trust and mutual support. When couples learn to let go of the things they don’t "own" and allow their partner to step in and do things their way this reduces stress levels significantly. Even if it means the kids have chocolate milk and mince pies for dinner 3 nights in a row. We know, we know! Just look away before it breaks your brain.
5. Have open conversations
If we never question the way we do things, we can never change. It’s important we shift the conversation around family responsibilities and challenge the primary care giver model.
If we parents start the conversation now, we can become better role models for the next generation. And potentially create a new generation of less stressed, burnt-out hot messes.
Create lasting change
It’s not enough to talk about creating change. We must do something about it. That’s why we built melo.
melo is an app that encourages busy parents to try new ways of managing family life. We’re on a mission to help families work as a team, so they can reduce the mental load. This is done, gradually, over a series of weeks via curated content, nudges, tips and tools – all delivered through the app.
Through melo, families can feel less stressed and more like the families that all those Johnson & Johnson ads sold us. Who are we kidding? That’s just silly talk. But we try our best.