Digging Out from Under the Mental Load

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I’ve been fascinated by this idea of the mental load since I first heard of it maybe a year ago. The idea seemed to perfectly the embody the frustration and vague discomfort I’ve felt in these roles of mother and wife for the last few years.

Also called “the invisible workload” or even “emotional labor,” all of the terms refer to the family and household intangible tasks that often fall to women.

It’s the mental cycling of the smallest tasks that need to happen, the things that need to be remembered, the restraint of managing emotions when no one else notices or seems to care about them–until they aren’t done (hence, the “emotional labor”).

I’m not the only one who has latched on. This comic has gone viral and is shared on social media with rallying cry comments from women.

We feel the weight of it, but we don’t know what to do about it.

Digging Out from the Mental Load | MindJoggle.com

Unloading the Mental Load

This “mental load” is a major reason I started this blog. The day-to-day, miniscule demands of home, family, work, and community were occupying so much space in my brain that it felt like there was room for little else. I wanted to make that space.

I’ve always been an introverted, introspective person and it bothered me that my head was filled with only lists of tasks that needed to be done.

While it may seem counterintuitive to add a huge, ongoing project that is filled with many little tasks itself (i.e., this blog), doing so has been rejuvenating.

In a sense, what I’ve done is give myself permission to focus my attention on needs that are entirely my own. There are only a few ways that I do this in my life: reading books, writing this blog, occasional creative writing, and exercise.

When I’m not doing any of these things, my attention is on the needs of someone else. I suspect most moms are the same. There’s a lot of guilt associated with those moments when our attention is elsewhere.

Removing Guilt and Changing Expectations

While I realize I shouldn’t actually feel guilty about spending time on things I enjoy, I haven’t figured out how to remove it entirely. Having a dedicated project, with specific tasks to complete and an external audience, is a built-in way to remove some of that guilt.

During my blogging break, I spent some time thinking about my goals for this blog. Sharing and discussing books are central, of course, and that’s mostly what I’ve focused on this past year.

In addition to that, I’ve been thinking about the demands that family, work, and life place on women, and how that affects our mental space and ways of being in the world.

I’m not talking about the whole “self-care” concept, exactly (though there’s nothing wrong with a good massage or Netflix binge).

What’s on my mind are the changing ways that I use my mind, and the changing expectations for how I use my mind, as a woman in adulthood.

As a child, teenager, and young adult, I was encouraged to pursue academics and adventure. I loved school, read voraciously, got excellent grades, took advanced classes, played sports, lived abroad, and went to elite universities.

Through all of these pursuits, I felt supported. Not just by people I knew, but by the world at large. Basically, if I wanted to fling myself out there and grab onto something, it felt like the world said, “Fling away, and grab hold!”

Maybe this is just a feature of youth. As I got older, the mandate changed–slowly. And I can’t blame the world for all of it: I got regular jobs, bought homes, got married, and had kids. These were choices, and they don’t naturally allow for much flinging and grabbing on.

The Invisible Load

But even that natural reduction of the radius of my world isn’t quite the target I’m aiming at here.

It’s the collateral that comes with those things–the invisible workload–and the sudden expectation that, as a woman, it is my responsibility to keep it all afloat. And these responsibilities are tiny details:

  • The buying groceries and planning of meals, and the keeping track of what everyone will and will not eat this week (and deciding whether I care)
  • The gathering of socks and toys and child detritus from every corner of the house
  • The remembering items needed for today’s specific activity at camp
  • The making of birthday party plans, sending RSVPs, and buying gifts
  • The buying and sending of birthday and holiday cards
  • The finding of beloved stuffed animals and any other lost (but essential) item
  • The brushing teeth and washing hair and bodies and trimming nails
  • The managing of household maintenance and service providers
  • The scheduling doctor appointments for people and pets alike
  • The managing of endless piles of paper, and the emotions that accompany them (is this scribble worthy of preserving forever? If not, do I need to hide that I’m throwing it away?)
  • The locking of doors and turning off lights and starting dishwashers.

And on and on. You know what I’m talking about.

It’s that it sometimes feels like the way that I use my brain has fundamentally changed.

These are the things that fill our heads, day in and day out, leaving little room for anything else. They’re the things we don’t bother to ask for help with because doing so would create an additional task: when we have to ask for help, we suddenly become a project manager.

I don’t know how to make these things disappear, or how to make it so the woman in the family is not the only noticer of them (and yes, I’m generalizing here, and I acknowledge that this may not apply to your family).

It’s not that our partners or even children are lazy or are unwilling to do these things. Mine aren’t, and yours probably aren’t either. It’s that they are not the noticers–we are.

And it’s the constant noticing that makes our heads swim in circles.

What’s Next?

I’ve said to friends before that my days sometimes feel like a constant conversation with myself where the only question asked is, “What’s next?”

I finish one thing and grab onto the next task that pops into my mind. Because there is always something next.

And that’s the catch, really. We can keep ourselves on the “what’s next” train for our entire lives, or we can consciously stop it and make space for other things:

  • For reading books, both for enjoyment and to engage our minds
  • For learning new information or skills
  • For understanding and contemplating world events, and deciding our views on them
  • For creating the things we want to make, whether it’s writing, art, music, gardens…or even blogs
  • For connecting, or disconnecting, in ways that feel meaningful, and not just like last-ditch attempts to check out for a few minutes
  • For cultivating friendships and relationships that also feel meaningful, and like something we can count on
  • For reclaiming those beautiful “bored” moments we dreaded as kids, but that often brought about our best ideas and gave us space to understand ourselves.

I’m taking small steps right now toward doing more of all of these things. And if you’d asked me several years ago whether it was doable, I might have said no. At that time, the only thing I was making space for was some reading–usually while nursing or holding a sleeping baby.

Right now, I’m working on being conscious of my own mental cycling, giving myself permission to do the things I love, and prioritizing what I want to do (yes, I’d love to learn 6 languages and get more degrees and do some triathlons and redecorate the house, but can I do any of them without making the loads worse?).

Most importantly, I am consciously doing the things I want to do–reading books, writing, exercising, learning something new–and sometimes leaving the tasks for later. Because they will always be there.

I’m also working on bringing my family into the fold–talking to my husband more about how my brain cycles through these things, and giving my kids more responsibilities (while working on my patience as they learn, instead of rushing through to “just get it done”).

I suspect women have almost always carried this mental load–now we just have a name for it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject:

How do you manage the mental load in your household? Does it feel overwhelming, or do you feel like you manage it well? How do you give yourself space to think about and do the things–outside of your family–that you enjoy or find important?

Digging Out from the Mental Load | MindJoggle.com