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The Mental Load of Motherhood & 5 Ways Partners Can Help

Mental load of motherhood
Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / sasint

Mothers conduct the majority of household chores and the mental work in the home and child care. This is referred to as the mental load of motherhood.

The mental load of motherhood refers to the unseen cognitive and emotional labor performed by women in keeping up with childcare and household responsibilities. This includes organizing, multitasking, planning, and anticipating. It is unpaid, unlimited, and unseen work that mothers are doing. The mental load is largely motivated by mothers’ wishes for family efficiency, well-being, and happiness. Examples of the mental load of motherhood include the following:

  • Meal prepping and planning
  • Anticipating children’s needs 
  • Organizing playdates for the kids
  • Setting up dentist and doctor’s appointments for the children
  • Keeping in contact with teachers to make sure the children are on track at school
  • Remembering to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer
  • Thinking of the shopping list
  • Calming down the kids when they are upset 

The mental load of motherhood particularly refers to the many small things women keep up with in order to manage the household and childcare. The mental load is a 24/7 job that constantly keeps women on their toes. It is mentally and emotionally exhausting, and it is something disproportionately experienced by women. While being a mom is a full-time job, being a dad doesn’t come with the same expectations.

Why Is the Mental Load on Mothers?

Women are expected to fill unfair gender roles in parenting.
Women are expected to fill unfair gender roles in parenting.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / 5540867)

While men have the luxury of turning off the “dad” side of their brain while away from the family, mothers can’t do the same. Research shows there are dramatic gender imbalances in the mental labor performed by mothers and fathers. Women continue to worry about childcare when not with their children, while men are less likely to do so. According to this 2019 study, the vast majority of partnered mothers do disproportionate work in managing the home, compared to their male partners.

This is likely because the cognitive and emotional labor being done by mothers is, for the most part, invisible. While physical household chores such as cooking and cleaning are more likely to be recognized as work, cognitive and emotional labor remain unseen, and not respected as a real form of work. The type of work that makes up the mental load is difficult to describe or to prove as valid. It may seem like a lot of small things, but all these small things are what add up to be a truly overwhelming burden.

While men may be largely oblivious, any awareness they have of the unequal load put on their partner is often justified by the mythical idea that women are simply better organized and more skilled at household management. Rather, women fill these unequal gendered roles because they are socialized to do so from a young age. Sexist expectations and judgments are what tie women to household and child care, creating an unequal distribution of work between heterosexual parent couples. 

The Effect of the Mental Load

Mothers are often referred to as superheroes, but the mental load of motherhood is huge.
Mothers are often referred to as superheroes, but the mental load of motherhood is huge.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / shelleywiart)

The mental load of motherhood is a constant low-level stressor, which can have real damaging effects over time. Research shows that women who are unfairly responsible for household management and childcare are not as satisfied in their relationships.

The mental load also puts strains on the well-being of mothers, causing excessive stress and anxiety. Mothers are overall less happy than fathers. The high share of cognitive labor, specifically, has been shown to be exceptionally damaging to women. While the unequal division of physical household labor is also damaging to women, the disproportionate cognitive labor done by women is detrimentally exhausting.

How Partners Can Help

Fathers need to step up when it comes to household and child care in order to help alleviate the mental load of motherhood.
Fathers need to step up when it comes to household and child care in order to help alleviate the mental load of motherhood.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / darkside-550)

In order to help lighten the mental load of motherhood, partners or spouses can take action in small but significant ways:

  1. Listen to your partner when she explains what her mental load is. Because cognitive and emotional labor is unseen, it may be difficult for your partner to explain what she is going through. Make sure to listen intently, validate her feelings, and respect her perspective. 
  2. Empathize and try to understand what it is that your partner is going through. Read through the studies linked above to gain a deeper understanding of what the mental load of motherhood truly is. Learn about the problem and become a part of the solution.
  3. Acknowledge what your partner has been doing for you and your children, and express your appreciation. 
  4. Step up and ask your partner what you can help them with, and make suggestions of your own. Once you understand the cognitive and emotional labor the mother of your children has been doing, make an effort to step up and put in more of this type of work, in order to lessen her burden. This may include things like organizing your children’s schedules, maintaining grocery lists, checking in with the babysitter while you’re out of the house, emailing teachers and coaches, anticipating material needs, and going out shopping for them. Make sure you are helping in a way that is productive and truly effective. 
  5. Check-in with your partner regularly to make sure that you are both happy with the way things are running. This is important to both the flow of the household, as well as the health and happiness of yourselves and your relationship. 

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