In most families, there is a point person who is shouldering most, if not all, of what’s known as the “mental load.” Mental load, which is also referred to as cognitive labor, is a term psychological experts have begun using to refer to the endless list of unseen-but-necessary or “invisible” tasks to keep a home and family functioning.
And this list can feel endless: It’s everything from managing household chores to knowing what ingredients are on hand for meals to handling extracurricular schedules for kids to being the point person for communication with teachers to handling family finances to remembering to schedule air conditioner maintenance to making sure everyone has clean clothes that fit to anything else that needs to be tracked and maintained to keep things in order.
In other words, it’s a lot. And the mental toll of keeping this much information organized in the brain at all times is absolutely exhausting.
How Mental Load Impacts Moms
Research has shown that most of this mental burden falls on moms. A 2017 Bright Horizons survey found that 86% of working moms say they handle all family and household responsibilities, and 52% of the moms surveyed said they are burning out from the weight of their household responsibilities.
“The problem is, the person who carries the mental load tends to do it in a way that is sight unseen,” explains Denaye Barahona, Ph.D., founder of Simple Families and host of the Simple Families podcast. “It becomes very overwhelming very quickly, and their partner has no idea.”
Most moms would love nothing more than help with this incredible amount of stuff they have to think about and take care of every single day. But as Barahona points out, even getting help can be overwhelming because the tasks that need to be completed are a jumbled up mish-mosh that makes sense only to the person shouldering the mental burden.
“I've actually asked a lot of women ‘what are some specific parts of your mental load?’ And I would say the majority of people tell me ‘it’s just everything,’” she says.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to help a mother out, though. If you want to give the mom in your life the gift of relaxation — and real relaxation, because a gift card to a spa isn’t just a relaxing massage, it’s also another to-do that shifts other to-dos on the to-do list and takes away time when she’d be tackling those other to-dos — lessen the mental load. It will take some collaboration, but it can be done. And moms will appreciate it way more than another freaking bathrobe.
Start with “Thank You”
Reducing Mom’s mental load is not an overnight process. But kickstart it on Mother’s Day in a way they’ll feel instantly, with a thank you card for all that they do.
Do this before Mother’s Day so that you can really dedicate time to thinking of all the things that you don’t usually thank Mom for. (Get the kids to help, if they’re old enough — making a habit of thanking their parents for invisible labor is a great way to help foster gratitude in them, too.)
“Just recognizing and being grateful helps so much for transitioning [a mom’s] mindset to being appreciative rather than being resentful,” says Barahona. It can make Mom feel lighter or more positive right away.
Give the Gift of Time
Ever get the feeling that you're just in the way — or that you actually didn’t make a dent in helping at all — even when you really wanted to help? That’s how gestures like “bought detergent once because I noticed we were out of it” or “remembered to do T-ball signups” or “changed a single diaper” can feel. Since a lot of the invisible work is built on execution and consistency, doing one task for mom won’t lighten the mental load in the grand scheme of things.
Plus, it’s hard to magically swoop in and take something off the list when you don’t know what’s on the list, and sharing the contents of the list requires that Mom gives more already non-existent time.
So after you present Mom with the thank you card, add in another present: a few uninterrupted, kid-free hours. “When that day comes, take the kids out, set up a room in the house that’s clean, light some candles, make some coffee or tea, and give her space,” Barahona says. Take charge of planning the kids’ activities for that time, packing the bags with snacks and diapers and spare clothes, and give the gift of not having to make Mom think about it.
Even better: Don’t just limit it to Mother’s Day. Give Mom time on another day, to kick-start working on Barahona’s system for lessening the mental load. (More on this next.)
How to Make the Invisible Work Visible
Barahona details how she reduced her own mental load, starting with notecards. She wrote down every single thing she could think of that she did for her family — from “remember to buy toothpaste” to “make sure the toothpaste I bought doesn’t cause cancer” — and sorted them into three groups: keep, delegate, or eliminate.
“This gift is really the initiation of a process together. A lot of that would be the person who carries the mental load sitting down and figuring out ‘what are the pieces that I could hand off?’” she explains.
“So often we get so wrapped up in our tasks that we have very particular ways of doing them and we don't just want to pass them off. We want them executed exactly the way that we do it,” she says.
It isn’t as simple as suddenly diving in and taking tasks over without collaboration. Let Mom have some space to really think about what can comfortably be taken off the list and what is important to keep. (And as for the “does this toothpaste cause cancer?” question? Send that one right to “eliminate.”)
Writing it all down is probably the most helpful way to sort through it all, but remind Mom that you're capable of taking on or sharing some responsibilities too. Whether it’s for the partner or the kids, collaboration will help everyone have a better understanding of what is getting done.
“Don’t [let Mom] work behind the scenes,” says Rachel Allender, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Philadelphia who specializes in couples. For example, if Mom always changes the sheets while you’re at work, Allender says, bake it into a routine to change them together.
This will let the non-mental-load-bearing parent (and even the kids) start to see just how much is getting done by Mom, and then you can have a very explicit conversation about what can be taken over.
Keep the Process Going
Once Mom has handed off the delegation pile, the most important thing is to follow through. The mental load isn’t an immediate weight you can lift off anyone’s shoulders. It’s a gradual reduction in stress — and a process of trust. To build that trust, show up and do your part without asking for excessive applause for handling basic stuff. We all know Mom never did!
“What would really make things easier for your partner is if you prepared to have a daily conversation [about responsibilities],” says Allender. “Offer 15 minutes a day where you’re going to be really connected and talk about logistics,” she suggests. This is a great way to troubleshoot any responsibilities that you have questions about before they spiral out of control.
“Set a timer in your phone to have these conversations if you can’t remember,” she says, explaining that waiting to talk about these issues can cause more stress than it solves. “Make sure you tell each other about your plan for the day, every day.” Over time, with regular check-ins, you can even the load and anticipate where to help and alleviate tasks.
These conversations really demonstrate your commitment to taking on more equitable mental work, and that gives Mom the greatest gift of all: the ability to rest easy knowing everything is getting done.
A Checklist for Reducing Mental Load
To help make it known that you value Mom’s time as much as your own, focus on stepping in to help Mom before the execution stage. Here are some simple tips on how to start the initiation process of lightening the mental load together:
- Get to know Mom’s to-do list and why things are done in a particular way.
- Pitch in at the planning stage for household chores and calendars.
- Tackle family holidays and activities together. This includes school events, celebrations, play dates, and visiting the grandparents.
- Take complete ownership of specific chores. Instead of popping in when you are free, take some of the daily or weekly tasks on to your plate.
- Be open to feedback but also be honest about if you feel like you’re being micromanaged. Open communication is what it takes to build trust and it’s a skill that’ll serve the family long after the mental load has been lifted.
Want more ideas on showing your appreciation? Here are some gift ideas for mothers that will help them ease into dreamland.
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