The problem with doing all the things is often not in the ‘doing’.
It’s in the thinking about it all.
While fitting all the pieces of the day into the available hours can be difficult, the doing of it isn’t necessarily the bit that wears us out and down.
The doing gets done. People are fed. Deadlines are met. Clothes are washed. Appointments are made.
It’s the moments in between all the doing in which we are often weighed down.
All the thinking required to keep all the doing happening is the part that is never-ending and contributes a great deal to our exhaustion.
The mental load can be heavier than the physical one.
Mental as anything
Research describes this mental load – or cognitive labour – as “anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress” and has found that women do more of it.
I’ve long described my experience of the ‘computer tab’ syndrome – a snap shot into my head that many women relate to.
My mind is like a computer that has 236 tabs open all at the same time, and while one tab is on the screen, my brain is keeping track of all the other tabs running in the background.
As I write this, my ‘screen’ of focus is writing this post, but in the background I can hear the thoughts where I’m keeping track of the time; thinking of school pickup; thinking of what I have available to feed the kids in the afternoon; thinking about dinner, and running through the checklist for the evening; thinking about what work I have to do and when will I schedule that; the bill that needs paying.
Further along the tabs, is the running memory of upcoming school commitments, client deadlines, work meetings, dentist appointments, shopping lists, family stuff, friend stuff, where the laundry loads are up to, and a gazillion other things.
I asked my husband once what size shoes our kids take and he asked me (a little confused) why he needed to know. I said: “Of course you don’t need to know, but I do.” It’s just one of a million fragments of life floating around in my head because I (feel I) have to keep it all stored in mind for when it’s needed.
I have to think not just for myself – about my health, my life and my work – but for the kids, my husband, the entire household – and it’s exhausting.
This is part of the true imbalance of life for women – in the thinking of all the things domestic and parenting, which really means: being responsible for all the things.
The mental load isn’t equal
Good men, and my husband is one of them, say: ‘Just tell me what needs to be done and I’ll do it.’
While that’s well-meaning, the problem is that we still have to do the thinking which equates to managing a partner, not being equal partners.
We talk about the work-life juggle, about gender equity in the workplace, but if we want true balance, then we need to talk about the mental load – and the responsibilities that are behind it – and how that’s shared. Or not.
We know women still do the majority of housework and child care, regardless of whether they work outside of the home or whether that’s part-time of full-time, and as such the responsibility – and therefore the thought processes required to organise and manage them – is ours too.
This is a design fault in the way daily life has evolved since women stepped into the workforce. It’s a by-product of the shift and the fact that women are working dual roles.
We didn’t cause this, but we often perpetuate it’s existence by allowing it to continue – by enabling others to ignore responsibility because we’re so busy getting on with it. It’s not necessarily that anyone else assumes it’s our responsibility – it’s just without recognising the imbalance and actively working to address it, everyone simply continues with the status quo.
This is not just about equality and fairness though – this mental load, or invisible labour, is stressful and research has found it has a negative impact on the well-being of women, creating dissatisfaction with their lives and partnerships.
Sharing is caring: everyone here is a little mental
Recognising that your gender – and specifically your role as mother – doesn’t make you responsible for managing everything and everyone in your household is a good place to start I think.
Breaking the habit of assuming those responsibilities isn’t as easy.
A big shift would be to delegate some responsibilities – literally hand over not just the chore that needs doing right now, but entire responsibility for it forever more.
The cooking of meals on a certain day of the week. Laundry. Cleaning of certain things. Dental care. Sporting commitments. You hand over ALL responsibility for that thing and then you have to be prepared to let whoever you’ve handed it over to, to do it on their terms even if it’s not to your standard. Just let it go.
And while you’re waiting for that big shift to occur, easing the burden of the load matters.
- Practice deep breathing.
- Go for walks.
- Focus on quality sleep.
- Say no to things.
- Let some standards slip.
- Practice presence – try to stay in the current moment as much as possible and not keep thinking ahead.
- Ask yourself: does it really matter if it all doesn’t get done? I mean, really?
- Throw things out (that pile of stuff you mean to get to but never do).
- Journal. Get it out of your head to clear some space.
- Do a ‘clean sweep’ – write down the big things that are always hanging around in the back of your mind (do your tax return, book the dentist, have the carpets cleaned). Then delegate some of them and/or allocate a set chunk of time to start working through them.
Unpack some of your mental luggage and learn to travel a bit lighter.