How to avoid mental overload and share out chores equally

What is mental overload and why don’t we want it? It’s time to speak up about taking on more than our fair share of thinking, planning and arranging, says Lottie Storey

The mental load illustration

As memes go, this is one to raise a wry smile in both genders: ‘If at first you don’t succeed… Try doing it the way your wife told you!’ Just a bit of fun… right?

But what are we really saying here? That men are a bit incompetent? That they’re frustratingly overgrown babies who still need us women to channel them into being functioning adults? That women aren’t satisfied until we have someone to nag? That we’ll end up weary and disengaged but at least the job will get done?

Let’s face it, neither party comes out of this well. So just why does this scenario resonate so much, despite us living in an era where the majority of couples now split the household chores reasonably evenly?

An explanation: when a man expects his partner to ask him to help when she needs it, positioning her as the project manager and him as an assistant, he’s leaving it up to her to know what needs to be done and when – this is called ‘the mental load’. Even though most men claim that they do their equal share of chores, being the brains behind the operation as well as their tasks actually leaves women responsible for something closer to 75% of the work.

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So while, yes, he might put the bins out and she might empty the dishwasher, the chances are she also books the kids’ dentist appointments and pays for school trips and applies for a school place. The mental load.

Says Stella, mum of two: “We are both totally aware that for some reason everything falls on me. I’m training at the moment as well as working full time, plus I do some self-employed work. Yet I still organise every aspect of the kids’ lives.

“My husband couldn’t tell you when a wedding is coming up or a family birthday. He doesn’t have a clue when the mortgage comes out, what we have warranties for, when the cars are due a service or whose passport expires when. I asked him to file away some bank statements the other day and his reply was ‘where do we do that?’.”

This practical and organisational work is permanent and exhausting, yet somehow remains invisible, leaving women doing more than double the amount of household chores than men, according to the UK Office for National Statistics. And any narrowing of this gap isn’t because men are doing more but because wealthier households outsource these tasks to cleaners, most often to poor immigrant workers who are, yes, often female – not a progressive solution.

So, how do we even begin to redress the balance of what is clearly a deeply ingrained cultural norm? Says Abigail, “I can’t really work out why or how, as a feminist who refuses to do more than 50% of household duties out of principle, I’m still landed with the mental load. Is it because as forward thinking as I reckon I am, I’m still bound by the expectations of society and the generations that have gone before us?”

Relaxed couple on a bench

Reversing gender roles

Time to hear it from the male perspective. Mike, 49, says: “If you direct me to do something, I’ll happily do it all day long, however tedious or dull it is. If I take on finite tasks like ‘the holiday’ or ‘the kitchen’, I break it down into the minutiae required to do the job, thinking things through as well as just doing them. But it’s definitely the more proactive thinking around everyday, ongoing tasks that is my blind spot.

“Why? Previous relationships, family set-ups… Who knows? It’s certainly not a lack of love nor inability to multi- task and plan (which is my day job).

“All I know is that having a partner who will accept this set-up and acknowledges that this is a cognitive blind spot, rather than me not caring, will help us get the mental load evenly distributed quicker than just waiting for me to ‘wise up’ on my own.”

Natalie Lue

On paper, things should be changing for the better. Increasing numbers of women are smashing the glass ceiling in the workplace, and dads taking extended paternity leave are on the up. However, it appears that to really shift things from the bottom up, women need to lead this change with men.

Both genders raising their children to be treated equally and ensuring expectations for help around the house is one way. Challenging the conventions we see all around us is another.

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‘He’s ever so good, isn’t he?’ ‘You’re lucky – you’ve got a good one!’ – many women will recognise these kinds of comments from older generations for whom the unfair gender split was a given. It’s now up to us both to contest these views.

But the main change has to come from within our relationships. There’s a certain irony in this next suggestion but it’s up to women to speak up about how the mental load is affecting us and deteriorating our relationships. Our other halves are our companions not guests; partners not helpers – and we may need to tell them! Direct communication is key in redressing this balance.

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Says blogger Rachel Buchanan, mum of two: “My husband and I are deliberately and consciously both involved in sharing the household load. We have both made a lot of effort but it’s also evolved naturally… We were super aware that both working full-time city jobs and having children meant dual input. I guess we are lucky that he loves to cook, so naturally and willingly takes the lead on that, and I did the washing/cleaning then that evolved to 50/50 on most things once the kids came.”

Sara, a full-time teacher whose partner is the primary carer of their nine-year-old son agrees: “Breaking gender roles is hard and I often think a woman’s natural need to take care of others extends to taking on a mothering role for our partners.

“I’m lucky my partner worked in schools as a mentor and is very aware of how hard I work for the family. He respects that with it comes tiredness and at times I have to prioritise work, so he is on hand to manage the home and family.

“For us, it’s about understanding each other’s needs and stepping outside of clearly defined roles. As the main earner, car and home owner, I manage these along with the household bills and booking holidays.

“In balance, my partner naturally takes on preparing dinner and cleaning the house; he manages our sons’ school events, clubs, classes, dentist and doctor, and buys all of his clothes. I have to admit, I don’t know my son’s shoe size.”

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Such a mutual agreement that both partners need to put in equal effort is essential. Identify where the natural split occurs in your relationship in terms of which chores each of you is more inclined to do, weigh them up and agree what’s fair.

Discuss what the tasks are together, draw up a master list and agree a split you’re both happy with, making it clear that responsibility for that task doesn’t end once it’s ticked off but that accountability for everything to do with it stays with that item’s owner. Communicate when you feel things are going positively, as well as over- communicating when they aren’t. Importantly, come to terms with the fact that you may need to tolerate your partner doing things in a different way to you.

Taking a step back helps us see that some of the things we worry about could just not get done and it wouldn’t be the end of the world. 
Josephine Middleton

Rachel again: “This has been a big one for me – permitting Martin to do things his way and letting him learn from experience. He gets it. Now he seems to understand my attention to detail and has replicated that. For sports day, I bought the last-minute kit but left him to the plans on the day, and he turned up with a picnic in a cool bag with ice packs and a picnic rug!”

Learning to let go

So is the mental load confined to a male-female dynamic? What about in same sex relationships? New Yorker, Katherine, works full time and is mum to two boys: “I constantly feel as though between work and the caring of two small humans I am at my capacity! What feels unique, or at least less predictable about how much mental load I carry, is in being married to a woman it all feels up for debate.

“There are definitely some life tasks and planning that I fall into more naturally – like feeding all of us – and there are moments of frustration where I wish Rae could read my mind!

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“Like when she asked how much antibiotic to give one of our sons the other night when he had been taking it three times a day for a week. (So what you’re saying is that I’m the one who has done this all week!) But if I am honest there are things I just don’t think about because Rae does.

“I haven’t had to worry whether we have diapers since our youngest was born (they just appear) and the only reason I see my dear friends is because Rae coordinates a lovely social life for us.

“I guess the way I see it, is with two working parents there is plenty of mental load to go around and perhaps the advantage we have experienced in our non-heteronormative relationship is that we have been having these conversations since we got together. It is by no means perfect – but we embrace the process!”

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Talking, then, is key. As is trust. Trusting your partner to do what needs to be done and accepting his/her decisions. If it doesn’t work, go back to the initial discussion.

Realise you have to make a choice between ‘perfect’ (or rather, the way you would have done it) and ‘done’ for the sake of your own wellbeing. Josephine Middleton has this advice: “Taking a step back helps us see that some of the things we worry about could just not get done and it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It’s horribly frustrating and the house is a bit messier than usual, but I figure that I am allowed to just NOT do some things.

“It’s better than asking my partner to do stuff and then watching and complaining he isn’t doing it right. But what actually is right? It isn’t necessarily my way.”

And we’re back to our opening meme again. ‘If at first you don’t succeed…’ How should that cliché end now that we’ve shared the mental load? ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try working together’? As Josephine suggests, that may not be perfect but then what is? Let’s find out. Together.

4 tips for your significant other

1

Plan ahead

Often the issue isn’t the doing of the task; it’s remembering to do it regularly. So, ask your partner to raise their awareness and plan ahead – check the laundry basket and do a load when it’s needed. Going on holiday? Ensure the laundry’s done in time to pack.

2

Make a note

Post-its, a blackboard in the kitchen, a pinboard in the study… if your SO struggles to remember what needs to be done then writing it down is a simple way to take ownership of their tasks.

3

Get smart with a phone

Your partner can’t ‘not notice’ what needs doing if they create calendar events, alarms and alerts as reminders.

Learn the skills

Some household chores end up as one person’s responsibility because they like doing them (such as cooking) or simply because they know how. If your partner (or you) doesn’t know how to do something for your household, it’s time to share your skills then share the load.

Photos by Jessica Rockowitz, Alex Holyoake, Luis Quintero, Caleb Jones, M T Elgassier on Unsplash

This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine, issue 4. Discover our latest subscription offer, or buy back issues online.

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