As a highly empathic person I’ve always been keenly aware of the mismatch in emotional labour that certain people take on (or have put upon them). However the “mental load” was a term I only became familiar with when my partner and I started to grapple with what co-parenting actually meant in practice after our first child was born.
Up until that point it was relatively straightforward to invest equal thought and effort into our household, our relationship or our wider family/friends. We both knew we wanted to be partners in our relationship. Plus we had both been raised to be relatively independent and spent many years living on our own. Of course there were times when plenty of things slipped through the net if neither of us had put it on our mental lists (for example washing clothes for work or picking up toilet paper). However the implications when we had no independents and more freedom were less problematic. If my partner didn’t pick up the toilet paper on his way home from work he could easily pop out to the corner shop when he got back for example.
But the learning curve that I went through as a mother (and am still going through today) about how to either handover responsibility of some of my mental load to my partner, or to let go of it entirely, has been a steep one. In this instance I'll use the seemingly straightforward task of feeding our baby as just one small example for illustrating the challenge of sharing the load, but the same will be true of many other under-acknowledged roles and responsibilities of those bearing mental load (with or without children).
In my scenario I breastfed my baby from day one which meant it automatically became my responsibility to take on much of the mental load associated with that. In some ways this makes life easier (or lightens the load) as you quickly get in tune with your baby and can feed on demand rather than holding feeding times in your head and remembering to sterilise bottles etc. But having been the entire owner of the task of feeding our baby it was challenging when I eventually decided I wanted to hand off some of that responsibility to my partner.
There were three main things I needed to learn and accept in order to change the status quo and be able to let go. Here’s what they are and how we worked through them.
Sharing the mental load can sometimes create more work
What I found when we first started to share the responsibility of feeding our baby was that it ended up creating more work for both of us as we weren’t clear on who was responsible for what and when. There were times when I’d sterilised the bottles and then he would come in later not knowing I’d already done that process and repeat the same task. Or if he wasn’t aware a feed was coming up and hadn’t got round to sterilising a bottle we’d both race around in a panic and I'd still end up breastfeeding our baby.
When partners first try to split the mental load I’ve found this type of thing occurs in all sorts of scenarios if responsibilities aren’t clearly defined - for example both of you picking up food shopping on your way home because you presume the other person hasn’t done this. It seems small but in a world where we have increasing demands on our time it all adds up. It also builds resentment between people if you fail to address how the misunderstanding or miscommunication came about.
One way we overcame this was doing weekly planning of key tasks together on Sundays, or simply ‘working out loud’ and letting the other person know straight away when you have completed a task you both have a vested interest in.
People approach things differently - that’s a good thing - give your partner space to do that
In some ways when I was starting to share the responsibility of feeding our baby it was handy that I worked from home so that I could jump in and help if needed. But on the other hand it also caused more problems. I’d often share my opinion about when things should be done and how they should be done. Plus my partner had less need to take on full ownership as he could fall back on me to breastfeed our child in an emergency.
So we decided it was actually better for me to just leave my partner to it and trust in his abilities to own it. And through doing that we discovered other unexpected benefits. For example the fact that my partner prefers to stay in or close to home more than I do meant that he was able to get our baby into a more consistent feeding/sleeping pattern than I had prior to that. Plus we found that equal parenting doesn’t necessarily mean doing the same amount of stuff, or doing the same stuff every time.
It was a challenging process but the process of balancing the load meant we also started to get much more effective at communicating explicitly about what each of us needed from the other. For my partner 30 minutes at the gym is sometimes equally or more valuable to him than a whole evening out with friends. If I’m at home with the kids there are times when I want my partner to take them immediately for a bath so I can enjoy some time alone to read my book and decompress, but at other times being able to cook and share dinner together as a family is what I need.
Some things simply aren’t as necessary or important as I thought they were
Feeding your child is obviously one of the most important tasks a parent can perform, but when I started sharing more of my mental load with my partner I realised that I was treating everything as important.
With our second baby I decided I’d leave Thank You cards up to my partner to organise. Weeks passed and I had moments of worry whenever I spoke to his Nan or my auntie and realised neither of us had sent out the cards - but he’d been non-stop with work and kids, as had I, and ultimately he’d been quite frank with me that he personally didn’t think it was important.
Through this process I got to the point where I also accepted that it really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I’m now comfortable with the fact that both of us might never send a single card again. Some people reading this will be thinking “why were cards ever even on your radar of important things?”, and others will be dismayed at such ungrateful behaviour (sorry Grandma!).
Sharing the mental load is also about learning to let go of long-held beliefs and habits that actually don’t fit with your values or lives, and making conscious decisions to expend time and effort on the things that really matter to you.
When you learn to let go of the mental load and share responsibility of course there are risks. Things will fall through the net and not get done, or not get done the way you think they ought to be. But going through that process empowers you, and the people you are sharing the load with, to learn together and lead a more authentic and fulfilling life.
We are developing a toolkit to empower people to solve the problem of the mental load together. If you would like to contribute, please get in touch