The Essence of the Mental Load – Even when it is equal, it is still a burden – Part 1

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This is part 1 in a 3 part series about the “Mental Load.”  

What is the Mental Load

Did you ever wish you lived on a commune and wore a flowing floral dress and hand-woven sandals? Where you know that every person will contribute, without instruction, to cooperative living. Where you will hum peaceful melodies and spend time in deep thought.

And, instead, you install a garage door sized dry erase board with an endless to-do list, publicly displayed in your home. You write chore sheets and create sticker charts for the kids (and maybe your spouse). You desperately try to run your crazy household.  You both believe in co-parenting and shared household responsibilities. So, you evenly distribute tasks to the adults, fairly and equitably. But, behind the checklists, household management apps, and calendars, you wonder why this sharing business still feels like so much work?

If this sounds familiar, you are probably suffering under the “mental load,” also known as “the third shift.”  A recent study found that the mental load affects more than three quarters of working mothers (sorry dads, you most likely can’t claim this one).  No matter how many tasks she actually manages to distribute to others, a working mom still carries the massive internal burden managing and organizing and thinking about it all.  Even when she isn’t doing it all. 

How do I know if I am suffering from the mental load?

Take a look at this incomplete, but illustrative checklist.  If any of the descriptions sounds familiar, you probably have at least a medium sized mental load.  If you check more than a few, you would have to pay the overweight baggage fee on most major airlines if you travel with that mental load.

I am the one who is responsible for keeping things from falling through the cracks.  If practice is canceled at the last minute, I have to text everyone, even if I am in the middle of something important at work.
I am furious when someone else opens the school folder.   That is exactly how permission slips, instructions for holiday parties, and order forms get lost!
If I don’t make and post a list, nothing will ever get done.  That list keeps our household from falling apart.
Instead of counting sheep at night, I review my to-do list because it exhausts me to just think about it.
For every request, the answer is “ask mom, she’s in charge.”  Though I find this irritating, it does protect me from surprises and bad plans.
If I have to be away for more than a night, I search Craig’s list for out of work certified project managers to help while I’m gone. Otherwise, I have to create complex, detailed daily agendas that account for proactive mom-thinking like traffic, bathroom stops and snacks.
I keep running lists of things like easy meals, science fair project ideas, history day topics, and make-at-home Halloween costumes to help future moms.
My family vacation packing list is an excel spreadsheet with pre-programmed formulas based on the days of the trip, location and weather factors. 
The phrase “you should have asked, I totally would have helped you with that,” makes me go ballistic and slam doors and possibly cry in the bathroom.
I find myself asking things like “why am I helping you build a toothpick castle for school when dad’s an engineer?”
Everyone marvels at me and says “I just don’t know how you do it all with a busy career and a family.” And, I secretly think… “yes, I actually do seem to do it all.”
My spouse is wonderful, loving and kind and does more than a fair share of our split household duties, and I love that about him/her. But I still feel exhausted.

Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3

Now that you recognize some of the signs and symptoms of the mental load, you might be wondering what to do about it.  Part 2 and part 3 will give you strategies for unburdening your mental load. Stay tuned and save a few New Year’s resolution slots for these new strategies.