This scene may sound familiar to you. You just received an email from your child’s best friend’s mother, letting you know that his birthday party is next Saturday. That means you’ll need to plan on leaving swim lessons early, so you’d better plan to leave your younger child with your spouse that morning so that you have less to juggle. But before you can even write down the birthday party date, your son spills milk on the sneakers he was planning on wearing tomorrow, so those need to go into the washer. And of course, you need to make sure that they make it into the dryer before you go to bed so that they’ll be dry by tomorrow. Your partner announces that you’re almost out of kitty litter, and the next thing you know, you are struggling to remember every detail you need to jot down.
This juggling of details, reminders, schedules, and to-do’s is something that psychologists and journalists have been recently calling the “mental load”. At first look, it may not seem like such a big deal. Throwing shoes into the laundry only takes a minute, and picking up kitty litter the next time you’re at Target is simple, right? But it’s not the tasks themselves that are so cumbersome for parents. It’s the fact that one must remember to do each task, coordinate them around other tasks on the schedule, and then keep track of each associated task, such as buying a present for the child’s birthday party. This constant bombardment of reminders and schedules and small details is incredibly stressful, especially when you consider that it is usually one parent who bears the weight of the mental load.
If you are the parent who carries the weight of this load, what can you do to minimize your stress? First, identify the imbalance and talk about it with your partner. Maybe ask your partner to read this blog post, and Google a few other articles on the topic for them to read as well, so that they understand that this phenomenon is real. Once you’ve done that, talk about how the load can be shared. You may think that simply delegating tasks is a great way to share in the load. But when you ask your partner to cook dinner, you’re only offloading the physical task of preparing dinner. You’re still in charge of grocery shopping, meal planning, and then noticing which ingredients have been used and therefore need to be repurchased. The majority of the work is still in your hands. Delegate entire segments of your family’s daily life, whether it is household purchases, social dates and extracurricular activities, or holiday planning and shopping.
Once you outsource just one or two areas of your family’s routine to your partner, you may feel the weight of the mental load lessen a bit. Plus, when your partner shares the load, you’ll each be better able to acknowledge the work each partner does to keep the family afloat, and that recognition and respect goes a long way in reducing stress and making you each feel more fulfilled in your roles.