The ‘mental load’ – or Motherload, as we often refer to it in our community (see what we did there!) refers to the constant invisible and often overlooked work that goes into managing a household, including but not limited to meal planning, scheduling appointments, and managing finances.
This kind of work, while essential for maintaining a household, is often taken for granted and falls disproportionately on women, even when both partners are working full-time. This gender disparity is rooted in historical gender roles and societal expectations, and has been a topic of discussion for feminists for decades.
Roots of the mental load
So where on earth does this ‘status quo’ come from? One of the key reasons why women carry the mental load is rooted in traditional gender roles, which have dictated that women are the primary caregivers and responsible for managing the household. This division of labour dates way back in time, to when men were the breadwinners in a partnership, and women were expected to stay home and take care of the children and the household. This expectation was reinforced by societal norms and expectations, which placed a higher value on women’s domestic duties than on men’s work outside the home.
Women are often left with the responsibility, alone, of raising the childrenGloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem highlights the way women are often left to bear the brunt of domestic labour – regardless of their personal situation when she said, “Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat. Women often have to flee from the only homes they have ever known. Women are often the refugees from conflict and sometimes, more frequently in today’s warfare, victims. Women are often left with the responsibility, alone, of raising the children.”
Despite more women in the workforce, expectations have not changed
Women have increasingly entered the workforce over the years and now make up 48% of the workforce – yet expectations around the domestic load have not changed in line with this increase. This leads to women often taking on the majority of household responsibilities, even when they are working full-time, and further, to increase the already significant mental load, which can be emotionally and physically draining and leaves women stressed, overwhelmed and overworked. Familiar?
Eve Rodsky, author of the book Fair Play, discusses the issue of mental load in detail, highlighting the need for couples to work together to create a fair and equitable division of the domestic load. She argues that the mental load falls disproportionately on women because of societal expectations, but that it is possible for us to work with our partners to create more balance.
In her book, Rodsky describes the way the gendered division of labour plays out in modern households, saying, “The mental load is the invisible work women do to keep their homes and families running smoothly… managing meals, schedules, doctors’ appointments, and school events, making sure there’s toilet paper and toothpaste, arranging for child care when you have to work late, and so on.” Rodsky argues that this work is often taken for granted and not acknowledged, leading to feelings of resentment and burnout among women and ultimately, can affect women’s mental health.
To address this issue, Rodsky’s suggestion is that couples have open and honest conversations about their roles and responsibilities in the home. She suggests creating a system of “fair play,” in which both partners take responsibility for different aspects of the domestic (and mental) load. This can help to distribute the ‘mother’load more evenly, while also promoting greater equality in the relationship.
Men’s role is traditionally peripheral domestically
Feminists have long been advocating for a more equitable distribution of the motherload. In her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes, “The care of the house and of the children, as well as the conduct of the household, constitute the woman’s principal occupations; it is in that sense that she is a ‘housewife’; the husband participates in domestic tasks only to the extent that it is necessary for him to do so.” In other words, women have traditionally been seen to be the primary parent in the home, especially when children are part of the family set up. Men, meanwhile, have been seen as having a more peripheral role in domestic labour and take a back seat, as it were – even subconsciously. We’ve made significant progress in the workplace – and in society – in many ways, but the expectations around the domestic load have not evolved at the same rate and as a result, women – and mothers – are often left with a disproportionate amount of the mental load, which can lead to feelings of burnout and resentment.
Hope for Change?
Is there hope that things can change? Things are moving in the right direction, let’s say.
Eve Rodsky suggests in Fair Play, “By redistributing the mental load, couples can finally achieve a true partnership.” By acknowledging the value of domestic labour and sharing the responsibility for it, we can create a more just and equitable society, one in which the mental load is no longer carried solely by women.
Talking and communicating needs and responsibilities as a couple is key to creating a more equitable division of labour in the home, and one that acknowledges the mental load and distributes it more fairly between you and your partner.
The Mental Load Beyond the Home
But it’s also important to note that the impact of the mental load goes beyond individual households. The disproportionate burden on women has broader societal implications, such as limiting their opportunities for career advancement and perpetuating gender inequality.
In a 2016 article for The Guardian, feminist writer and activist Jessica Valenti writes, “The gendered burden of domestic work means that women have less time and fewer resources to invest in their professional lives, limiting their career trajectories and earning potential.” Valenti’s words illustrate the way the mental load can have long-term consequences, affecting women’s ability to achieve their full potential both in and out of the home.
Gendered division of labor reinforces traditional gender roles and stereotypes, which can be harmful to both men and women. When men are seen as having a lesser role in the domestic and mental load, it can reinforce the idea that caregiving is a “women’s job” and perpetuate the idea that men should prioritise their careers over their families. This can be damaging; not only to women but also to men, who may feel pressure to conform to rigid and outdated expectations around gender roles and reinforce the issue of toxic masculinity.
“The cultural devaluation of women’s work in the home and the market has served to keep women oppressed.” By recognising the value of the domestic load, and working towards a more equitable distribution of it, we can challenge these cultural norms and create a more just society for everyone.”bell hooks
By working together and acknowledging the value of the motherload, we can create a more equitable society in which the mental load is shared more fairly between partners. This will require ongoing effort and conversation, but the potential benefits are significant, not only for individual households but also for broader society.
As feminist icon Audre Lorde once said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” It is time to build a new house, one that is founded on equity and mutual respect.