The Mental Load of Motherhood: How to Address the Imbalance of Household Labour - Happy as a Mother

The Mental Load of Motherhood: How to Address the Imbalance of Household Labour


with Gemma Hartley, Author



WHAT YOU’LL LEARN


  • Why We Carry the Mental Load of Motherhood
  • The Role of Perfectionism in the Mental Load of Motherhood
  • Why We Often Cling to Perfectionism as Moms
  • Tips for Letting Go of the Mental Load of Motherhood
  • Avoiding Resentment When Discussing the Mental Load of Motherhood
  • The Difference Between Delegating and Creating Ownership

Do you find yourself carrying the mental load of motherhood? Moms often serve as the default parents. The housekeepers. The caregivers. The go-to for all of the to-do lists. It’s a problem that can leave us overwhelmed, exhausted, and burnt out—and we often don’t even realize it’s happening. But we can make small changes that shift the household mental load and create buy-in from our partners. 

Today, I’m joined by Gemma Hartley, journalist and author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women and the Way Forward, to discuss how to rebalance the emotional and mental load of motherhood.

Uncovering the Mental Load

I remember the moment when I first realized that I was carrying the emotional and mental labour in our home. 

My husband and I had worked to divide up physical tasks as fairly as possible. For example, he washed the laundry and I folded it and put it away. But in my third maternity leave, I found myself avoiding the laundry pile as it grew and grew and grew. 

Every time I walked by it, a pit of dread formed in my stomach. And I just couldn’t understand WHY. Why was it so hard for me to complete this simple task, to fold the laundry and put it away? 

Then one day, it clicked. It wasn’t just the laundry. 

I had to change out all three boys’ clothes for the upcoming season. I had to shift their sizes and check to make sure everybody had enough of everything they needed for the winter. I had to re-organize and find places for all of the clothes that weren’t weather-appropriate. And I had to determine what needed to be bought, shop through options, and choose what to buy. 

Under the surface of that laundry mountain was a slew of invisible emotional and cognitive labour—the mental load of motherhood that I was carrying. 

Once I finally saw that invisible load, I couldn’t unsee it.

It took a lot of unlearning, open conversation, and collaboration for my husband and I to shift the labour in our home. But now, looking back, it was one of the best things we could have done—not just for me and my mental health, but for my husband and his role in the home, and for our entire family. 

Since then, I have had the chance to speak to so many authors who are discussing this mental load of motherhood. I was excited to bring Gemma in to hear her perspective and talk about what she adds to the conversation. 

Why We Carry the Mental Load of Motherhood

Gemma experienced her eye-opening moment on Mother’s Day. She asked her husband to hire a cleaning service (in hopes that he would see some of the invisible load that goes into planning and scheduling). 

Instead, he cleaned the bathrooms himself, leaving her to do all of her regular household tasks. When she found a tub he had left on the floor and exasperatedly pulled in a chair to put it away, he told her, “If you want me to do that, all you have to do is ask.”

Gemma pointed out that what she really wanted was not to ask for help, but for her husband to take the initiative. She and her husband had to work to reposition themselves, not as a boss/employee, but as equal partners. 

This is something I hear from my mom clients often. They end up assuming the role of household manager and delegator. But that just leaves them with more mental and emotional labour. 

But why do so many moms end up taking on this role and carrying the mental load of motherhood? There are many reasons. 

It’s easy to want to blame our partners for not pulling their weight. And, while they do bear some responsibility, there is more at play. Gemma believes there is a societal component that can’t be overlooked. What makes you crave perfectionism as a new mom is the culture you grew up in. 

She pointed out that we have to be very conscious of those societal and cultural expectations and the beliefs we bring into motherhood. We have to take a close look at those beliefs and determine whether they are actually true. If we don’t do that, we will end up picking the load back up even if our partners start to contribute more. 

The Role of Perfectionism in the Mental Load of Motherhood

Gemma identified perfectionism as one of the key factors in the mental load of motherhood. 

The postpartum period often brings a gap in parental knowledge and experience. Moms have often been prescribed gender norms since we were children, taught that women are responsible for the caregiving. 

Then, when we have children, we end up taking on more of the labour because we are at home on maternity leave. We end up building parenting skills faster, to the point where many tasks seem to come naturally to us. 

But our partners might not have that same level of experience. So, when we ask them to take on those tasks, they don’t do them the way we want them to be done. Often, we take them back on out of frustration. We want it done perfectly, so we feel like we have to do it ourselves. 

Gemma likened it to learning a new language. If only the women in a family spoke French, and they learned it from the time they were children, if an adult man in the family tried to learn, it would take some time and effort. 

If we want to share the mental load, we have to realize that just because we have been entrenched in these patterns since we were children doesn’t mean they aren’t difficult skills to learn. We need to give our partners grace while they build up the same skills we have. 

When perfectionism plays a role, this can be very hard. Sometimes we have to actively fight the urge to pick tasks back up when they aren’t done the ideal way in our minds. 

Why We Often Cling to Perfectionism as Moms

Gemma pointed out that she still has to fight that urge, even several years into the decision to redistribute the load. She said that she is sometimes tricked into thinking perfectionism is a way to save herself—that if she can find this perfect way to do things the load will become easier. In reality, however, perfectionism is just a black hole for our energy to go into. 

Sometimes, we cling to perfectionism because we want to feel validated in our role or because we believe we need to in order to be good moms. 

Other times, it comes from a false sense of control. Gemma pointed out that how our children turn out in the world is not as much in our control as we might like, so we turn to perfectionism rather than facing our fears about whether we’re good parents. 

She experienced this at the beginning of the pandemic, looking through colour-coded charts and hoping that if she could maintain a routine then her children wouldn’t have trouble coping with the changes. 

But there are some things that we can’t shield our children from, and no amount of control or perfectionism will change that. 

Perfectionism often goes hand-in-hand with maternal gatekeeping. Gemma said that when you have to do things in a “perfect way,” you must gatekeep because you are the only one who can control it. 

This can lead us to take on more of the parenting tasks, unwilling to let our partners step in. But we can’t ask our partners to pull their weight if we don’t give them space to take an active role in the home. 

Tips for Letting Go of the Mental Load of Motherhood

When we have been clinging to perfectionism and carrying the mental load, it can be hard to begin to let go. 

Sometimes, we fall back on trying to sort tasks by priorities or strengths. This can be tricky, because we have often been conditioned into certain priorities and preferences. For example, women often bear the brunt of judgement around a clean house, so they might prioritize tidiness more than their partners. 

But we can take our preferences into account to a degree. In my home, my husband is very particular about the way the dishwasher is loaded. We have divided tasks with that in mind. 

Gemma pointed out that this can be a fine line to walk. We can hold onto certain tasks that feel important to us, but we have to soul search and be very selective when we do. 

It’s also important to think about going for the low hanging fruit when we first start to shift the load. If we try to pass off high-stake things that feel extremely important, it can feel paralyzing. 

Instead, start with small tasks, then build up momentum and keep moving forward until you and your partner feel that the division of mental, physical, and emotional labour is fair. 

Avoiding Resentment When Discussing the Mental Load of Motherhood

When we first realize that we are carrying the mental load of motherhood, it’s easy to approach the situation from a position of anger. Often, we have built up resentment for years without even consciously noticing.

For example, Gemma often grew frustrated with her husband for leaving food containers out on the counter. She never told him that it bothered her, but every time she saw it, she grew more and more resentful. 

However, once she put aside the resentment and explained why it bothered her, he immediately pivoted, working to break the habit. 

Resentment has a way of showing us the worst in our partner. We sometimes perceive our partner’s lack of action as a lack of love and respect. It starts to feel like they are deliberately doing things to hurt us, when it’s usually just miscommunication and a lack of understanding. 

When having conversations with our partner about sharing equally in the load, it’s helpful to give them the benefit of the doubt. Instead of looking at their lack of action as a malicious act, remember that we are all impacted by a society that saddles women with the mental and emotional labour. 

If you feel yourself starting to tell stories about your partner’s behaviour, try to take control of the narrative forming in your mind. Ask yourself to think of three possible reasons for the behaviour that aren’t negative. 

Choosing the most generous interpretation of your partner’s behaviour makes it easier to have productive conversations. Rather than demanding your partner change, work together to solve the problem and create a more fair approach. 

The Difference Between Delegating and Creating Ownership

Gemma recommends that we avoid using words like “helping” when addressing the mental load with our partners. We need to break away from the idea that this work belongs to us and that our partners are doing us a favour or going above and beyond by taking over some tasks. 

There is a difference between trying to delegate tasks to our partner and asking them to step up and take ownership in the home. 

When we try to delegate tasks, we stay in a boss/employee relationship. Instead, we want to become equal team members that all fulfill an active role in the home. 

For example, instead of Gemma saying, “Please come in here and put away this bread,” she communicated with her husband with an open dialogue. In turn, he saw the situation in a new way and wanted to solve the problem with her. 

Shifting the load requires ongoing, open conversation. When we have these conversations, it’s important to address the emotional and mental load—not just the physical tasks. It goes beyond creating a chore chart—it requires acknowledgement, understanding, and active participation. 

Sometimes these conversations can feel uncomfortable to enter. But at the end of the day, our partners aren’t trying to leave us with this load—they simply don’t understand the weight of it. When we communicate the way the load impacts us, we can work toward a more fair sharing of the load. 

For Gemma, the biggest impact of these conversations wasn’t a list of chores her husband started doing. It was that she no longer felt alone in the mental load of motherhood. 

I feel the same way. Sharing the load has created space for my husband and I to communicate even better, work together as a team, and carve out the roles that work for our family. 

Are you finding yourself carrying the mental load alone and feeling resentful of your partner? Our Unpacking Resentment workshop can help you communicate your needs and work toward fairness in your relationship. Register today!

Gemma Hartley is a freelance journalist, speaker and author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women and the Way Forward. 

{She has spoken on the topic of emotional labor around the world, from corporate conferences to festivals at the Sydney Opera House. Her writing has been featured in outlets including Harper’s Bazaar, Women’s Health, Glamour, The Washington Post, CNBC, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Teen Vogue, and The Huffington Post.} 

She is passionate about creating a more equitable world in which invisible labor is valued and supported by both personal partners and public policy alike.

  


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