Mental load, although widely felt, can be tricky to articulate as it refers to seemingly invisible mental work that we do, but rarely stop to consider.
Put simply, it is the never-ending to-do lists, organising, prioritising and planning that helps keep our work, home, family, and social lives running smoothly from one day to the next.
With this work comes a responsibility for the management, organisation and planning associated with these tasks – the mental load.
When the mental load isn’t shared equally within households, it can become a heavy burden that can lead to stress, fatigue and overwhelm, all of which can affect our mental health and wellbeing.
The loss of precious spare time and a head brimming with to-do lists is something Roopinder (Roo) Dhillon, a lawyer and mum to 19-month-old daughter, Siana, is all too familiar with.
“Mental load for me is the weight of what I have on my mind, all the time. This includes life admin, housework, cooking, grocery shopping, anything to do with my child, social commitments, etc. It's an endless to-do list but also, it’s the task of constantly managing and juggling that list. It’s this constant weight of pressure on my mind,” says Roo.
For Roo, the mental load has definitely felt more acute since becoming a mother.
“As the woman you carry the child, you birth the child, if you’re breastfeeding, you feed the child, and if you’re at home with them, you’re their first go-to. Much of the responsibility fell to me from the word go and just never really went away,” she says.
Roo says she feels very lucky to have a beautiful, spirited daughter, an incredibly helpful, hands-on partner and wonderful in-laws, but she also readily admits that she finds the responsibilities and mental load that comes with being a parent challenging.
“When I start feeling really overwhelmed and like I’m being taken for granted, I try to remember that I usually start feeling like that when I need more time for myself. Once I’ve realised that, I make it happen, because if I don't, then that’s when my mental health can deteriorate.”
Why do women do it?
So, why do women carry the mental load? Social conditioning plays a big part – our mothers did it, their mothers did it, and so on. For some women, there’s a belief that it’s part of being a ‘good wife’ and a ‘good mother’, which again, is caused by deep-rooted societal norms.
Roo agrees that her cultural background, and to an extent, social norms, explains why she carries the mental load in her household.
“I was raised in a culture where women are the primary caregiver, so I guess I’ve been conditioned into doing the same. The dynamics of my relationship play a part too. I’m also pretty detail-orientated and like things to be done a certain way,” she adds.
For Roo, who decided to go back full time due to her law firm offering more flexibility to work from home in response to the pandemic, refocusing on her career has been a good decision, although her daughter remains her main priority.
“Becoming a mother has meant that my priorities have changed. I have to expect less of myself, work less, earn less, and accept that – for now anyway. I remind myself that it's not permanent – that you can ‘have it all’, you just can’t have it all at the same time.”
Lightening the load
For many women, a big part of lightening the mental load lies in talking about the fact that it exists in the first place. By talking openly about it with your partner, you shine a light on the problem – and you know what they say about a problem shared…
“I learnt pretty quickly that you need to create a system that works for you and your family. We decided to move next door to our in-laws after having our daughter and it’s literally the best decision we’ve ever made,” says Roo.
“I also make the most of organisational apps and online calendars. My partner and I both have access to them, which is key. But the main way I lighten my mental load is by communicating with my partner if things are starting to feel too heavy.”
Photography: Bonnie Savage