Making the Mental Load Visible

Blog Post
Feb. 15, 2021

The mental load is that nagging voice that haunts you with reminders about empty milk cartons, unbought gifts, and dirty bathrooms. In 2017, the publishing of the Emma cartoon put the mental load on the map and, suddenly, millions of women felt seen. The mental load is all of the thinking, planning, organizing, and emotional work of keeping a family and home running. Feminists have been talking about the mental load for decades. Why did it take so long to recognize this labor as labor? Well, the mental load is invisible so we don’t often “see” our or others’ mental loads.

The mental load is unlike any other form of housework because it has no clear start and stop time. Scholars have long shown that women perform more housework than men, even when they earn more money. So, while women are still performing the bulk of the shopping, cooking, and cleaning, at least these activities can be measured in discrete times. (One can’t do the dishes indefinitely, unless, of course, you live in a house with a 5 year old passionate about making slime!) In this way, the mental load is distinct from other types of chores in that it is invisible and enduring — it never ends.

Mellissa Milkie and Catharine Warner identify that mothers do a lot of thinking and planning work to ensure their children are prepared for the school day and competitive future workers in the global economy. This is a huge amount of pressure and a perfect example of the intensity of the mental load — mothers are not only worrying about whether their children have clean socks, but whether global forces will wipe out employment in their town and how to prepare their children for this future. In this way, the mental load is about making sure the family is thriving emotionally, physically, and financially today and into eternity. The mental load is enduring, high stakes, and deeply emotional.

The intensity of the mental load is exacerbated under a global pandemic whereby overnight mothers became school teachers, playmates, and psychologists all while concerned about an impending global recession and fears that children’s learning will be scarred by remote learning. It is no wonder, then, that we are finding mothers who are doing more housework and childcare are experiencing anxiety and restless sleep, which can also have financial costs.

The mental load is not bound in shifts — there is no clocking into the mental load or leaving the mental load at home when arriving at work. Rather, people are carrying their mental loads with them all day long and ruminating in their to-dos while doing other activities. We know that carrying constant low-level stress is terrible for our health, and we know that mothers report feelings of intense time pressure, anxiety, and guilt. We need to know how the mental load contributes to these feelings and, importantly, how to equalize its burden.

Now is a time of great stress but also great opportunity. Let’s seize on this moment to figure out how we can do better moving forward. As researchers, we see a growing need to measure the mental load amongst a diverse group of Americans. We need to know the true volume of this work and how it is carried differently by women and men across divergent groups. Second, families need tools to communicate about the mental load, to recognize that it's valuable labor, and to commit to sharing it more evenly.

Third, we have to turn our attention to policy, at work, and in our wider communities. We need our paid work and our caregiving lives to be synchronized and workplace policies to allow caregivers leave, so they don’t have to drop out of the workforce entirely to manage care. For many mothers, the work of ensuring children’s schedules are managed is tremendous. For many caregivers, ensuring medicines are administered and food is delivered can overtake one's abilities to work. Caregiving is an integral part of our human lives and the demands will only increase as many of our relatives, friends, and colleagues age and need care.

This brings us to our final point — we need a comprehensive caregiving policy. Too often we compartmentalize our caregiving — childcare, aged care, sick care, disabled care. Yet in many families, often women will carry these caregiving demands over their lives and are balancing multiple types of care simultaneously. This calls for policies that allow caregivers to take time off work without penalty to care, to pay those providing care for our loved ones sufficient wages to support their own families, and to compensate family members for their care when it exceeds the capacity to work. Caregiving should not drive us into poverty. Caregiving is essential to humanity and community and should be protected as a fundamental right.

U.S. workers have waited decades longer than their peers in other wealthy nations for effective caregiving policy to alleviate the stresses on U.S. families. As the struggles for structural reforms continue, mental load researchers, advocates, and everyday activists at home and at work provide families a critical lifeline. Recognizing the burden of such invisible, endless, and boundaryless labor can make this internal work and its impacts visible and, importantly, shared equally.

This experiment was guest written by a team of researchers who study gender, work, and social inequalities at the University of Melbourne:

Liz Dean is a Lecturer (Teaching Specialist) and Director of the Undergraduate and Honours program in Sociology in the School of Social and Political Science at The University of Melbourne. Her research interests include gender, feminism, and social inequalities.

Leah Ruppanner is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of The Policy Lab at the University of Melbourne. Her recent book, Motherlands: How States Push Mothers Out of Employment (2020), shows how childcare and gender policies vary across US states and their relationship to mothers’ employment.

Brendan Churchill is a Research Fellow in Sociology in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

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