What is mental load?
Naming a phenomenon makes it a real thing people can recognise, identify with and, where possible, work towards solving.
“A catchy label encapsulates something people knew was ‘a thing’ but didn’t have a term for,” says Professor Craig.
“The second shift was another of those labels. It named women doing work in the home before going to paid work and then tasks such as cooking in the evening, as a second shift of work.”
Another powerful term is secondary activity. “You might look like you’re at leisure, sitting by the pool reading, but you’re actually there to watch the kids. Or you might be available for kids doing homework but you’re doing housework or cooking too.”
Professor Craig has spent a lot of time analysing Australian time use surveys, which contain 24-hour diaries of all daily activities. The diaries paint an exhaustive picture of care and domestic labour as well as “what couples and families are doing in relation to each other,” she says.
“We can see things such as how often fathers are alone with their children, compared to mothers, which is not much.”
“It’s just what I do before bed”
Mental load is by definition hard to measure, says Professor Craig. “People don’t necessarily think of it as household or domestic labour. They think it’s just part of life.
They think ‘I’m checking to see if we have clean socks and glad wrap for tomorrow because that’s just what I do before bed’.”
To some extent, more demands, responsibility and stress are inherent to becoming a parent. However too much, shared unevenly, can be detrimental to family harmony.
If mental load is invisible to one partner, for example, it can affect relationship satisfaction and become a source of resentment.
And while worrying about your children is normal, Professor Craig says “it can come to an extreme”.
She points to a distressing statistic in 2018’s Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey stating that one-fifth of women, particularly mothers, reported being clinically depressed or anxious.
Doctor Anna Zhu is a lecturer of economics at RMIT University. She says if mental load is too overwhelming, it can impact negatively on parenting.
“The literature also calls it mental bandwidth to represent it’s a limited resource,” she says.
“Effective parenting requires qualities such as patience, decision-making, self control and social and ethical behaviours. All of those require a lot of mental capacity and when you don’t have much mental load free, it makes it hard to perform parenting functions optimally.”
Many of those skills are also required to be a good spouse, Dr Zhu says.
Both academics frame proactive measures to reduce mental load in the context of broader structural issues in Australia - primarily expensive childcare and the need for shorter or more flexible hours in the paid workforce for men.
“We’ve got our families in a difficult position, structurally, so suggesting they solve things as individuals is quite an ask,” says Professor Craig.