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It’s concert day and you’ve got two children performing. You’ve sorted the costumes, fed them an early dinner and dropped them off in a street jammed with other parents’ cars.
Your mum calls. She and granddad can’t find the venue – they’re there already? – so you give directions. A quick shop for tomorrow’s lunches and you head back. A moment before it starts, your partner slides in; straight from work and just in time.
“You’re both there for the kids’ concert but there’s not been equal input to your presence,” says Lyn Craig, a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at University of Melbourne.
“One parent has carried more effort and organisation in advance, which causes more fatigue.”
Mental load of motherhood
It’s an example of mental load, which in its simplest form is the planning, remembering, organising and worrying. In Australia, because the primary care of children is still done mainly by women, mothers are carrying the majority of the mental load too.
“Stay at home dads are very rare in Australia,” says Professor Craig. “In around 90% of home-based care situations, it’s the woman at home.”
Another example might be asking another parent to pick up your child. “The mental load would be thinking ‘Do I need to reciprocate?’,” says Professor Craig.
It’s the ‘knowing of things’, too. “Where is the second gumboot? What shots are the children due for? What will they eat and definitely not eat? It’s a lot of internal work.”
In a paid workforce, the tasks that typify mental load would be categorised as project management duties. Which is useful when you realise most project managers don’t execute the project too.
In a paper on leisure and family time, Professor Craig tried to capture the gender differences in the quality of leisure.
“When I had small children I felt a burden of responsibility that everyone had a good time. I’d need to remember the nappies, food and equipment and monitor the children. It’s not always as leisurely for the project manager.”
When I had small children I felt a burden of responsibility that everyone had a good time. I’d need to remember the nappies, food and equipment and monitor the children. It’s not always as leisurely for the project manager.
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.
Professor Craig’s tips on reducing mental load
Voice your internal master planner. If it’s a family outing, for example, and your partner is prone to passively waiting for instructions, agree on a master plan in advance. Then if things go pear-shaped, such as a child melting down or falling asleep, you can both see the bigger picture and find a solution together.
Delegate specific tasks. One spouse could take care of daily school preparation and after-school lessons, while another could plan and manage all weekend activities.
Allow expertise to build. Mothers who nurse their babies acquire an ‘expertise’ or ‘responsiveness’ that can build into them becoming the default primary carer longer-term. Resist the temptation to step in and do it yourself. It may not be perfect but your partner’s expertise will build.
Be kind to yourself. Pressure to extend your children in every way adds to mental load. Realise you’re probably a much better parent than you assume – and relax. Imagine what you'd say to a friend you loved: take care of yourself.
Six apps to help share the load
Labor of love: This app ensures the work people are already doing inside and outside the home is noticed and appreciated. The reward structure is a way for couples to show their appreciation.
Picniic: A shared family dashboard that unites tasks, data and photos. Encrypted for privacy, there’s a chat tool and ways to search for, and store, online recipes. You can pin your real-time location on a map for pick-ups and add birthday reminders.
Cozi: This family organiser has a colour-coded calendar to see the whole family’s agenda as one – or filter by family member. The ‘today’ function, meanwhile, shows everything planned for one day, including appointments and shopping items.
Asana: If you identified with “I’m a project manager at home”, Asana may be for you: it’s a professional project manager platform. As such, it’s less family-oriented and more sophisticated, allowing visual project plans to see how steps map out over time.
Remember the milk: A to-do list that works with Google assistant, Siri, Apple watches, Alexa and desktop computers. Whatever your current platform is, you can add to lists to or get reminders there too.
Anylist: A no-frills list app that focusses on meal planning. It groups items into categories such as dairy, produce and meat to hasten your supermarket trip and if it’s a list for your daughter’s surprise party - you can keep it private.