I’ll be the first to compliment my husband on the way he enthusiastically assumes household responsibilities—often done quietly in the early morning before my groggy eyes have time to comprehend he’s already cleaning the dishes.
One reason I’m still so weary after what should have been a solid night of sleep? I restlessly spent the first hour in bed thinking about how we need more apples, the dog has to go to the vet, I’m not sure what the toddler and I will do the next day and—oh yeah—I really need to schedule that fun prenatal glucose tolerance test. (Actual peek inside my mind last night.)
That’s why when it comes to talking about mental load with your spouse, learning how to effectively communicate the demands you feel may seem like just another task on the to-do list.
But hear this: Opening up doesn’t just redistribute the weight to someone else—it is truly able to lighten both of your loads.
It seems the buzzwords “mental load” really gained popularity in the past few months. However, for many of us, especially moms, it’s an age-old problem that didn’t come with the same kind of instruction guide as other parenting tasks: How to change a diaper? ✔️ How to explain to your partner the inner-workings of your mind? Hmm...
Essentially, “mental load” is about assuming the tasks that may not be as obvious as an overflowing pile of laundry—until they go undone, such as that doctor’s appointment that doesn’t get scheduled or daycare research that gets postponed until maternity leave is over.
“I think, first of all, the pressure of being a good parent and the pressure of having a good, well-run, clean house—that pressure’s on women,” said Claire M. Kamp Dush, Ph.D., an associate professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University and co-author of the New Parents Project. “Even so when children are first born, [moms are] managing all of this workload, they’re scheduling things for the baby, they’re nursing... So even from the time of their maternity leave, when they’re on break, they’re worrying about those appointments and men aren’t.”
And with a June study from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan finding that nearly two-thirds of mothers have been judged for their parenting skills—largely by members of their own families—it’s no wonder we put so much pressure on ourselves.
It just doesn’t have to be that way.
“Many people in society become concerned about ‘what other people will think,’” psychologist Dr. Paul Coleman, author of Finding Peace When Your Heart is in Pieces, told Motherly. This results in overthinking, where suddenly any and all outcomes are on the table. “Now the person must come up with possible solutions to those possibilities, which drains that person of valuable energy.”
As for why dads may not understand all of this: We don’t always do the best job of explaining the tasks we’re trying to keep up with and the pressure we feel to stay on top of it all. (Guilty!)
Here’s how the experts say to open up the dialogue about mental load...
Start the discussion early
The best time to address mental load is before it starts to weigh you down—which makes it an ideal conversation to have before kids enter the scene. But even for those of us already waist-deep in it, Kamp Dush said clearly dividing responsibilities is the best way to conquer.
“Have a conversation with your partner parent about ‘what are some things that you can take off my plate because I’m really overwhelmed,’ Kamp Dush said. “Let your partner actually takes these things on and then trust him to do it.”
For example, say you’ll manage all emails that come from day care while your partner stays on top of appointments with the pediatrician.
Approach it in a moment of calm
The time to talk about this isn’t when you just scheduled an appointment, wrote the shopping list and vacuumed the carpet while a child was clinging to your leg. It’s when both you and your partner are feeling relatively refreshed and willing to have an open dialogue.
“In order for a discussion to reap benefits, the speaker must explain what it is like in a manner that the listener can say with sincerity ‘now I understand,’” said Coleman. “Otherwise, the listener will not understand and often respond with, ‘Yes, but...’”
Acknowledge your partner’s unique mental load
Even when the stage is set appropriately for a productive conversation, it’s easy to get defensive or accusatory. Coleman advised giving your partner credit by pointing out an example their unique mental load—such as how your partner was in charge of all the planning before the recent camping trip. Not only will this let them know you aren’t attacking, but it’s also a good reminder to you of all the teamwork that’s already going on. Coleman said, “Any example that allows the other to empathize will help the conversation.”
Give your partner your trust
Part of alleviating mental load is by accepting that, sometimes, done is better than perfect.
“Women tend to do this thing called ‘internal gatekeeping,’ which is where they manage men’s parenting," said Kamp Dush. “You’re being critical of his parenting, for example, ‘I want you to get the baby dressed, here’s how you do it.’”
Instead, she suggests letting your partner get his hands dirty while you step back. That may mean your spouse puts the kids to bed in a totally different order or gets “the wrong brand” of milk at the store—and that’s all OK.
Also key: Don't feel guilty for not taking on all of these tasks by yourself. The benefit of having a partner is that you two, by definition, should be in it together. And when you start by opening up about the mental load you carry, it should immediately feel lighter.