The Motherload: the invisible mental load of women

by Laurel Pretorius
Common Causes of Stress for Mothers
Reading Time: 5 minutes

While the mental load that women carry is invisible, it is also a very real cause for having a visibly negative impact on women’s mental health. Let’s explore this ever-burdening load and if men and women are finally acknowledging the inequality of it all.

I started a walking group with some like-minded moms which we aptly called Mamas Who Walk. We have walked for near on 6 years now. Yes, we do it to keep fit but more importantly we walk to ground ourselves and unburden our mother loads. We all agree that if we don’t get a good 3 to 5 walks in a week, our mental health takes a little dip.

I’ve learnt from this group of women that we all have our own parenting styles. We all lead different lifestyles. Some of us have partners who are all-in kind of fathers while others have partners who are not quite as involved. We are diverse individuals. Yet there are 2 things that we all have in common: one, we are working moms and two, we all believe as women and mothers that our parental load is intrinsically larger and more overwhelming than that of our men. It gives us anxiety to one degree or another and we seem to agree that the mental load that moms carry is the greatest cause for our burnout and depression. Mom mental health - Baby Yum Yum

So, what is the mental load? Also referred to as “worry work”, it’s the invisible labour involved in managing a household and family. It’s all the planning that goes on inside our heads, for our families’ lives to run smoothly. Research shows that this invisible workload typically falls on the woman’s shoulders.

According to a survey by the parenting website BabyCenter, 69% of mothers in the United States report feeling overwhelmed by the mental load of motherhood. A 2019 survey by the parenting website ChannelMum found that 90% of UK mothers feel that they bear the mental load of their household, and the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that mothers in Australia spend an average of 25 hours per week on unpaid domestic work, compared to 14 hours per week for fathers. And, a report by Oxfam South Africa indicates that South African women spend an average of four extra hours per day on unpaid care work, such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and elderly relatives, which all adds to their ever-increasing mental load.

To break it down even further, the mental load is made up of two parts. There’s cognitive labour which is basically all the household responsibilities that keep the home running smoothly on a day-to-day basis, such as planning around family members’ activities, shopping, playdates for the kids, extra-murals, schooling, doctors’ appointments and so on, all to ensure everyone in the family unit function on a practical level. Then there’s emotional labour and this involves managing the family members’ emotional states, like worrying about whether your children are happy at school or that your husband’s emotional needs are being met. It’s an on-going and relentless voice in our mom-brains, checking off lists, future-planning, and worrying about our loved ones’ needs. Of course, burnout is imminent and probably inevitable!  

We’ve all bought into the notion that women are better at multitasking, that we are better planners and organisers. Society has dictated these aspects of our personality to us, and we believe it to be true. We have learnt to wear these attributes as a badge of honour, which would perhaps explain why the woman’s mental load seems to be growing ever larger even during a day and age where feminists have grown much stronger in voice and women’s equality is an actual thing.

Why are we still falling for this nonsense? Why haven’t we divided the mental load and handed half of it over to our men? I believe, it’s become so ingrained in us, so invisible to us, that we have just taken it on without thinking. It has been passed on from one generation of mothers to the next. I don’t think we realise what we are getting ourselves into and then we have children, and the load becomes enormous and threatens to break us.

It dates back to the patriarchal society we still live in. It’s a woman’s responsibility to manage the home and a man’s responsibility to bring home the bacon. But the world has changed. Households cannot survive on a single income. Also, women want to pursue their own careers. Create their own lives out of the shadow of men. To do this we have had to find a way to work flexibly, whereas men’s jobs are seen as more rigid, their careers more traditionally linear. This means we women have continued in our roles as nurturers and caregivers and merely found ways to fit work into this equation. We continue to carry the mental load.    

We have grown up to believe our worth is attached to being houseproud goddesses and that we are superhuman for holding down jobs while keeping the family unit intact. #Supermom is often used on our social statuses as something to be proud of. Yet the reality is it’s become an ideal that we women must all measure up to as soon as we enter motherhood. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting! Tips to Cope with Motherhood Stress

Research clearly indicates that women are mostly stressed, tired, anxious, and even unhappy during their child-rearing years, while men are typically much happier because as fathers, they get to focus on their work from 8am to 5pm, then switch off and come home to do all the fun stuff with their wife and kids.

Then The Pandemic hit, and lockdown happened. The family unit had to learn very quickly to live, work, and play under one roof. This shone a spotlight on just how big the load was that we moms were carrying. We got to voice this on a regular basis to our partners, who were now co-existing with us 24/7. Our men got to witness, even play a role in the never-ending, ever-exhausting tasks around running the household. This in turn had some of them carrying some of the mental load, especially when it came to the needs of their children. What ended up becoming very clear during lockdown, is that most men want to be much more involved in the child-rearing process.

It certainly opened our eyes in the walking group, and we got to talking more about how we needed this better division of tasks to continue post pandemic. How our pre-pandemic superwoman-selves had quite simply fizzled out. That we needed to trade our mental loads for better mental health.

Now that we have become a lot clearer on why the mental load is doing our heads in, and our men have a better understanding of this invisible burden we carry, we need to be more explicit in our communication about sharing the role of household manager. We need to be very clear about how much planning is involved in every aspect of childcare and running the home. For the sake of real gender equality, we must make our invisible loads visible once and for all. The Motherload the invisible mental load of women - Baby Yum Yum

@LaurelPretorius

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