Tuesday 3:36 p.m. On this beautiful July afternoon, my waiting room should have been half-empty. As all doctors will tell you, it is well known that patients do not have time to be sick when the weather is good. However, this afternoon is different (certainly an alignment of stars, somewhere in the universe). With a slow step, her eyes red and wet, her head bowed, her gaze shifty, and her voice trembling, enters Emma. A 34-year-old married woman and mother of two children, Emma is employed in an accounting firm. Barely seated, she looks at me, and already tears are streaming down her cheeks:
– Doctor, I can’t stand my children anymore. I’m fed up. I no longer have the strength to endure all this. They wear me out!
– Oh, I’m so sorry, Emma. How long has this been going on?
– It started two years ago after Baptist was born, but it kept sneaking up on me, little by little. And since then, it has been going crescendo. At first, I could handle the situation; I was strong and could get a lot done. The next day I was ready to face my schedule again, and I could take care of my work and the house. But now, it’s ten days since I gave my home a basic scrub; I can hardly concentrate at work, either…
– There are too many “I’s” in your sentences! It’s like you’re living alone… And where is Frank in all this?
– He does not know how to manage housework. He is utterly incapable of it…
– Because he doesn’t handle it how you’d like him to? Is that right?
– Yes… there is that. Well. I don’t know …
– Emma, you must let go and free yourself a little from your mental load…
The mental load is a psychological burden placed on women – especially on women. The phenomenon is determined by taking on an excess of domestic and educational tasks. Assuming too many responsibilities causes physical and, above all, psychological fatigue. Mental load lies at the intersection of cognitive labor (planning and ruminating about the practical elements of household responsibilities) and emotional labor (managing the family’s emotions). It is based on three axes:
A changing world…
The mental load is a significant problem in today’s society and is extremely more common among the fairer sex. As such, eight out of ten women would feel concerned. This issue reflects societal evolution where women are still expected to run the family’s home while dealing with their increasing professional responsibilities.
A central and thankless role within the family… for women
Some women have to manage an entire family when they come home from work at 8 p.m., after managing a large team at work. Women experience the same pressures as men, but “mental load” refers to something specific for women: thinking of a thousand things at once for the family, planning, and organizing most of what happens in the house. All this while, of course, thinking of their work. This is the well-known theme of the double day (Ipsos study, France-2018).
A biased perception of reality… for men
Their companions perceive everything as falling into place perfectly natural by itself. Besides, men allow themselves time more easily, with less guilt. These women, who have become a pillar of the environment in which they operate, are also its prisoners. Thus, men’s household activities are minor and don’t include the actual management of things. Their usual chores include tinkering, gardening, taking out the trash, and repairing the car.
Women are generally at the household’s helm, and their responsibilities reach an entirely different magnitude: laundry, cleaning, cooking, and dealing with the children. Women must do both the essential chores and always anticipate, think about problem-solving, coordinate the logistics of everything. Hence the mental burden of which they are victims to. (Jean-Claude Kaufmann, ipsos-2018).
This mutual misunderstanding is even better reflected in the numbers:
- 60% of women would like things to change.
- 70% of men wouldn’t want things to change.
- 90% of men would be ready to get more involved in the organization of family life.
The mental load reminds us that women come from Venus and men from Mars. The term highlights a poignant social problem with significant consequences on the psychological and physical health of women (Nicole Avena, professor of health psychology at Princeton University – Parents Magazine – 2020):
Women are almost twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders. And one in 10 women, mothers included, experience symptoms of depression.
- Lack of sleep
74 percent of stay-at-home moms have felt symptoms of insomnia. The tiredness can lead to other issues, such as irritability, weakened immune system, and feeling disconnected from their families.
- Memory gaps
After giving birth, moms can suffer “postnatal depletion.” The phenomenon is defined as a ”physical and mental deterioration that can occur from losing nutrients like iron, zinc, and B12.” Women experiencing this lack of nutrients feel constant fatigue that sleep doesn’t solve. Over time, this issue leads to difficulty concentrating and poor memory.
- Substance abuse
In some cases, the stresses and emotional burden associated with a heavy mental load can lead to the use of addictive substances, such as alcohol. Resorting to drugs and alcohol leads to impairment, disconnect from family, and the inability to tend to typical daily responsibilities.
Hormones and stress levels render women three times more likely to experience headaches than men. The lack of sleep, anxiety and burnout associated with the mental load contribute to frequent headaches.
- Conflicts in the couple
The feeling of unequal burden-sharing within the family leads to increasingly more frequent conflicts. The misunderstanding makes the situation even worse.
Although the mental load is a complicated and multifactorial problem, there are solutions to overcome this situation; here are five areas for reflection (Nicole Avena, professor of health psychology at Princeton University – Parents Magazine – 2020):
Managing the mental load well means finding the time to cater to your needs and putting yourself first when possible. Time for yourself. Time to do what you want, time to do something for fun, not because it will be helpful. Example: Reading a novel by Victor Hugo is perfect, but reading the author’s Wikipedia page to help your son with his homework is not.
Don’t feel like you have to be perfect
How sweet it is to feel comfortable being your perfectly imperfect self. That way, you don’t have to organize everything and can let your life go where you want… This one is a bit of a continuation of the previous point. Simplicity is somewhat of a luxury in today’s tumultuous world.
Moms must also learn not to suffer in silence before the load becomes too much to bear. Assign tasks to your partner if you have one, and give your kids age-appropriate chores.
Set healthy limits by saying “no” to things that don’t align with your needs or that you can’t fit in your schedule. Recognizing limitations and refusing to force yourself into situations is essential. This skill will help you manage the load and carve out time for yourself and your health.
A mother’s mental health affects everything from how she manages her daily routine to her physical health. Thus, the issue must be addressed as often as possible. Sometimes outside help is needed, and that’s OK. Every mom has her moments, but never wait until your feelings become so extreme that they affect your daily life.
There is no such thing as inevitability; there are always solutions. The worst is doing nothing and letting the situation get bogged down. Imagine finding serenity in your family! Imagine harmony! Imagine being able to flourish by being the parent you dreamed of being. Picture seeing children grow up in a calm, favorable climate for their development! It is certainly what you hope for them! Know that whatever difficulty you go through, you are not alone. If others have succeeded, you can do it too… Come on, let’s go.
- PS1: After having had a good discussion with Emma and having spoken to her like a friend, a confidant (and certainly not like a doctor), I gave her some usual advice. Then, I asked her to see me again a week later. When she returned, she had decided to see a psychologist and resume her Aquabike sessions. She told me that she was aware that something was wrong without having the strength to look for what or why. She added that naming her problem and becoming aware of its dangers triggered her change. This brings me back to the last point: Sharing information is a therapy both for yourself and others.
- PS2: One of the most important solutions is to prioritize your day. Whatever you do, the hustle and bustle of life are still there. So you need ways to help yourself. One of the most famous and interesting tools is the Eisenhower matrix. There are different models, but here is a straightforward and effective one: