The concept of the mental load as popularized by illustrator Emma covers everything which, without actually being a chore in the strictest sense of the word, falls under the responsibility that has been assigned (formally or implicitly) to an individual, and forces that person to have to think of a thousand and one things at once. And it comes with the risk of “completely overwhelming you and leading to an unfortunate feeling of guilt if you forget something (making an appointment with the pediatrician, buying cat litter and remembering to buy toothpaste for sensitive teeth for instance).” It also brings a lot of resentment when that person is brought to task (“Why hasn’t little Johnny had his vaccine booster?”, “How come we’re out of cat litter?”, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but the dentist insisted that toothpaste for sensitive teeth makes a real difference”).
So how do you go about reducing your mental load? Here are a few tips.
Get real about your “mental load” track record
You notice that you’re the one who takes care of your children’s health and the relationships with their school. You make sure the fridge and cupboards are well stocked, that the laundry is done and that anyone who works in your home knows what is expected of them (cleaners, plumbers or gardeners, for example). But does that division of responsibility stem from a frank discussion you had one day with your spouse and the other members of your family?
Most often, these habits just form naturally and leave one individual accountable for all kinds of things from which the whole family benefits. So why not take stock before you buckle under the load?
With a clear head, make a list of what constitutes your mental load and try to remember at what point each item became “your” responsibility. For example, perhaps you started managing your children’s medical appointments when they were registered at birth on your medical record, or perhaps they are listed on your private health insurance policy? Didn’t organizing family vacations date back to that one summer when you found that the rental house your partner had booked was a little shabby and you were told “well, next time, you can take care of it yourself!” Are you in charge of looking after the car because you said you’d take it for its maintenance test the first time? When you look back over which responsibilities you have taken on implicitly, you can regain the power to negotiate responsibility sharing with full awareness of what that involves.
Question your responsibility (without putting yourself down)
OK, you’ve decided that other people depend on you far too much! What is it about your attitude that could make them think there is still room in your mental backpack for them to deposit all the minor concerns that they can’t be bothered to deal with themselves? When it comes to family matters, perhaps you have intimidating high standards that discourage others and make them think they can’t do things as well as you? In his famous book Dirty Linen: couples and their laundry, the sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann points out that most women just assign themselves to taking care of the laundry because they unconsciously think that they wash, iron and fold better than their spouse. Twenty years after that book was published, Kaufmann brought out another title that looked at women’s handbags, which seem to contain anything they may need to deal with a host of situations affecting them personally, as well as a lot of other things that will allow them to perform a string of small services to others: help out with an aspirin (and soon the rest of the family don’t bother going to the chemist because darling mom always has one in her bag) lend a pen (so why go to the trouble of having one on you? There will always be a girl with one wherever you go), or pass you a tissue (so why bother taking any with you if there’ll be a woman with one close by?), etc. The sociologist also noted that while some people wander around with their hands in their pockets, others are hauling around heavier and heavier loads. The metaphor is certainly relevant! Perhaps you could try being less perfect? Or at least, less well prepared? Those whose vast range of needs you always meet might start taking responsibility for themselves!
Start planning to be incompetent
There’s no better way to relinquish responsibility than not having the skills to shoulder it. Oh no! You’ve just come down with paperwork-phobia which means you can’t be left in charge of all the bills and letters that come through the mailbox! You’re happy to deal with them, but only with your partner by your side. Drat, you’ve forgotten to buy the “right” toothpaste again. Whatever you do you simply can’t make head or tail of the dental hygiene section; all the tubes look the same so your glasses must need changing. Ooops, the dishwasher is full but nobody has switched it on: there are far too many buttons on household appliances these days, you’d prefer not to touch it in case you blow everything up. Finding someone to look after the kids between the end of the school day and when the parents come home is a great idea, but you have no clue who to ask! And quite frankly, you’re not great at interviewing, it’s a big responsibility and such an important decision that you’d rather not make it alone!
With a little humor and no malice, make those around you realise what you do for them all, simply by stopping. Easy: it’s better if everyone helps out.
Refuse “help”, say “thank you” and demand that others say it too!
How many times have you heard “I am so lucky; my partner helps me” from someone who actually takes on the vast majority of domestic work and the mental load that goes with it? Family responsibilities should be shared equally! One person shouldn’t be running the house and receiving an occasional magnanimous boost from everyone else.
The question “Can I help you?”, even though it may sound adorable to outsiders, is a trap: it implies that you are struggling – and even failing – with “your” problem and that some outside support might be welcome. It’s a classic scene: “If you want, I can go shopping for you… But you have to make me a list!” (Forget it, it’d actually be quicker for me to run to the grocery store because I know where everything is… and if you’re going to call me every ten minutes because you can’t find where the coffee is or text me to ask what brand of yogurt we usually buy, it isn’t worth it).
But it’s a shame to discourage good intentions. Does your spouse or teen offer to go shopping to fill the fridge? Accept, of course, without telling them what to buy or criticising them when they come back for forgetting the cucumbers or getting the wrong brand of detergent. And say “thank you”. Not in your own name, but on behalf of the family unit.
That will also help you to remind them that no, there are no elves coming to tidy the house the day before the cleaner comes, clearing out the empty biscuit packets from the cupboards and remembering to buy more, checking on grandpa and making a note to buy him a birthday present before the shops close on Sunday, planning ahead and checking that everyone has a valid passport before they go on holiday. It will help to remind them that you’re not just gifted with knowing the shoe sizes of all members of the family for when it comes to buying socks or dealing with the mountain of odd ones piling up in the closet. Thanking them when they take on responsibility at home will also remind them that you usually take care of all of that, and a little “thank you” is much appreciated. It also goes some way to reminding everyone else that they all need to commit to doing their bit, without depending on you to jog their memories.
Marie Donzel, for the EVE webmagazine. Translated from French by Ruth Simpson.