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The terms mental load, emotional load, and hidden load have begun to appear frequently online and in the news. The phrases, used interchangeably, describe a situation in which one person in a household, typically the female, carries the weight of planning and executing activities as they relate to caring for the home, partner, children, and extended family, despite possibly holding a job outside of home.
My life experiences as a work-from-home mom brought me to this subject matter. After witnessing the extensive cleaning, cooking, and organizing work my mother performed over her lifetime, I wanted to know how much of that mental load contributed, over the long-term, to her dementia? Did she spend so much time occupied by the details of others’ lives she forgot the details of her own?
We Are Thinking Too Much
“The mental load is that thread that brings the family into your work life,” says Leah Ruppanner, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Melbourne and author of Motherlands. It's the constant low-level worry about whether we’re doing enough and the impact our parenting will have on our child’s future. “You're always trying to mitigate future risk.”
When I blended families with my second husband, my writing work took a backseat to the effort required to maintain peace and punctuality in the home. My husband maintained his demanding career. He was not without free time on weekends or sometimes late afternoons when he gave news reports from the internet while I planned ahead for our daughter’s garden party wedding. Exhausted after executing that event, I began to forget my words and lost track of my work commitments.
As my mother’s cognition declined, one of her daughter’s battled mental health challenges. Her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and he turned down the chance to move from the large family home, keeping her tied to more housework. Walking into their dwelling, I first assessed my mother was failing because Christmas cards went unsent, clothes weren’t cleaned, and food spoiled in the refrigerator. Perhaps she was just done carrying the mental load.
Stress Goes Up, Brain Energy Goes Down
In recent years, scientists have begun to look beyond the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in females who live longer. Instead, they’ve concluded that Alzheimer’s develops in the brain over the course of twenty years. Subtracting those twenty, one arrives at the post-menopausal age for women, when hormonal levels surge, fall, then drop for good. Dr. Lisa Mosconi, director of the Women’s Brain Initiative, looked at brain scans of perimenopausal and postmenopausal women and found a 30% reduction in brain energy levels.
Women’s brains don’t adapt to the stressors in a way that allows them to function. Instead, says Caldwell, “When stress is chronic and our bodies are telling our brains that we’re continuously in fight-or-flight mode, it’s really bad for the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory.”
This brings me back to the questions about my mother and mental load. How can we change current behaviors?
Loading the Jar
According to Emma, author of the feminist comic book You Should’ve Asked, when a male asks a female “What can I do to help?”, he views her as the project manager. This places the responsibility on the other person to figure out what is necessary. “The mental load means always having to remember.”
To make this work more visible and valued, researchers at the University of Melbourne suggest implementing a tactic similar to the old-fashioned swear jar. Begin with locating a jar, discussing the definition of a mental load, and distributing dollars and coins to each person taking part in the experiment. After a week, designate a time when the household gathers to talk about their mental loads. Each person fills the jar based on the assigned value of their contributions. The experiment is complete when the first person runs out of money, thereby demonstrating who carried the more taxing load.
Oftentimes, my husband will utter, “Remind me to…” His requests range from household tasks to his own work agenda, i.e., remind me to email, to pay, to buy, etc. What I’ve learned from experts, as a woman of middle-age, is to stop reminding, stop doing. And never fill the jar to the brim.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours: What my mother taught me about dementia, cookies, music, the outside, and her life inside a care home (Three Arch Press), available online, and is a recipient of a 2020 National Society of Newspaper Columnists award. Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.