The 'mental load': Coping as the household project manager

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I see it often in my practice: stress over what some call the “mental load” or “worry work” of a household. It’s invisible project management—not just executing the task of taking a child to the doctor, but also anticipating that he needs an annual well-check soon, scheduling it and clearing other areas of the schedule for that appointment and maybe even emotionally preparing the child for the visit.

It’s remembering the birthdays, upcoming social engagements, the dog’s heartworm pill and which shoes still fit the toddler.  

In a relationship, mental load can fall disproportionately on one person. This imbalance is a real issue in many relationships, and it’s often women who take on more of that work.

Constantly coordinating these tasks can take a tremendous amount of time and energy, presenting a real burden.

Why does this mental-load imbalance happen?

Multiple factors can contribute to the imbalance—family histories, personal upbringing, societal expectations, gender role stereotypes, natural divisions of labor in a household and so on. Until the last few decades, men in our society were typically the primary earners, while women performed household and childcare duties.

Today, we live in an era of dual-career households, but the traditional division of labor often remains.

Of course, it’s not always women bearing the heavier load; sometimes I see men who feel a disproportionate weight of responsibility, and I even see it in parent-child relationships in which a parent still takes on the burden of coordinating parts of grown children’s lives.

Effects of the mental load burden

Using finite time and energy to manage household and family duties can take away from focusing on other important areas of life.

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  • Physical effects: Prioritizing worry work over your own health and self-care can affect healthy eating, exercise and sleep, which can lead to weight loss or gain, chronic fatigue, tension headaches, increased inflammation, decreased immune function and other health problems.
  • Emotional effects: Engaging in worry work can leave you feeling overwhelmed, angry, resentful, frustrated, disappointed, lonely, devalued and/or unappreciated.
  • Social effects: Spending time and energy on worry work means focusing less on relationships, hobbies and other enjoyable life experiences.
  • Occupational effects: Engaging in worry work is like having a second job and can get in the way of pursuing leadership roles and opportunities for advancement at work.

How to lessen the worry-work burden

There are always things we can do to help create the life we want.

Quick, practical solutions to a worry-work imbalance might include clarifying expectations with your partner and creating family chore charts. But the problem is often more complex and requires a lot of self-reflection.

For many of us, the worry-work burden comes with an irony: We identify the mental load as a huge stressor, yet we are reluctant to give up this role.  

Anxiety and fear are often at the heart of this struggle.

We persist with frenzied to-do lists and never-ending household management duties because we’re afraid—of failing, unmet expectations, disappointing others, being judged or misunderstood, being ill-prepared or being bad parents or partners.

We might not trust that anyone else would get the job done or do it to our satisfaction.

It’s tempting to view the mental load problem as one of “unfairness” or a series of wrongdoings committed against us.

However, this fuels anger and resentment, leading us to react in ways that don’t serve us or others well.

Therapy and mindfulness practices can help recast the issue. In therapy, my patients and I explore those strategies, along with the nuances of individual relationships and personal histories.

How we approach the issue in therapy

We start by identifying the things we do to try to control our emotions (emotional “control strategies”).

One common control strategy? Carrying the mental load.

Other control strategies could include blaming, complaining, criticizing, ignoring, dwelling on the past, holding grudges, trying to change others, stress eating, procrastinating and so forth.

We then identify the harmful consequences of sustaining those control strategies in the short- or long-term.

I use a type of therapy called “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.” ACT is an evidence-based behavior therapy that teaches us how to accept uncontrollable experiences and emotions, and pursue personally meaningful values and life goals.

ACT uses acceptance, mindfulness and values methods, teaching us to be present and engaged in our lives; to feel the full range of human emotions without being driven by them; to live intentionally and to pursue our values that matter most, even when we feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable.

ACT strategies to let go of the mental load

Instead of getting swept up in the anxieties and resentments, we learn to invite those and other painful emotions in and transform our relationships with those feelings.

Instead of chastising our partner, we practice communicating openly and respectfully about our concerns. Rather than holding grudges and keeping a record of past wrongs, we might practice forgiveness—letting others (and ourselves) off the hook so we can redirect our energies toward values.

We practice letting go of perfectionism, being satisfied with “good enough” when anything more matters little in the grand scheme of life.

This frees us to pursue what truly matters—our values.

It's easy to get stuck in the role of the stressed project manager for the family, fearing that if we don’t do the endless worry work, everything will fall apart. The emotions we feel from this are real and valid. But in 20 years of practice, I’ve yet to see any lives implode from letting go of that control.

It’s important to remember what we can and cannot control. We can’t control our emotions or other people. But we can control our own actions and how we respond.

Laurie Greco is a clinical psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.