The mental load of parenting can weigh anyone down. That’s why, whenever possible married couples must ask themselves: Am I doing enough? Is my partner taking on too much? What can I help with to share the mental load? Because when one partner takes on too much, it’s easy to buckle under the weight.
What is mental load? Well, it’s a blanket term for the invisible work that parents must take on — the planning, organizing, remembering, and worrying that tasks require — much of which is usually shouldered by mothers. Let’s use a playdate as an example. The mental load of a playdate is all the little things that add up to a successful outing. The scheduling. The coordinating. The initial conversations with other parents. The buying of snacks. The planning of activities. The consideration of all details. All of these and more add up to the mental load of the little things a parent must remember.
There is a mental load for seemingly every task, from paying bills and buying groceries to putting away clothes and bringing the kids to tee ball practice. It’s a lot of work, but work that co-parents can better handle when they A) have regular conversations about who’s doing what B) play active roles (i.e. don’t ask “what can I do to help?” and just, well, help and C) keep the unseen work in mind and always seek ways to lift the burden.
“Sharing responsibilities with another person can either be strenuous or rewarding,” says Erica Cramer, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. “In most circumstances, two heads work better than one and sharing the mental load with your spouse can lead to optimal results.”
It really is as simple and as difficult as that. If you properly distribute the mental load of parenting in your marriage, Cramer adds, life can be easier, decisions can be better and people can feel more empowered. But if couples are not properly dividing the load, she says, they “can develop tension, resentment, and ruptures.”
So how can you help balance the mental load of parenting? What are some tactics to understand? We spoke to five therapists about balancing the mental load and keeping division equitable. Here’s what they said.
1. Understand What Sharing the Mental Load Means
“Sharing the mental load is not as simple as asking someone to take out the trash. The whole point of offloading this work is to not then be responsible for telling the other person to do it. I remember once having a fight with my own partner where I shared that I felt overly responsible for keeping our household moving. When he told me he was happy to help, I just needed to tell him what to do. I was once again put in a position of responsibility.
What I had really wanted was for him to take on the responsibility not only of the actual tasks but of the thinking and knowing about the task so that I could completely offload it from my mind. The conversation is ongoing, fluid, and dynamic. It is not a ‘one and done’ conversation. As your life grows and changes, most likely your mental loads will as well. This conversation requires couples to be open to their partner’s experience and understand what it would really require to take on a portion of their partner’s mental load. I’d encourage partners to approach this conversation with curiosity rather than defensiveness. It is easy to feel hurt when we are told that we aren’t doing enough, but defensiveness will immediately shut down the conversation.” — Jessica Small, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
2. Play to Each Other’s Strengths
“When one partner has a more rational, intellectual perspective and the other a more intuitive, emotional approach, the two can work together as a lovely, full-bodied partnership. Look at it this way: Each partner has their superpower, which they bring to the equation. Acknowledging and using each skill set to its fullest advantage will help each partner feel seen and valued.
It helps significantly if the two partners take a page from each other’s book. The typically more rational partner can do some work around increasing their understanding of their own emotions so they can more readily express themselves and understand their underlying motivations and reactions. This will also increase their capacity to empathize with their partner. The typically more emotional partner can practice emotional management in the form of mindfulness. The ability to self-regulate will help them communicate in a way their rational partner can receive.” — Zoe Kors, LA-based therapist and resident intimacy coach for wellness app Coral.
3. Take a Business-Minded Approach
“Download an app designed for creating lists, such as ‘Microsoft To Do.’ This type of app allows each partner to have a place to put their thoughts as they arise, and it automatically shares it with the other partner. It’s much more effective than sending a text that only gets lost.
And invite your partner to a regular ongoing weekly ‘team meeting’ and hold space on both parties’ calendars. This is a little different than the sit-down and think with me, however, it might end up looking the same. In this weekly meeting, go over what is going to happen this week, this month. and this season. Set some goals about what you’d both like to experience and then put them in the To Do app, so when it’s finished you can mark it off and the app notifies the other person it’s completed.” — Andrea Dindinger, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
4. Maintain a Flexible Mindset
“Life constantly fluctuates. Responsibilities won’t always fall as equally on our shoulders as we would like. Be flexible and know when to bend and when to communicate before you break. There will be times in life when you or your partner is overwhelmed with personal or professional issues. Other times, you’ll find yourself having more time and flexibility and should be mindful of this and offer to pick up each other’s slack.
For example, if you are a teacher who has summers off and your partner’s busiest time in the career is the summer, if your partner’s parents are healthy and live independently but you’re taking care of a sick parent, or if your child needs more attention from a specific parent – it’s important to wane and wax with each other so your individual needs are met and the relationship doesn’t suffer.
In situations like these, be willing to step in and shoulder most of the mental load for that day, week or even month. Hopefully, your partner will do the same when you need their help and support. If your partner is not as attuned to your needs, be honest about the extra support you require. See how they respond and if they are willing to step up to the plate when necessary. Let them know you appreciate their flexibility and your recognition should go a long way.” — Erica Cramer, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
5. Always Acknowledge and Express Appreciation
“When our spouse says thanks, it shows that they noticed what we have done. This simple acknowledgment and appreciation is often all that is needed to motivate many people to invest their time and energy into the task. You are not going to get the balance right the first time you try. This requires collaboration that is frequently re-evaluated and tweaked. What works when you are childless is different from what feels fair when you have little kids or teens. Your marriage will need to adapt over time. However, most couples can strike a good balance if they stay engaged in a process to adjust the work over time.” — Cheri Timko, Couples Relationship Coach
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