Last week, when I was finishing off an article, my son’s nursery rang to tell me that his nappy cream had run low; innocuous, perhaps, but it triggered a storm of questions: When would I find time to buy more? Would it be better to order it online? What else should I fill the basket with to qualify for free delivery? It’s this hidden burden of swirling thoughts that’s so indicative of the mental load that I – and so many other women in heterosexual relationships – bear the brunt of on a daily basis.
The mental load isn’t about the physical tasks and chores which couples face. My husband shares drop-offs, cooking, and bedtimes; he would consider it a fairly even split of these jobs – and that’s true if we were to draw up a list of visible tasks. But it’s the hidden load where this becomes unbalanced – the invisible cognitive and emotional labour. It’s the burden of thinking, planning, adjusting, remembering, and organising to take into account everyone’s schedules. It’s working out how each part of the puzzle fits together so that all those little tasks like arranging dentist appointments, filling in permission slips, calculating how many vegetables your four-year-old has eaten that week, or worrying about when they need new wellies that mount up in your head. It tends to be the anticipatory, preparatory elements of parenting and running a household that is much harder to share out.
A survey by Mumsnet in 2021 reported that most women took responsibility for less visible chores: 69% of respondents who lived with a male partner managed healthcare appointments, whilst 64% took charge of life admin. The responses about physical tasks, in contrast, like emptying the bins, suggested more parity. It’s been an improvement since 2014-15, according to an ONS Time Use Survey, yet the gap in cognitive and emotional labour persists – it’s where progress towards further equality seems to have stalled. So why, in 2023, when there is much more accountability and discussion around gender roles, is there still such an imbalance? And why, in heterosexual relationships, is the mental load still such a gendered issue?
Hours later, with the unsolved dilemma of the nappy cream still stuck in my head, I began to wonder why they hadn’t told my husband when he’d dropped our son off that morning. Why did they always ring me? It was at the forefront of my mind that evening when I paused with my friend, Laura, a training manager who also has two sons, for our weekly curbside catchup after an exercise class. Unsurprisingly, she had a similar tale from a rare weekend away. “I told the nursery when I dropped the boys off,” Laura explained, “that they should contact my husband, yet they rang me on Friday anyway. I told them that I was at a festival, but they called again that afternoon. I could barely hear them over the music. In the end, I had to text Mike and ask him to contact the nursery himself.”
Society perpetuates the burden of the mental load when they call us first – and it’s so ingrained that women take on the cognitive labour that schools and nurseries make mothers their first port of call. Bethany Sealey, Head of Year at a secondary school, told me that mums (in heterosexual or co-parenting relationships) are nearly always the default contact in the software they use to manage contact details. “The mum is the top contact,” she told me. “It’s rare to see a man at number one on the list. It’s like an unspoken rule – you try the mum first.”
Historically, this probably did make sense: women would likely have been easier to contact during school hours before the ubiquitousness of mobile devices. Now, we’re simply interrupted by calls in the middle of the day and then expected to manage these conflicting priorities – like too many tabs or windows open on your screen at once. In a 2022 report, nonprofit organisation Bright Horizons suggested that this produces a state of “perpetual mental awareness” that “require[s] a working mother’s constant mental presence.” The mental load can be overlapping, constant, limitless, and invasive. Similarly, a recent study by Jennifer Ervin, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, concluded that because women carry a greater mental load, “one unpaid hour is considered denser and more impactful for women than men.” Thus being the default contact – the one who is told all the little things, the one who is relied upon to anticipate, the one who is responsible for ensuring things don’t slip through the cracks – contributes to women continuing to feel under pressure.
It also puts us in the position – as the one holding the knowledge – of the manager or project leader of the house who has to request help. Think of those awful misogynistic jokes about husbands ‘asking the boss’ – whenever a partner says ‘you should have just asked for help,’ it perpetuates the cycle of women being in charge, and thus shouldering the cognitive burden. Emma Cline demonstrates the difference between asking her husband to clear the table and doing it herself in this brilliant viral comic. He’ll quickly acquiesce to completing this simple concrete task, but it’ll take her two hours to do it because of all the additional tasks she comes across during the process, thanks to that state of ‘perpetual mental awareness.’ When men depend on their wives to tell them what to do, they’re abdicating themselves from the responsibility of management and thus their share of the invisible load. This is where the misalignment creeps in between couples’ perceptions of how they split domestic chores – having completed the delegated tasks, the partner believes they have done their fair share without acknowledging the mental energy expended. Pip Calver, a lecturer who co-parents with her children’s father, tells me: “Even with something I’ve given over control of, like the girls’ shoes, he’s not proactive enough, so it reinforces that I cannot actually let any balls go.”
In some cases, this can manifest as weaponised incompetence: when partners, either deliberately or unconsciously, feign mediocrity or an inability to complete a task to avoid doing it, and thus manipulate the other person into doing it for them. If they ask for a list before they go to the supermarket, phone you when they get there, or tell you that you’re better at cooking or washing up, they’re deflecting work that they don’t want to do – and perpetuating the notion that women are naturally or biologically inclined to complete or manage these tasks. First coined as Strategic Incompetence to describe patterns in the workplace, it’s not “a strategy that fails, but a failure that succeeds.” When faced with incompetence, it can feel easier to do it yourself rather than ask and be disappointed by failure – but this negative reinforcement means you’re also more likely to repeat the cycle.
Women aren’t born carrying the brunt of the mental load or domestic duties – like the tendency for schools and nurseries to contact mothers first, it’s a result of social conditioning. The way we talk about gendered roles and expectations from an early age, the toys we provide, and even the slogans on t-shirts, which can label girls as emotional and boys as practical – it all contributes to the perpetuation of gender normative roles in society. But when women continue to perform and manage these tasks, we reinforce that status quo for the next generation. There is nothing innate or genetic about this behaviour – but children watching it could believe it’s an integral part of their role.
The current imbalance arguably has roots in the advertising campaigns from the 1980s, which encouraged women into the workplace. Although seemingly empowering, the message that women could ‘have it all’ encouraged them to take on employed work on top of the unpaid labour they were already doing at home. Advertisements for men in this era, meanwhile, didn’t change nor address the shift in household dynamics – thus, inevitably, women in dual-earner families simply added this work on top of the labour they were already carrying out rather than replacing it. “It’s become a gendered issue because it wasn’t addressed by previous generations,” says Kiri Cordes, a stay-at-home mum of two. “Now we’re starting to respect the right to choose to stay at home or go out to work, depending on what works for your family, so the effort that goes into the choice to take on a domestic role, rather than it being an expectation, is being acknowledged. I see the next step in progress from the right to work as the right to share that burden.”
It can be difficult to affect change on an individual level, particularly if a partner becomes frustrated or defensive when any imbalance is pointed out. Framing it as a discussion, not a directive, can be helpful, such as asking if they have a different approach. Similarly, children of all genders can be taught to anticipate and manage rather than just complete delegated chores. But what we really need is profound social change. With a recent report finding that almost a third of fathers took no paternity leave due to the UK’s “woefully inadequate” rights, it seems gendered expectations can begin at birth. When one partner spends more time at home, it’s no wonder that they become the default parent. We need fathers to have an equal presence at home so that the domestic space doesn’t continue to be so gendered. Studies on the impact of enhanced paternity leave in Sweden show long-term positive effects. It can be as simple as the fact that spending more time as a sole carer means you know more about the children and don’t need to be managed. But it might also help us reframe those deep-seated societal beliefs about what a man or woman’s role is in the world.