Aw yes, the mental load, it’s real.
Women totally understand the concept of mental load.
You are feeding your baby wondering if you are giving her enough stimulation to boost her brainpower….thinking you and your partner sure could use some time away together just the two of you to reconnect…trying to remember the last time you had the aircon maintenance come in… which leads you to think about summer coming up and…
It’s a lot of to-dos and check-ins. When it builds up and you go to your partner overwhelmed, they (the men, for a stereotypical moment) will typically sit there going: “I feel like I’m being accused of something and I don’t even understand it.”
This conversation took place in session with a couple recently. I’ll call them Michael and Jessica.
Jessica was complaining about the weight of the mental load she felt. I asked Michael if he genuinely understood what Jessica was referring to – he didn’t.
I explained that some men don’t understand what their wives are trying to get across. They say, “Look, I feel like I’m in trouble for not doing something or for doing something and I don’t understand the concept.
“What is this concept of mental load?”, they wonder. Is it just that you want me to pack the dishwasher more? How is that the mental load?
So what is mental load?
Jessica explained what many women feel passionately, “I feel the pressure to keep the family going and doing great things, and he just comes along for the ride.”
What we know as women is that the mental load isn’t so much about dividing up tasks. I get the school lunches ready, you cook dinner, etc. That’s all the practical, tangible things.
The mental load is more invasive. It’s more where your focus lies. All the time.
You turn your energy toward moving the family forward, growing, and accomplishing goals. For example, you are the one who plans fun events for everyone. Let’s go to the zoo…We need a holiday…What are we going to do this weekend?.
It’s that stuff, plus things like holding the knowledge of the family unit’s wellbeing, as well as the wellbeing of each member of the family. How are you going? How are we going? How are the kids going?
The mental load looks like this….Your daughter keeps waking up at 4:30 am–this isn’t okay. You wonder if you should Google something about this.
So, you’ve done the research, and then you need to come back to your partner and say, “Okay, you know what, some people are talking about getting a clock or setting a timer.” The partner says great! They are totally on board with you.
Yet, what you might be desiring to lessen your mental load would be to have your partner join you more often in carrying the “emotional” weight of these kinds of concerns. You know ultimately that your partner wants the well-being of your family, but it sometimes feels to you as if they are “along for the ride!” You have the feeling that the heaviness is more yours to carry.
And so, that’s the mental load.
Inward-focused vs. outward-focused and conflict
Part of the conflict arising between men and women is where the attention lies for each one.
Typically, we can be either outward-focused or inward-focused. When we are outward-focused, we can hold the needs and desires of others, as well as our own. As inward-focused people, we are concerned with what is happening in our world and can be oblivious to everyone else and their needs.
Outward-focused partners will notice that the milk carton is almost empty. They will notice that book week is coming up at the children’s school and they need to dress like their favorite character – so they will start thinking about the costume.
In time, a partner’s ability to notice what is happening around them, as well as inside them, will bring others’ needs into view. Once that happens, the more outward-focused partner usually comes to realize what is best for their team. They make decisions that will benefit everyone not just themselves. Instead of stopping off at the bar for postwork happy hour drinks, they head home to provide support and relief to the partner who has been at home all day with the newborn.
Often (but, of course, not always) the wife’s focus is outward. She concerns herself with propelling the family forward. She wants the family to do great things. Everyone’s mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing often resides above her own.
When conflict comes, she feels her husband is being more inward-focused. He has turned his attention internally. The wife has the perception that he often considers his needs and wants ahead of the needs of the family. If he merely accepts a role where he is a part of her focus, who focuses on her?
Before the baby was born your concerns were probably vastly different. You could be more inwardly focused. For example, you could have had a standing appointment to get your haircut and a spin session every Tuesday night. Perhaps you played net-ball and went out for drinks afterward. Saturday mornings were glorious sessions of sleeping in, reading the newspapers and then heading to the café for breakfast.
The internal-focus was centered on self-care activities. It sounds a lot like “This is my life and this is what I’m going to do.
After your baby’s birth, you all of a sudden need to be responsible for someone else’s life. Your thoughts now might be centered around enrolling your baby in a rhyme time or gymnastics class. Your life is less about what you want to do or what will benefit you.
Now, the goal is to arrive at a place where you can hold the inward and outward focuses in balance. The couples that transition well are the ones where both partners recognize that they are a team. Therefore, they need to focus on the team as well as the individual and their needs.
In my sessions, as a relationship counselor in Sydney, we work on widening the focus of the partner who turned more internally. The partner with the greater outward-focus learns to communicate the mental load and how it affects them. Let me say, this is always a work in progress.
Outward or inward-focused, which are you? Which is your partner? Reach out if you would like help in navigating this divide.
*This blog post was written using concepts from Jay Belsky PH.D and John Kelly in the book: The Transition into Parenthood: How a First Child Changes a Marriage Why Some Couples Grow Closer and Others Apart
If you have an outward focus, you are able to have a balance of inward and outward.
The idea is that, pre babies, the couples are both more internally focused. So, for example, women can be like, I have a regular appt booked in to get my hair cut, I have a regular spin session, or I play net ball after work and then go out for drinks afterwards, I would fo to work and we would have friday night drinks until midnight and we would come home nad gloriously sleep in in the mornings, and read newspapers and go to breakfast at the cafe (all sort of self-care things). That’s all the internal focus of this is me, this is my life, this is what I’m going to do.
Then, you all of a sudden need to be responsible for someone else’s life and their life trumps yours so then, your thoughts become more like: maybe I should enrol my baby in rhyme time, gymnastics so it’s no longer about what I want to do or what will benefit me.
It’s about a balance, not either or. Those couples that transition well are the ones where both partners recognize that they are a team so therefore they need to focus on the team as well as the individual