Working Mothers and the Mental Load May 2019

Last week as Mothers' Day was approaching, it was hard to avoid the way this day is surrounded by all the commercial hype about what to buy mothers.  Amid all the advertisements for toasters, vacuum cleaners and other household appliances, there was the usual perfumes and cosmetic options being pushed by the big department stores.  The task of selecting the mother's day gift often falls to women who find themselves expected to buy not only for their own mothers (if they are lucky enough to still have one) but also their mother in law.  Men very rarely choose gifts for their own mothers, leaving the responsibility to their wives.  Why does this happen?  Is it because it is because they genuinely dont have a clue what to buy their own mother or that they see this as women's role/job?

During a recent conversation with a colleague about plans for mothers' day, we were talking about the extra "mental load" women carry at this time.  She mentioned she was having to decide not only what to buy for her mother and her mother in law, but also plan and arrange an event to celebrate the day with them.  She had her own two children and was looking forward to spending the day with them, but also had to factor in when she would see her own mother and make arrangements for a social activity to entertain her mother in law.  She did not begrudge this, but in her already busy week as a working mum, she was facing extra work on a day which was supposed to be about her relaxing.  This not at all unusual. 

Even in today's society, where some men are stepping up and undertaking some of the household tasks, women are still primarily the ones who take on the responsibility for most of the details relating to the children's needs and the smooth running of the household.  This "mental load" has been illustrated by French cartoonist Emma, whose enormously popular cartoon book "The Mental Load" has resonated with women around the world.

Emma highlighted in a humorous, but insightful manner, the mental burden which women shoulder in the process of looking after others and ensuring that their lives run smoothly, often to their own detriment and leading to widespread female exhaustion.  She pointed to the way in which women take on a project management type role in the home, which involves ensuring that the children have everything they need for school, special projects, outings etc. and that all members of the household have clean clothes, enjoy a tidy house, nourishing meals at the same time ensuring they remember family and friends' birthdays, buy gifts and ferry children to and from the increasing number of activitires they engage in these days. 

The list of tasks women are expected to assume appears to be never ending.  If things break down in the home, it is almost always the woman who has to search for the most appropriate trades person, make the call to book the service and take half a day off work to be there when they come.  Numerous studies have found that women still do by far the majority of housework.  The 2016 Census found that women do between 5-14  hours p.w. of unpaid household duties.  Even when men "help out" their contribution was less than 5 hours p.w. 

Whilst some women have been successful in persuading their men to lend a hand, the problem seems to be that men often see this as helping their wife with what they appear to regard as their job.  We have all cringed when we hear some fathers talk about how they are "babysitting" their kids while their wife goes out.  For some reason they do not see this as parenting their own children.  When was the last time you heard a mother talk about "babysitting" her kids?  In some men's eyes, child care and housework is still women's work and they merely help out - usually only when asked.  This having to ask is also what drives many women mad.  Women hate having to ask as it makes them feel like they are nagging all of the time.  The frustrating thing is that their men often don't seem to even notice what needs to be done, let alone volunteer to do it.  

Another factor which contributes to mothers feeling overwhelmed is that adult children are staying at home much longer than ever before.  This is mainly due to the high cost of rental accommodation  and the tendency for young adults to be studying or employed in low or part time/casual jobs.  Young adults unfortunately are slow to offer to help around the home, thus adding to the physical and emotional burden mothers bear.

So, with all this discussion about the responsibilities that women take on and how this leads to exhaustion for them, what is to be done?  Here are a few ideas which may help.

1.  Stop being on call 24/7

It is important to think about the work women perform in the home in the same way as we would regard a job in the workforce.  Although Australians now work longer hours than ever before, no one is required to be on call 24/7, yet, this is the reality for many mothers.   No sooner do they finish their paid work, then all the unpaid work they do commences.  The constant To-Do is never finished.  There is always something which women are worrying about, planning, organising or pre-empting.  Make sure you start putting some boundaries around your time.  Just as you need to say no at work to unrealistic demands, learn to say no at home.  Decide which tasks can wait until tomorrow and look after yourself.  Dont stay up late doing chores and depriving yourself of much needed sleep.

2.  Don't put everyone else's needs before your own

Yes, we know that women are generally regarded as natural carers, but this is often used to keep women stuck in the caring role.  When you have small dependent children, it is understandable and necessary that mothers (and fathers) focus on their needs, but as your children grow and become more capable, it is important to teach them that you are not there to be their slave.  This self sacrificing approach can lead to resentment and a feeling of not being appreciated or being taken for granted. You will be a more rested, relaxed mother if you dont ignore your own needs.

3.  Don't try to do it all yourself

If you are a working mother, you only have a certain amount of energy.  It is common to find working mums rushing to the shops to pick up groceries for dinner on their way home after their busy day at work.  If they work part time they are often racing to collect children from school and then off to drop them off at some activity.  All this rushing and no time out takes its toll.  Realise that you are only human and either ask for help from your partner and older children, or if you can afford it, pay for a cleaner or share school pick ups with other parents.

4.  Make a commitment to your own self care

Mothers need to take time out for themselves.  Yes I know it is hard to find the time in all the taks you have, but it is essential to prioritise this.  Self care is not selfish.  A simple exercise to help with this is to take a sheet of paper and draw a big circle.  On another piece of paper list all of the activities you do in an average week, including sleeping, eating, showering, dressing, housework, childcare, shopping, cooking etc. etc. then work out how many hours you spend on each and use the paper with the circle to allocate the percentage of time for each one.   You will probably be shocked to see how little time you spend on yourself.  Next, write down 2 self care activities such as exercise, reading, listening to music, whatever makes you feel good and schedule time for them.  This means you will have to reduce the time you spend on some other activities as you only have 24 hours in a day.  Perhaps you can delegate some of these tasks or stop doing them.  Be firm and dont give up.  

5.  Tell you partner about your self care goals

For this to work you will have to get your partner on board.   Discuss what they can do to support you in this.  Speak up honestly and dont feel guilty about needing time for yourself.  Men need to be made aware of the emotional toll that the mental and physical load has on the women they love.

I am not suggesting that men dont work hard and experience many stresses related to their role as major breadwinners.  However, as discussed above, when men come home from work they do not generally take on the range or number of additional tasks which women do.


The paid and unpaid work women do has never been properly valued and recognised and it is not surprising that more and more women are feeling that this has to change.  Social change is slow, but we can begin in our own homes by educating our children about the negative physical and psychologial impact of the unequal division of domestic labour and hopefully change the way our children will behave and experience their domestic world in future years.  Now that the majority of mothers are in paid work outside the home, this brings much needed extra income into the household, however, the cost to women is often in exhaustion and chronic stress.  Men will benefit from their  partners being less stressed and more satisfied in their relationships when they increase their willingness to share the physical and mental load of maintaining a home environment where all of its inhabitants can thrive more equally.



© Dawn Vincent