It was the day before our six-week journey to Costa Rica. My husband and I had been to the store at least six times in the two days leading up to the trip when I found myself sitting on the toilet and realizing we were completely out of toilet paper. Not down to the last pack or roll—I had mentioned those events OUT LOUD to my husband when they occurred—no, we were out of every single f’ing last square. As I sat there thinking about my next move I was reminded of a blog I’d read recently.
It was called, “I am the one who notices we are running out of toilet paper” and was posted last year by a mom blogger who was feeling the mental burden (also called mental load, emotional load, emotional burden—you get the picture) of being a woman in a household—a mom in particular.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down with girlfriends for a glass of wine and watched the conversation turn into a bitch session about husbands and this mental burden that so many women (and a few men that I know) carry. It is this load that most likely led us all to be chugging our Chardonnay in the first place. And we aren’t making it up either. It is a real thing.
I recall being in a therapy session with my husband many years ago when my kids were very young. We both were working full-time jobs. The therapist handed us a 250-item checklist. We were to check off the things we thought about on a daily basis. Mine was full of checkmarks on everything from scheduling flu shots to knowing when the dog needed to take heartworm pills to ordering the special bags for our vacuum cleaner because they don’t sell them in the store. When I looked at the scarce few check marks on my husband’s checklist I knew why we had ended up in therapy.
(I should clarify that it is not always the woman who carries this mental burden, but it is more typical.)
Emotional Labor is Hard Work
It’s not just the grocery items that we women keep track of. We often feel like we have to be on top of all the details involved in keeping a household together. (Sometimes barely together, but now we know why!)
Planning trips, packing and unpacking for everyone, coordinating schedules (a special kind of mental burden of its own), arranging carpools to extracurricular activities, remembering extended family birthdays, sending the cards, staying on top of school events, being a good neighbor, planning just about everything, reminding spouses about to-do items that are on his list, #nagging—that doesn’t even count the meal planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning that may or may not be entirely our jobs, too. (And work. We don’t even get to mention that part.) Whew!
We go to bed conducting an orchestra of unfinished accomplishments in our minds, sounding the alarm of an increasing allostatic load on our brains, and our spouses wonder why we roll our eyes pull the pillow over our head when they make the slightest sexual advance.
Fortunately, mindfulness can help you step back from the burden, the thoughts and the anxious feelings they bring. It can also help you become more aware of your emotions, which may help you to communicate your feelings with your partner, rather than letting them fester until they erupt like projectile vomit all over your spouse and the rest of the family.
Here are a few tips to help you better manage mental burden:
Communicate and delegate.
It’s likely that your family doesn’t realize how many details you keep track of, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get them involved. Challenge your husband and kids to make a list of all the chores and tasks that need to be done to keep your household running smoothly. Once they’ve exhausted all ideas, together, you can create chore lists for each family member. The app OurHome is a great tool your family can use to stay on task, or you can find a chore chart to put up on the wall (some options here).
Do one thing.
The truth is, you can only do one thing at a time. But we still try to do three things at once. What ends up happening is that we switch back and forth and back and forth quickly between tasks, feeling as though we’re getting a lot done. But we’re really just doing three things, half-assed. It’s called continuous partial attention, and it has the same effect on our level of performance as smoking pot. Pay attention to those times when you’re trying to do it all at once. Then stop yourself. Do the most important task—and only that task—first. Then move on. It’s easier to be mindful when you’re not frequently shifting your focus.
Lighten the burden.
Often, we feel the mental burden most when we’re feeling completely overwhelmed. We then bark orders and criticize in an attempt to gain some control over the situation, but we only make matters worse. Next time you feel about to spew that projectile vomit on your family, take a moment to cool off. Take three deep breaths to put your mind in a state that allows you to respond intentionally, so you can entice cooperation rather than put your husband or kids on the defensive.
Release tension before bed.
If you have trouble falling asleep at night because your mind is busy tallying the tasks that remain on your list, progressive muscle relaxation can help. You can follow the instructions here.
Women’s and men’s brains are wired differently, so it’s likely that we will always tend toward carrying this mental burden more than men. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help ease it, or that we have to feel overwhelmed by it. I can tell you one thing, you’re not alone. I hope my tips are helpful.