How does mental load affect stress?
This week we’ve been talking on the blog about mental load and emotional labor, in three posts:
A bunch of you have sent me emails, and there were so many great comments left, too! I wanted to highlight some of them, and sum up the week today. Now, if I don’t mention your comment, it doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate it! There were a ton of amazing ones, both here and on Facebook and Twitter (and in emails!). I just want to paint with a super broad brush and highlight some themes.
(but seriously–you all make me so happy when you comment!)
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Mental load isn’t the same thing as stress in general
As Rebecca and I talked about in the podcast yesterday, mental load is like chronic stress, a low grade thing that never, ever goes away.
We did invariably get into some discussions in the comments about which spouse is more stressed, and that’s why talking about this stuff can be a minefield. It sounds like you’re accusing the other spouse of having a much easier life. But that’s not the point. It’s not about who is more stressed; it’s simply that chronic stress is debilitating, and if you can deal with it, you should.
As I explained,
Mental load, as I wrote in the post, is: “The never-ending mental to-do list you keep for all your family tasks. Though not as heavy as a bag of rocks, the constant details banging around in your mind nonetheless weigh you down. Mental “overload” creates stress, fatigue, and often forgetfulness.” It’s really decision fatigue, when you have to decide on all kinds of little things constantly, and you have to keep all these millions of details in your head.
Stress is something else entirely. Someone can have a ton of stress with very little mental load. And someone can have stress added to mental load. But if you have a ton of stress and very little mental load, it means that you can also get some “down time” to process that stress or to work on some stress relievers. If you have no time when you’re “off”, then this mental load is always with you.
That’s the difference. Stress is real, but it’s not the point of what we’re talking about this month. And stress would also be helped by sharing mental load, too, so even then–let’s talk about emotional labor and mental load.
Mental load is like grocery shopping
There was some confusion in the comments, but let me explain it in terms of Costco and Walmart. Having a big mental load is like shopping at Walmart. If you want pickles, you have to decide between 25 different varieties. Do you want the value brand or the name brand? Do you care if they have extra garlic or would you rather have low sodium? Is there a savings associated with getting a larger size? Making a decision can be challenging because there are just So. Many. Options. This is called “decision fatigue.”
But what if you want pickles at Costco? There are one, maybe two options for any given item. That’s a LOT easier decision making – either you get *the one type of pickle they have* or you don’t get pickles. There are approximately 120,000 different items for sale at a Walmart supercenter. At Costco? There are only 4,000.
I find it’s easier for me to shop at Costco for groceries simply because there are fewer decisions to make. That’s what mental load is like: you can have the same task, but if there’s more work associated with remembering, preparing, and executing the job, the mental load will be heavier.
Meghan described it this way,
Oh goodness yes, I think you really hit the nail on the head there. It’s not just the doing of the thing, it’s all the little things that go into it that’s so exhausting.
Let’s put it into another example. I’m a runner. I do long runs on Saturday mornings, and I push my daughter in the stroller for all 6+ miles. It’s not a matter of throwing on clothes, lacing up shoes, and strapping the kid in to go. Oh no. I have to lay out my clothes the night before to make sure everything I need is clean. I parcel out all the snack bribes and pick books and toys to bring along. I fill up both our water bottles. I charge my Garmin and my Bluetooth earbuds. I make sure the stroller caddy is loaded with my Goodrs, sunscreen, Larabar, and Nuun tablets. Sometimes planning for the long run is more tiring than the long run itself!
Not 100% translatable to managing a household since I’m talking about a personal hobby, but just thought it would give another perspective to help explain the phenomenon.
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The mental load is so heavy lots of women dreamed of being sick
Four different women in the comments wrote some variation of this:
I told a close friend that I was longing for a serious illness to put me in the hospital so I could be cared for for awhile, and she said, in all seriousness, “Every single one of my friends with kids has said the same thing at one point or another.” If that doesn’t tell you how hard the mental load is, I don’t know what would!
This is serious stuff.
Women want partners. We don’t want to be managers to subordinates.
Another theme that came up in the comments was whether women should make such a big deal about writing lists for men. One woman wrote that this is the preferred way, and women are better at it:
Ladies, we must remember that our husbands are adults… and should be TREATED as such. Sadly, too many women treat their husbands like children. It should be obvious that in that environment, the intimacy and joy of marital sex is not going to flourish. Men feel belittled. Women feel overwhelmed and resentful.
So make a list for your husband. What’s so hard about that? At the very least it will help get the multitude of detailed items OUT of your head. Then perhaps you can work on the list together and check things off, bringing a spirit of unity and cooperation rather than expecting your husband to be a mind reader while you silently simmer inside.
God, by design, made men and women differently. Most men can be more “in the moment” and playful. We women can resent that and become bitter. In truth, we women are jealous. We need the balance that comes when the husband and wife work together for the good of the home / marriage / family.
But others chafed at the idea of making a list, because it puts them in the role of managing their husbands.
I once heard it explained this way: when a husband tells a wife to just tell him what she wants him to do, it’s like he’s putting her in a manager role and himself in an employee role. So even though he’s doing the work, she’s still responsible for delegating the tasks AND doing all her own tasks as well.
I don’t know about y’all, but I definitely don’t want to be my husband’s “manager.”
Others chimed in that while they didn’t want to manage husbands, they could manage kids, and kids should be doing chores. I totally agree, and we’ll be talking later this month in two different posts (at least) about how to hand chores off to kids and let them handle some of the stress (and also how to pass the mental load for their homework, lunches, etc. off to them).
I find FamZoo an amazing app that helps share the mental load of supervising chores and figuring out allowance, while teaching kids responsibility, and we’ll be talking about that later this month, too.
Dealing with too much mental labor is bad for libido!
I want to finish with a comment from Jacqueline, who wrote that she and her husband are going to be having some conversations about how to manage expectations, lighten her mental load, and generally sort out a new normal.
I have just realised after 23 years that my mental load was massive. I totally identify with the examples given!! With three children and being a stay home mum, then starting work part time, then my elderly mother coming to live with us, it’s busy in our house. My husband is very helpful and completely owns the tasks relating to DIY, the garden, the cars and the bikes. He also works full-time in a busy job. Since lockdown my mental load has been greatly reduced as all activity outside the house has stopped. For the first time in 23 years I feel I am completely rested mentally and can think clearly. I have also enjoyed a new more intimate relationship with my husband because I finally found some space in my head. We are looking at ways now to keep my mental load lower than it has been. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series to learn how to do this.
I love Jaqueline’s thoughts. While the COVID 19 pandemic has been a horrible time for all of us, it does give many of us the opportunity to slow the pace and think deeply about what’s working and what’s not working. For some it increases mental load, because everyone’s home all the time. But for others, it’s taken a lot of the normal stuff that drives us crazy off of our plates, and shown us a new way to do life.
My hope in doing this mental load and emotional labor series now, in the middle of a pandemic, is that you have time to sort this out right now. You’re both home more than usual. You can talk about it. And maybe some things will change.
And, again, the reason that I wanted to talk about all this in the first place is that mental load is so related to women’s libido. So guys, if you’re pushing back, remember–no one is trying to blame you. There just may be an unhealthy dynamic going on that is hurting your sex life and marriage that’s actually relatively easy to fix. It doesn’t even necessarily mean more work for you. It just means paying attention more and thinking of some of the asks yourself, without a list.
Are you TIRED of always being too tired for sex?
How about you? How do you think about mental load? And has dealing with mental load issues helped your libido? Let me know in the comments!