Recognising And Renegotiating The Mental Load

July 6, 2017

I’m a week back from holidays in Fiji. Eight days with a long-time girlfriend spent in beach clubs, floating pontoons, swimming in crystal clear water, sail boats, champagne, great food and heaps of laughter. I have been stopped in the street and supermarket many times this week by women in my community who followed my holiday on Instagram.

“Did you have the best time?” they ask. I say, “How do you think it looked? Because, yes, it was that good”.

Left at home were my two children and my partner who all managed brilliantly while I galivanted off into the warm sunset as a reward for moving us all to a new house and because basically I could knick off with a friend to an exotic place.

All the glamour and opulence of the holiday aside, forgetting the lazy days of sunbaking and seeing the beauty of the ocean and all of that, the thing I got most from that holiday, personally, was being free.

And when I say free I mean this. Throughout that week I gave up the mental load. What is that exactly? Emma, a French comic artist, captured the meaning of the mental load brilliantly in a series of cartoons recently published in the Guardian – yes, click the link and then share it with those in your household.

For eight days, I didn’t have to:

 Plan a meal, shop for the food or cook the food

 Make my bed or change my bed, or anyone else’s bed

 Do washing, fold washing or nag anyone to put washing away

 Clean anything except rinse my champagne glass in the room

 Tell anyone they were going to be late or push them to get dressed

 Feed the pet, find the pet, clean up after the pet

 Put anything away that hadn’t been put back in its place

 Break up an argument

 Find anything that was missing

 Do much besides have a good time, for myself.

My ‘think, prepare and execute’ role was also on holidays. But the kicker is that I mentally didn’t have to think about any of this shit either. And that was the thing that gave me the relaxation and the peace to really let go and have a fantastic break. It refreshed me. It gave me space to be mindful, recalibrate and not worry about a single thing.

We’ve covered a lot of things that really get the goat of women, like mansplaining, body image and taking on the bulk of household chores but the responsibility of having to be always on game, because we need to think about the majority of stuff, is where we need the conversation.

Because, like so many things associated with women, if you complain about people in your household having to do more of their share you are looked upon as any of the following:

 A nagger

 Controlling

 Emotional

 Highly strung

 Unreasonable

 Whinger

 Martyr

 Not fulfilling your role

 An OCD freak

 Uptight

 Too tidy

I could go on. And please, add your own to the list.

When I was at my lowest ever point in my life, when I thought my life was over, I was unsupported, my needs were explained to me as something unreasonable, I was in an unhappy marriage with two children under three and I was described as an ‘awful wife’. (Who does that? Who says stuff like that?) I was working, paying a mortgage on another property, contributing to bills, running the household, arranging childcare, cooking restaurant meals, keeping the house neat as a pin.

And more.

Yes, complete madness. Within that madness I was trying to keep alive the way I wanted to live. I like to live in a tidy and clean house. My love of cooking and sharing food across the table is an integral part of my happiness. Working provides me with an independence to have beautiful things and travel to wonderful places so it’s a mainstay. In trying to keep those shreds of normality, I also carried the requirements of the rest of the family, simply because those responsibilities fell to me. It was expected, except for the tidy house part. But if I didn’t have an ordered house I would have lost my ability to function; tidy home, tidy mind and all.

Within all of that chaos the killer was the mental load. Lacking in sleep, never knowing how much harder or worse it was going to be, it brought me to a place which was very dark. But in that end of the road kind of way, it made me say enough. And so I left.

But the mental load stays with us women. I’m a solutions based person so rather than complain I like to act. Coming home from holidays reminded me that everyone coped quite fine while I was snorkelling with several varieties of fish. In the spirit of things, I am continuing with that shared approach to living they achieved while I was holidaying and I’m negotiating some new ways of sharing the load with my family.

I’ll be spending the next few weeks renegotiating the mental load with them and providing them with opportunities to take up the slack or, as it appears to me, lift some of the burden from my shoulders. I will be gentle with them. I will ask them how they see themselves contributing and ask them to commit to helping more. As a group we will consider everyone’s needs and what is important to them to live happily within the household.

Quietly, I will explain to my daughter how to bring about this change and why I am doing it. I will tell her that this will be her lot if she doesn’t develop the skills to renegotiate the terrain. I will tell her brother that women shouldn’t bear the brunt of chores and most times, nowadays, if you leave all the work to them it is likely they will leave.

I will hug my partner tightly and tell him I love him but remind him it’s not my role and such things make us unequal in our relationship. He listens. He understands and he adjusts. This is why we are together.

If people ask me what I want most in life I always say ‘peacefulness’. The constant mental chatter of being the glue within the family, from the never-ending list of things you need to do, does not deliver that peacefulness. So, if you find yourself the keeper of the mental load, express your want for change and begin the conversation which will help you hand over the burden. It will change your life.

Libby Fordham on FacebookLibby Fordham on LinkedinLibby Fordham on Twitter
Libby Fordham

Writer, thinker, creator – Libby is interested in the things that make the world turn. She loves to explore modern life, its ironies, complexities and culture. She is currently writing her first book while also juggling a business, her art and her family.