An Invisible Burden of the Holidays: The Mental Load

I love Christmas. But in the last couple of years I’ve found myself overly stressed and burdened by the work of the holidays. After some reflection, I realized, I’m carrying quite a burden with this holiday thing! Here’s what I mean:

In exchanging gifts among my family and my partner’s family each year, I’m responsible for finding gifts for 14 people. If you ask me, finding a suitable gift is a ton of work, requiring me to put in a lot of thought into what to get, figure out what’s affordable, make multiple trips to various stores and websites, make sure everything is purchased or delivered on time, and wrap the gifts, tying everything in a perfect bow.

Now, I know this doesn’t sound unique: Millions of Americans buy gifts for their family members during the holiday season. But it is a lot, and it’s my job. All these tasks are swirling around inside my head, while my partner gets to enjoy the holidays stress-free. How did this happen?

It’s called the mental load, the cognitive and emotional effort involved in managing a household, your family, your relationships, or your work. The mental load involves thinking about your responsibilities, the details of the tasks that need to be completed, and decisions you have to make to keep your life running. And it’s invisible, hidden work.

Let’s break this work down into three categories.

  1. Cognitive Labor: Cognitive labor is the thinking required to run a household, such as organizing child activities, shopping, planning events, and getting chores done.
  2. Emotional Labor: Emotional labor refers to the work of feeling responsible for the emotional climate of your household. If you carry the emotional labor in your home, you likely feel pressure to keep track of and accomplish your long list of tasks so everyone in the household is happy and comfortable and feels supported emotionally.
  3. Mental Load: Mental load refers to both the cognitive and emotional labor required to keep everything running smoothly.

Unfortunately, the mental load is typically assigned to women. In our society, women are viewed and conditioned to be the managers of the household. And if you think about it, the role of manager is itself a full-time job. On a typical day, you are thinking about what groceries you need to pick up, wondering when your kid can get in to see the doctor, going to the store to get a birthday card, buying stamps, mailing the card, getting a load of laundry done, and so on. Its exhausting just thinking about it.

Women are exhausted. And burned out. And resentful. Study after study shows that women take the brunt of the housework including cooking, cleaning, and childcare. So what do we do about this? It’s not simple by any means, as this is a systemic and ingrained issue in our society as a whole. But here are some ideas:

Make the Invisible Visible
Sit down with your partner and explain the impact of the mental load you carry, which can go miles in creating some understanding. Then, talk specifically about who does what. Get it on paper to see what each of you is carrying. The results of this exercise might surprise you.

Divvy Up Tasks
Are there certain tasks you actually enjoy doing? Are you doing tasks that are unnecessary? Assigning tasks to your partner can increase their responsibility (and decrease yours). Communication is essential to make sure you and your partner are on the same page and transparent about what you can handle. Scheduling an appointment with a couples counselor may be a great place to start.

Get Uncomfortable
Making changes can be extremely challenging for the person that has been carrying the mental load. Reducing your load might mean that tasks go unfinished, and, for a while, it may seem as though there’s more work than before. Know that it may take some time for your partner to take on their share of responsibilities. The more you swoop in and take it on yourself, the less likely you’ll see long-term changes.

Model for Your Children
You weren’t born carrying a mental load. We have been socialized to take on these responsibilities. Think about the toys your children play with. Are your girls playing with their kitchen sets making you pretend meals or taking care of their sick dolls? The conditioning starts young. Think about how you can model your household away from damaging stereotypes.

A systemic issue like this one does not often have simple solutions. You can see the issue clearly with the gender pay gap and little to no paternity leave. Work-life balance is essential. Search for companies that value you as a human being and hold values that align with mental wellness and equal treatment.

This Christmas I decided not to partake in gift-giving. Not because I don’t have holiday spirit or don’t value the people I love. It’s because I value the people I love. I’m choosing to be present. Taking some of the mental load off will allow me to enjoy my time with loved ones without resentment. Little by little, we can make changes to break free of the burden of the mental load.

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