Sex & Relationships

Domestic Labor vs. The Mental Load: Why the Difference Matters

mental load"
mental load
Source: Meruyert Gonullu | Pexels
Source: Meruyert Gonullu | Pexels

The words “domestic labor” and “mental load” are buzzwords you’re sure to hear in social media content and read in articles focused on motherhood. The terms are often used interchangeably, but they actually focus on two different concepts: domestic labor is the execution of a task (i.e. dropping kids off at school) and the mental load is the often invisible work that goes into the planning of that task (i.e. making sure outfits are picked out, backpacks are packed, lunches made, etc.).

The difference is important because the mental load tasks are generally invisible and usually taken on by moms, meaning countless hours of work that no one is seeing. But, at surface level, when looking at how the household tasks are split up, cis-gendered, heterosexual couples’ task load can appear balanced—because we’re just focusing on the domestic labor part of running a home. If mom drops the kids off at school, does bath time, and puts the kids to bed, and dad picks the kids up, cooks dinner, and packs school lunches, the division of labor looks fair on paper. But if the parent cooking dinner, for example, isn’t the one auditing the food in the home, planning the meal, making the shopping list, and doing the grocery shopping, for example, the labor actually isn’t fairly divided at all.

Why the Mental Load Distinction Matters

This distinction is crucial to understanding why moms feel like they’re drowning and can’t figure out why. We think we’re “splitting the work evenly” with our partner by ensuring each parent does their share of the domestic labor. But we’re not addressing the countless mental load tasks that go along with this labor—and we moms are tackling them mostly on our own.

One of my favorite TikTokers, @sheisapaigeturner, does a series on her page of “what is and isn’t the mental load” and has countless concrete examples of mothers (including herself) taking on this unfair burden of doing most of the work to manage the household. She fairly points out that if you are constantly asking your partner to remind you of the kid’s schedule, you’re likely not carrying your fair share. If you can’t fill out paperwork at the pediatrician’s office without calling your partner, you’re also likely not carrying your fair share. Also, if you get your kids dressed in the morning, but don’t actually take the day’s activities into account, you’re not really responsible for the mental load of this task (i.e., you need to be dressed appropriately for gym day or a field trip). It also requires clothes be swapped out for new seasons and sizes.

Source: Canva

To put it into context, here are some of the mental labor items that go along with a common domestic labor task—taking the kids to a doctor’s appointment.

Domestic Labor Task:

  • Drive child to/from doctor’s appointment

Associated Mental Load Tasks:

  • Review calendar and schedule the appointment
  • Fill out pre-registration paperwork, including past medical history
  • Call/fill out absence form to get child out of school
  • Note PTO on your own work calendar
  • Make sure there aren’t any restrictions to follow beforehand, like not eating for an hour, or expectations to set with your child (i.e. getting a shot). 
  • Know to retrieve any school health forms needed after the appointment and provide to school

Essentially, if you’re just bringing the kids to their appointment, there’s a lot you’re not doing when it comes to truly completing this childcare task.

Dr. Regina Lark, a speaker on emotional labor, author of Emotional Labor: A Woman’s Work is Never Done and What To Do About It, and a professional organizer, sees these issues play out in clients’ homes, and notes in her TEDx Talk that the world continues to see mental labor in the household as “women’s work.” We haven’t gotten away from that cultural mindset. But this work isn’t necessarily “women’s work”—it just requires developing an executive functioning skill set and a willingness to be an equitable partner in the home. It’s often women who are willing to take on that challenge.

Tips for Managing the Mental Load More Equitably

So, what do we do about this problem? How do we divide up these invisible tasks so it’s not just mom’s burden to bear? We’re not individually going to straighten the cultural mindset, but we can balance the load more in our own homes. 

As a working mother of four kids under the age of six, TikToker Paige is well-versed in the concept of the mental load and the stress it brings to moms in their day-to-day life. Due to the family schedule, she usually finds herself filling the role of default parent, but hit a point during her last maternity leave where she just couldn’t continue doing so much and found herself in a frustrated phase with her partner. This started important conversations about the division of labor in her own household.

Starting conversations about change with your partner, and making sure any changes stick, can be difficult. But Paige and Dr. Lark have some great advice for managing the division of the mental load in your household:

Revisit conversations often

It’s not enough to just sit down once, have this tough conversation, split up your tasks differently, and not really talk about it again. It’s important to revisit your initial conversation regularly to ensure everyone’s sticking to their part of the deal, and allow for someone to voice if they’re feeling unhappy with how things are going. This also makes managing the division of the mental load not just mom’s burden to bear. Dr. Lark suggests doing a check-in at a regular interval, such as weekly or monthly, to make sure partners are still in alignment. It’s so important to continually revisit the balance of work throughout your relationship, as your life circumstances change. If you come to an agreement on how to divide labor when your kids are small, you still need to adjust as needed as your kids grow up and your parenting duties change.

Paige also says to remember to give your partner grace when extenuating circumstances take them away from their usual duties. If they usually go grocery shopping over the weekend but are out of town, it’s reasonable for the other partner to temporarily take on their load–just be sure that when circumstances go back to normal, the work does as well instead of staying with the other person.

Focus on the logistics of how to get tasks done

Paige recommends using the “Fair Play” method, a popular and effective approach to dividing household tasks based on each parent’s strengths and available time. That being said, there are a lot of systems and frameworks that can be used to organize tasks. I personally like Fair Play because it emphasizes that in order to “own” a task, you have to be fully responsible for its Conception, Planning, and Execution, meaning the person that takes on a domestic labor task also has to be responsible for its associated mental load. If you’re not using Fair Play, make sure you are using some organizational scheme that works for the family, instead of dividing tasks without a clear layout for how they’ll actually get completed and by who. It’s not enough for one partner to just say, “Sorry, I promise to take on more,” without being clear on what those things will be and how they will actually get done. The logistics need to be explicitly decided upon for it to work properly.

Source: Canva

Play to each other’s strengths when initially dividing out tasks

Some people prefer cooking, some prefer cleaning, some prefer yardwork. When initially laying out everything that needs to be done–and not just executing that task, but planning it as well–Paige recommends to first split it up by who genuinely prefers to do specific things. The household is going to be more harmonious if individual preferences are taken into account.

Make sure someone’s aptitude isn’t taken advantage of 

What’s left after dividing based on preferences still has to be divided out fairly, even if one person is stronger at doing those items. It makes sense to initially divide out the labor based on who makes the most sense for the job, but the leftover tasks still need to be done, no matter who may be “better” at them. And even if mom is just “better” at managing the mental load, it’s not reasonable for her to be expected to do it all.

Dr. Lark discusses the concept of “radical delegation”–which means the work has to get done, and it doesn’t matter who is better at it. Women are often seen as the ones “better” at managing a schedule, so they take on that entire burden–but this mentality of “you’re just better at it” doesn’t promote equity. Radical delegation means the tasks are ultimately fair between the two partners, period.

Dr. Lark says that if it’s an important need to be met, the partnership needs to decide how to equitably get it done, even if that means outsourcing the task or just deciding to eliminate it from the list altogether.

Consider counseling

Both Paige and Dr. Lark recommend the value of a mental health professional, whether it’s for couples counseling or individual counseling. Dr. Lark notes the importance of learning strong communication skills for household management. Going through counseling can also help you or your partner learn new insights on your relationship, and how your unique dynamic affects your executive functioning skills as a team. Repairing and refining these skills will help the management of a household run much more smoothly.

Remember that done is better than perfect

We’re all facing so many challenges with the impossible work/life balance we’re expected to shoulder. Many of us know the feeling when you discover a dirty dish that was accidentally put back in the cabinet. But it’s just a dirty dish and not the end of the world, says Dr. Lark. This is especially true because, though that chore didn’t get done properly, there were probably 50 other tasks that week alone that did. Give yourselves grace and remember that generally keeping up with getting things done is better than getting them done perfectly.

The unfair burden of household work on women is a large, complex societal problem to navigate. But by setting the expectations for equity in our own homes and developing strategies with our partners, we can begin to shift the balance.

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