Are you familiar with the term “mental load?”
It’s a term that’s used to describe the invisible workload that women – in particular married women – experience in the household.
Whether you’re familiar with the term or not, it’s become “a thing” over the last several years. A woman thing. Now of all the things I’m excited about calling “a woman thing” this is one I could do without. Unfortunately, many of us know this experience well, but might not have had the language to describe it in the past. Now we do.
Women carry a huge mental load. However, not just married women. I’ve learned that “mental load” could care less about your relationship status, age or ethnicity. Married or single, it still shows up, albeit differently based on any of a number of circumstances. Things like…whether you’re married, married with children, single and dating, single and not dating, a single mom, mom of young children, mom of a special needs children, mom of college students, mom of adult children, grandmother of grandchildren, caregiver of a parent, and so on. As a woman, carrying a heavy mental load has been an almost untouched issue in our society for decades.
“As a woman, carrying a heavy mental load has been an almost untouched issue in our society for decades.”
Many women are secretly experiencing burn out, loneliness and isolation because they have no one in whom to confide. Moreover, the mental load experience can vary from culture to culture, ethnicity to ethnicity, state to state, city to city and even household to household.
Additionally, we now find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic. Wearing masks, social distancing, virtual learning for children, virtual meetings, curfews, lock downs, layoffs, potential food shortages, Lysol hunting, toilet paper hoarding and social unrest – to name a few things – have added to our mental load.
As mothers, we wonder how our children’s education is going. Are they learning well? What about their social skills? When can they safely return to the classroom? Will they graduate on time? What about college?
As leaders, we worry about our careers. Will I get that promotion? Will I still have a job? How can I be the teacher, the counselor and the business woman? Am I at risk if I have to go into the office? How do I navigate essential professional relationships during a pandemic?
Just describing it can be exhausting…and that’s not the half of it.
Can we still get our teeth cleaned? What if I have to go on business travel? What about the dog’s shots? Will they reschedule or refund our vacation?
The list goes on.
How did we get here? Where does this all come from?
Let’s go back to WWII.
Although WWII changed the lives of women and men in many ways, what didn’t change much were the underlying expectations of men’s and women’s roles. With men going off to war, women joined the labor force to support the war efforts. Even though more married women worked outside the home, the household still needed managing.
So, new familial and societal norms began to form. This change required new conditioning that has stood the test of time. Many of us are accustomed to taking on roles, responsibilities and tasks that can pile up and create more and more pressure in our lives.
Over the years, marketing vehicles such as perfume commercials told us we could be Super women with lyrics like “I can bring home the bacon [on the 1st shift/day job], fry it up in the pan [on the 2nd shift/home manger] and never, never let you forget you’re a man [on the 3rd shift/being a wife]”.
For many of us, it’s not about being superwoman, it’s often about getting things done. Checking off the mental checklist. Which, by the way, seems to grow longer with each passing decade.
Women often feel if they don’t do it, or at least manage it getting done – then it won’t happen. Or worse, it’ll make more work for them later. Our programming and beliefs often cause us to put everything and everyone else first, and feel like that’s OK. Some of us wear this as a badge of honor.
“Our programming and beliefs often cause us to put everything and everyone else first, and feel like that’s OK. Some of us wear this as a badge of honor.”
Even though we’d like to reduce our mental load, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel appears to be nothing more than a pin light. So at best, we dust off our badge, affix it to our chest and continue. After all, you’re a wife, you’re a mom, you’re a professional…and you’re good at it.
Unfortunately, this thinking has led to women resenting their jobs, their spouses, even their children…and themselves. Why? Because many of us are living life the way we’ve been conditioned and are expected to live, not the way we want to live. Often, no one else knows we’re carrying these feelings.
Furthermore, my research has shown that married women believe single women have it easier, while singles feel married women at least have a spouse to support them. Single women believe married women have the comfort and understanding of a spouse, while married women sometimes envy the solitude of being single. While the grass might look greener on the other side, remember that mental load is no respecter of marital status. We’re all in this together.
Interestingly, I believe the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed a lot about what was already hiding just beneath the surface.
Some women are just plain tired.
Some are afraid.
Some feel inadequate.
It shows up in many different ways, such as worry, anger, sadness, loneliness, disappointment, discouragement, poor eating habits, and even substance abuse.
We often refer to imposter syndrome when it comes to women in leadership roles, but for some women that feeling spans across all areas of their lives, not just their careers. The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated things.
So the pressure is on. Pressure is an interesting thing. It can create diamonds, and it can burst pipes. In this case, something is likely to burst. The rupture could be a woman’s physical health, her personal or professional relationships, even her mental health.
So what do we do? How do we stop – or at least slow down – the treadmill we find ourselves on?
While we cannot change societal norms and expectations overnight, we can start to acknowledge the validity of mental load and begin to take better care of ourselves.
We can begin to renew, reset and reignite our own light.
The first step is to clearly know who you are, what you want and why you want it. Not what you’ve been conditioned to want. When you know this, you can begin to get on the path to personal and professional fulfillment.
Most people believe fulfillment is a rare by-product of success and that you’re lucky if you get to experience it. Not me. As a former engineer, I see things formulaically and I’ve discovered that fulfillment is not a fantasy, it’s a formula. As engineers we know formulas work, and yield consistent results over and over and over again.
“As a former engineer, I see things formulaically and I’ve discovered that fulfillment is not a fantasy, it’s a formula. As engineers we know formulas work, and yield consistent results over and over and over again.”
Having a formula means you don’t have to sacrifice your success for fulfillment, nor do you have to sacrifice your fulfillment for success. You can #HaveItAll as long as you’re the one who defines what it all means to you.
For the past five years I’ve dedicated my time and business to learning, researching and creating the best strategies and methodologies to help women leaders create the type of fulfillment they truly want in their lives and careers.
I’m excited to bring this work to the Society of Women Engineers and its members in these Reignite Your Light workshops. These on-demand presentations will have you feeling refocused and reinspired in your engineering journey.
- Reengineer Your Thoughts for Success (for early career professionals & collegians)
- Reinspire Your Future (for mid-career professionals)
Mental load may not be number one on the list of women’s equality issues, yet it is a pervasive issue affecting women regardless of relationship status, job position or ethnicity.
It’s up to us to lead the change we want to see.