About that mental load

There have been some great articles recently highlighting the mental load and emotional labour involved in managing life outside of work.

I have to say, for every man I’ve had in a workshop who has said: “I don’t have to think about anything at home – my wife tells me what to do” there’s a woman who says something along the lines of “I have to do all the thinking at home – I’m the one who remembers his sister’s birthday, buys her card and reminds him to sign it.” And yes I’m afraid it’s always a man, but not all men, or even most men.

My husband is one, I’m pleased to say, who does appreciate the mental load. He’s the one who’s scoped that we needed more milk yesterday morning and that our son needed to polish his shoes. He was the one who noticed when our son was skipping lunch, and tweeted Muller when our daughter’s yoghurt had gone ‘fizzy’. He’s also the one who nags me when my car appears to be growing moss (oops!) and the one all our friends come to when they have a techie problem they can’t solve.

Yes he is rather marvellous. But it’s been a learning journey to get to this point – for both of us.

Here’s what I’ve learned – and it applies to the mental load at work too.

1. Managing the mental load is learned out of necessity

If you’ve always had a boss who has delegated tasks to do rather than problems to solve, you won’t have needed to do the thinking involved in defining the work that needs to get done.

If you’ve always had a household manager (or a wife!) to scope, figure out and manage everything that needs to be done, then you won’t be aware of the complexity of decisions that need to be made. Why would you?

If you are that boss, or that wife, and if you want something to change, you need to delegate the responsibility, not just the task. And then you need to step aside and let them figure it out.

For me the big change happened when my husband took a sabbatical year to do his Masters degree and we did a role swap. He was at home more, and I was on the road more, running workshops full time. On the days when I was working away, or squirrelled away in a cafe writing my book, he would be in charge of the school run, the dinner, the kids, the house and the after school activities.

Before this time, he was always an involved dad and husband, but many of the thousand tiny decisions involved in everyday home life just wasn’t on his radar, because it was all in my head. There was no need for him to think about it.

2. Get out of the way

I can’t tell you how hard it was to stay out the way. On the days when I was physically away, I still wanted to know what was going on. And when I was at home, it’s amazing how tempting it was to interfere. Sounds ridiculous, but I remember how hard it felt to lock myself away upstairs and make the most of some precious writing time while my husband cooked my signature stir fry dish downstairs.

The biggest thing he needed was space to scope. Things that occurred to me instantly and naturally did so because I was used to it. I needed to give him space to notice these things, and figure out his own way of dealing with it.

Last week, a friend messaged me to ask if we could have one of her boys after school. What I should have done was told her that Grante was in charge on the home front, and suggest she ask him directly. What I actually did, was to forward her message to my husband, and act as a go-between, which ended up in crossed-wires, mixed messages, an extra boy and a shortage of pizza.

The pizza shortage was easily rectified in the end, although my son did lament that he missed out on the pudding he really wanted. And my husband held the fort marvellously with four kids! But without a doubt, I made things far more complicated by getting involved.

3. Sharing the load means sharing control

These days, he’s finished his degree but his work is seasonal, and so is mine. So our roles are not clear cut, and when anyone asks how things work at home, the answer is we’re making it up as we go along.

When you delegate, it won’t get done the way you would have done it. You don’t get to dictate how it’s done. When you share ownership, you have to share control.

My husband and I are opposites in many ways. We have very different ways of seeing and tackling things. Quite often we’re not even speaking the same language. It takes communication, practice and a whole lot of grace to navigate the mess, the mistakes, the misunderstanding and the balls that get dropped. It’s a messy, imperfect process and emotions do get frayed. I’ve found that being quick to say “my bad” when I’ve dropped he ball and “you’re amazing” when he picks it up, goes a long way.

Team work is hard work, but it’s so worth it. We definitely appreciate each other more, for who we are as well as what we do. We know we’re not alone. It’s a shared journey. Yes it’s been the source of many arguments but I’d like to think it’s brought us closer. And the kids get us both, our presence, our involvement, our imperfection and our learning, up close and personal.

Want more?

Getting clarity around that mental load is what we do in our Stress Less Achieve More workshop. You’ll learn how to design your second brain to take the weight of the load and help you manage everything you need to get done in work and in life – with a sense of playful productive momentum and relaxed control.

If that sounds wonderful to you – come and join us in Birmingham on 10th November (or book on that partner/team member who you need to take on more of the mental load!)

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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