Couples Win When Mom’s Mental Load Is More Fairly Balanced

Couples Win When Mom’s Mental Load Is More Fairly Balanced

#MomsSelf-Care #ShareTheInvisibleWorkLoad #MentalLoadSurveyResults“I want to SMOOSH his face!  He is a teacher and is home for the summer, but I’m the one scheduling everything – he takes the girls to the appointments, but I have to be the one to set everything up. I work 50 hours a week and come home to a messy house, no dinner, and kids who want to run to Target. The thing is: they simply don’t ask him about haircuts or shampoo or sweatpants or whatever, so I do it all.”


In most households, the planning and logistics for all things kids and household falls to Mom.  One friend aptly described the mental load, “…it’s like having one thousand tabs open in your mind. All.the.time.” This imbalance leaves many partnered Moms feeling disconnected, disrespected, frustrated or lonely in their relationships.

When asked how the mental load affects the partnership with their spouse or significant other, 80% admit it’s having a negative impact.

“I’m resentful of him. I feel like he is so comfortable letting me carry everything.”

“Bickering from pent-up frustration that he does not comprehend the mental load, what it is, or why I have it.”

“(It) Adds stress. It’s infuriating that I manage 3 kids, career, house, all activities and he manages himself. Sometimes needing help!”

If you’re wired to find joy where productivity meets helpfulness, you probably took most of the mental load early on. For many, long before ink dries on the marriage certificate, that childhood love of pleasing – our parents, then teachers – moves to our adult partners. If that’s with a man, add the pull of archaic gender roles pushing an agenda we don’t question. Not at first. It’s subtle…you don’t see the crash coming, you feel it.  Thinking about the to-do list quickly matches time needed to work on it. When you realize how the mental energy spent fretting over logistics hijacks your clarity and sense of peace, it’s hard to renegotiate the rules.

“We’re both too busy to make our relationship a priority. We do check in on each other, but it’s not the same.”

“(The mental load) …it’s completely taken over. Most communication has to do with it and does not end well!”

“My husband is very supportive emotionally but we still feel the struggle of balancing responsibilities due to having one working parent and one stay at home parent.”

Although this dynamic is often attributed to gender roles, one Mom has the same challenges with her same-sex partner, “We are quick to get snippy and fight. I feel like she does not do as much as I do, but thinks that she does. It is very frustrating.”

9 Ways The Mental Load Undermines Relationships

One in five Moms (20%) cite their relationship has not been impacted by mental load stress. For the majority, however, the pressure manifests in one or more of 9 destructive patterns.

Resentment 19%
Increased Arguing, Anger and/or Hostility 16%
Irritation, Frustration and/or Lack of Patience 11%
More Stress, Tension and/or Negative feelings 14%
Less Attention to the Relationship 7%
Disconnected, Less Trusting/Respectful or Fun 6%
Less Intimacy and/or Sex 4%
Threatened or Has Resulted in Separation or Divorce 1%
Passive Aggression With Partner 1%

Uneven = Unsustainable

 “I sometimes feel resentful that I’m pulled in so many directions. He works a lot, but he has a designated time and place for it. I have to keep track of things from more domains (my work, social and medical things for our daughter, home repairs, our social life, meal prep for us and our daughter, etc).”

 “It puts stress on the relationship. I begrudge him because I bear so much of the load and I think he should do more, but I also don’t trust him to do it well/the way I want it done.”

Although some Moms relish the control over all things kids and household, it means doing everything. Whether you’re working for an organization, the household or both, trying to manage ‘everything’ becomes exhausting.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Michelle Hastings, a Psychologist who works with Moms and couples in her therapy practice to address exactly these issues. “Many women begin to feel they’re raising their spouse and their kids.” I nodded my head thinking of how this repeatedly surfaced in the research. “They don’t feel appreciated.”

Imbalance of power, respect, trust or contributions – whether at work, in economies, friendships or families; eventually comes into question. Reciprocity is expected from healthy pairings. From her experience working with couples, Michelle shared, “It’s a big issue if you delegate and are not getting a response. (This) harbors resentment and affects the partnership. If it does not feel like a partnership, it affects respect, the feeling like they can rely on that person and intimacy.”

Stakes Are High!

A number of Moms shared the mental load pressure and lack of equity put their marriage in jeopardy or for some single Moms, was a factor in the breakup.

“We separated nine months ago because I was fed up with doing everything and watching him do nothing.”

“My husband and I just went through a terrible time that almost ended in divorce. I would say it was mental load plus a billion other stressors. But, when I’m overloaded, I’m really bad at helping out around the house and then I feel guilty. He gets resentful (but not in a bad way). I also lose all interest in sex when I’m overloaded… Which is almost always.”

Michelle explained this is common, “Moms question the marriage and begin to feel it may be easier to be on their own. (The) disappointment becomes too great (and being solo means) no extra anxiety about whether he’s going to help or not.”

What About That Spark?

You know, the magic that brought you and your partner together in the first place! It’s hard to be fun, spontaneous or sexy when you’re burned out. When most of your cognitive cycles are used to keep kids schedules, work deadlines and meal plans straight little is left for creative problem solving. For many Moms, strain from the mental load plus limited discretionary time, means less partner playtime.

“It’s awful. We hardly touch or kiss. It’s not that we’re mad at each other. I’m just too busy to think about it. I never get truly free time, there’s always more I should be doing…”

“I am a lot less fun when I’m stressed and I’m pretty much not interested in sex if things aren’t under control. Our relationship is better when we are having sex.” 

“Adds additional stress. He doesn’t understand how mental stress affects women. I’m not usually in the mood to be intimate when I’m on mental overload. I have shorter amount of patience for things which gives rise to arguments especially about our business”

As one Mom summarized, “We’re more of a business than a romance these days.”  However, unlike couples, businesses have metrics to surface the worrying signs when infrastructure can’t support goals. Businesses react to changing conditions and pivot to remain viable. Why can’t we do this in our personal lives?

What Moms Really Want from Their Partners

  1. Acknowledgement

 “We try not to let the mental load affect us…acknowledging that I shoulder a lot of it helps; and lots of communication. We’ve agreed we have to re-prioritize things as a couple, for instance, we have to go out with others less so we can connect 1 on 1 more.”

“Whenever we talk about it, it helps give perspective. He acknowledges and thanks me for carrying the bulk of the household load, but we both work and it is not balanced…hopefully I don’t build up too much long-term resentment.”

Michelle looks for the dominant themes affecting the couples she works with and asks, “Why is it so hard?  Has (this dynamic) been a larger theme in life or just an issue with this partner?”

For some Moms just having the essential role they play recognized helps keep the connection alive. Even when sharing responsibilities is still a work in progress. Owning a lot of invisible labor isn’t good for anybody!

  1. Solidarity

“He carries a lot too so we’re both stressed and we understand each other.”

“(Themental load) started a sometimes difficult dialogue between us because he genuinely wants to help.”

Sharing the joys and struggles managing a home and raising children promotes stronger bonds. When Moms feel like they’re drowning, yet their spouse is sitting on the life-preserver, it’s maddening and lonely.

As shared in the survey overview, reducing the mental load comes down to shortening the to-do list. This can happen by outsourcing, spouse-sourcing or reprioritizing to eliminate the unnecessary.

Michelle described how she begins to address workload concerns between couples, “I ask, how has it changed from before career or kids? What is a typical day like? Then (we) pinpoint the frustration points.” She wisely reminds couples they can’t control the other person. She prompts, “Do you feel safe to ask for what you want? Can you ask for help?  It’s important to identify where the support is coming in or not.” She gave an example of the routines families fall into preparing dinner. “Who likes to cook? Sometimes it requires a change in responsibilities.”

She also advocates family meetings once per week. “This can be with kids if the kids are older. (You) can discuss schedules, who’s handling what, surface conflicts…30 to 40 minutes to prepare for the week ahead reduces anger and brings order to chaos.” Amen!

Leaping Forward

Everyone wants to be heard and have access to the windfalls or pitfalls from their life’s choices. If Moms continue carrying the bulk of the mental load, the continuity of thought that promotes inner calm, self-awareness and growth will remain elusive.

Years ago, I learned the expression, ‘you get what you expect’ and often reflect on its significance.  Let’s expect more, shall we? Let’s shine light on how corrosive mental load inequity is for us and our families. Let’s commit to conversations at home that break through the hurt and restore goodwill with our spouses.

Supportive, mutual partnerships are healthy for Moms, children and families. One happily partnered Mom shared, “We’re a great team and divide and conquer the work load. I have no complaints about my husband, but the kids wear us ragged!”

* Results from August 2017 MHN survey, ‘How the Mental Load Is Affecting Your Life’, 216 Moms responded to this question.

Special thanks to Dr. Michelle Hastings for her sage advice!  Michelle is the Director for the Counseling Center at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. She also counsels women and working families in her private psychotherapy practice, based in the St. Louis area.

To join the mailing list for invitations to future research studies on stress & helping Moms flourish, let me know!

Would you like to read the other posts from the Mental Load Study?

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