Women Are Overburdened With Their Families’ “Mental Loads”

Here’s how I got my husband to do his share of all the thinking and strategizing that keeps our family running.

A man writing in a notepad at the kitchen counter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

“You’re always thinking.”

It’s a running joke in our family—and a gentle thanks—to me, the one who is always thinking about school field trips, doctor appointments, the slow drain in the small bathroom, the four work calls today, what we’ll have for dinner, whether I can make it to pilates today. (Doubtful.)

The mind reels, always—and I’m not alone.

New research finds that even as women steadily gain ground as family breadwinners and men take on more hands-on parenting chores than their fathers before them, there’s still a burden we women seem to carry all by ourselves: the mental load.

Sometimes called the “third shift”—following your first shift at work and the dinner-and-homework shift once you get home—it is the planning, scheduling, negotiating and problem-solving work that goes into running the business of your family. The mental load is the behind-the-scenes work that makes anyone in your family showing up to anything (dentist appointments, volunteer shifts, play dates, child’s birthday party) on time, properly dressed and if necessary, with gift in hand, possible.

According to the 2017 Modern Family Index, commissioned by Bright Horizons, a national chain of child care centers, preschools, and backup care, women are still lifting far more of their share of the mental load than men.

According to the parenting survey, women are two times more likely to be managing the household and three times more likely to be managing their children’s schedules. And for married women who are the primary earner for their family? The survey finds we’re three times as likely to be the keeper of our children’s schedules than breadwinning fathers. (We’re also three times as likely to volunteer at school and twice as likely to be the one making sure all family responsibilities are handled.)

All of which means the majority of women are serving daily not only as parent and caretaker for their families, but also as what the survey report calls “unofficial keepers of where the entire family needs to be and when, and perpetual guardians against anything falling through the cracks.”

While that statement resonates deeply for me as a long-time keeper for my working family of four, the word that burns most brightly is “unofficial.” It is a powerful word in this context because it means for the 86 percent of working moms who report carrying more than their share of the mental load, that this deep-seated gendered work is going unnoticed, unaccounted for, and likely, unappreciated by our partners, families and even our employers.

No wonder, then, that the share of women who find it stressful to maintain a work-life balance rose to 50 percent in the survey from 44 percent in 2015. Even more disheartening is the finding that while 69 percent of working moms say their household responsibilities create a mental load, a full 52 percent say they are burning out from the weight of it.

Not long ago I was one of the 52 percent. For me, a decade of carrying my growing family’s mental load had a distinct physical impact on my sleep, weight, and overall health as I ran the never-ending cycle of worry (Did I submit the child care FSA form?) and wonder (Can I find a way to volunteer for the field trip?). Lord knows, I love making a healthy to-do list if only to cross items off of it, but as life became more complex, I found I just couldn’t keep every ball in the air on my own.

This is not to say that my full-time, working-dad husband didn’t have his own list of concerns and chores to handle, but whenever a new school, camp, or doctor need arrived, I would jump in to deal first and explain to him later.

It was fine—until it wasn’t. And resentment began to blossom, sprouting higher and higher with each new color I added to our shared family calendar—shared in name only since I was the only one thinking about how to find time for everything, let alone how to get it all done in and around the hours of a full-time job that never contained itself to 40 hours.

I was serving as editorial director of Working Mother. How could I recommend to our readers that they share the load with their partners if I wasn’t able to do it myself? How could I recommend asking for help if I wasn’t able to admit that I had fallen into the trap of doing everything myself? It was time to talk.

My husband and I are masters at suffering in silence until we explode with stress. To keep that from happening here, I opted to try a similar strategy to one we’d adopted years before as a way to split up our much more visible second-shift chores.

Having led the third-shift duties for so long, I volunteered to write down all of the planning, prepping and scheduling that went into our lives at that moment. Then I gave him first choice to pick the duties he wanted to manage.

Yes, he got first choice. But as with our second-shift chores, what has worked best for us is first acknowledging what needs to be done and then divvying it up according to our personal preferences. So today, while Brett tends to lead on more complicated singular projects, like family travel or our taxes, I handle ongoing scheduling, like doctor appointments and school events. We both deal with forms as they come in and the unexpected sick day is negotiated as they appear (rather than being solely my responsibility to handle).

For us, recognizing and tackling the work that goes into preparing for, say, the eight weeks of summer camp, travel, and family visits needed to get the kids from the last day of school to Labor Day weekend is one that is ongoing, especially as our work and family’s needs change. But knowing my partner is on the case when it comes to getting all the permission forms filled out before they’re due to summer camp or knowing that he’s just as likely to run out to pick our sick daughter up from the nurse’s office as I am not only lessens my mental load, it means today he’s even more involved in running the business of our family than ever before.

He’s also more informed on what’s happening across our kids’ increasingly complex lives—not a given once you enter Teen Time—and knows that jumping in to handle planning something without me asking is the surest path to a big hug and a kiss from his wife.

The next step will be to employ the kids themselves in at least some of our family’s third-shift work but let’s be honest, at this point just getting them fully engaged in the second shift is hard enough.

Jennifer Owens is president of Jennwork, a content agency serving women-focused organizations. Previously, she served as editorial director of Working Mother Media and founded the Working Mother Research Institute.