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How Parents Can Relieve Their Mental Load—Whether You're on Baby #1 or #4You've heard about the mental load everywhere. Now it's time to fix it (for good).

This article originally appeared on babylist.com and is written by Amylia Ryan.

Traci Freeman is one of a few contributors.


Invisible labor. Cognitive labor. The mental load. You’ve seen these terms a million times by now, across all possible media channels, to describe everything parents do behind the scenes of their daily lives. Even before your baby has arrived, there are hundreds of parenting- and household-related things bogging down your brain—made even harder if your partner is expecting you to handle most, if not all, of it (like if you built your entire baby registry on your own because your partner didn’t have any opinions). And with conversations taking place everywhere from ParentTok to major news outlets to books and documentaries, everyone understands by now how to relieve the overburdened experience of the mental load. Right?


Wrong, apparently. Because despite all the awareness around the mental load (and over a decade of fourth-wave feminism), there’s an overwhelming number of parents out there who are still operating at an imbalance, with one parent—namely moms—carrying too much.

And as if you haven’t heard this enough, I’m going to say it one more time for you: that needs to change.


But before we can solve the problem, let’s step back a bit. Just in case this is the article you decide to send to your partner or co-parent, we all need to get on the same page about what a mental load imbalance might look like (hint: it’s not just keeping a mental to-do list).


What is mental load?

The mental load “includes the cognitive and emotional impact, physical time, expectations, ideas of what parenting ‘should’ be like—and then reality,” says Traci Freeman, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco. “It’s all of the mental gymnastics it takes to parent including schedules, disciplining, teaching, modeling, cooking, cleaning, bathing, organizing and not losing yourself in the midst of it.”


That is to say, it’s not just the doing of those typical parenting things. It’s the thinking about them. Remembering that they need to get done. And way too often, it’s also reminding other people that they need to get done.


Mental To-Do Lists

If you feel like you’re the only one who actively remembers 90% of the household and parenting tasks, your brain often teetering on the edge of burnout (or maybe you burned out long ago, and this zombified shell of your former self is just who you are now), and your partner or co-parent doesn’t seem to be in the same boat, then guess what: your household has a mental load imbalance.


Parenting Knowledge

Beyond the to-do list, the mental load is also all the information tidbits you keep in your head. Things like knowing which toys are your child’s favorites, what developmental milestone they’re approaching and, on a much larger scale, all the advice and techniques you’ve gathered that lead you to make specific parenting choices.


Every parenting book you’ve read, every podcast or social media post or article you’ve consumed, every mom’s group you’ve joined to get parenting advice—actively learning about parenting is part of the mental load, too. “It’s the emotional responsibility of creating a nurturing environment for [children] and maintaining the overall emotional well-being of the family,” says Dr. Linnea Passaler, a physical and mental health professional and expert in nervous system dysregulation.


Those information tidbits are often a huge part of the mental load imbalance. When my oldest was a baby, I did tons of research on different parenting techniques; my husband didn’t. I anticipated which developmental leaps would come with each sleep regression; my husband barely understood what a sleep regression was. Even now, six and a half years and a second kid later, I have our pediatrician’s name, phone number and address memorized, but my husband still requires a refresher every time.


Parenting Your Partner

If you’re reading this article because your partner sent it to you, then this may be one of the most important sections, so listen up. The conversation around the mental load has led a lot of women to recognize that their plate is full of not only taking care of the household and their child, but also their partner.


“I used to make [my husband’s] doctor and dentist appointments,” says Shannon, mom of a four-year-old in Los Angeles. “But this year I told him I was done doing that. The downside is I still worry he’s not going to the doctor.” It’s a trade-off that a lot of moms are familiar with: you either pile on the mental load of parenting your partner (figuring out what they’re eating for dinner, cleaning up after them, locating “lost” items), or you let them take care of themselves and wonder how they ever made it this far.


An imbalanced mental load is any instance when one parent holds a truly enormous amount of responsibility and knowledge in their brain while the other relies more on being reminded, delegated to, taught or, in the case above, parented by their partner. That kind of imbalance is inarguably unfair, but it’s also harmful—to the family relationship, the parents’ relationship and the “default parent’s” mental health. That’s why achieving a balance in the mental load is crucial for the well-being of both parents and the overall harmony of the family.


But if you’re the “default parent” in your household, especially if you’re a mom, and especially if you’ve been in on the mental load conversation, you probably know that already. You understand, from first-hand experience, why you need some of that invisible labor off your shoulders: you’re exhausted, you’re frustrated, you’re overworked and under appreciated. What you need now is to know how to make it better.


How to Relieve the Mental Load

The short answer: communicate.

That’s a really broad concept, I know. And you’ve likely already tried communicating to some degree, but with little to no effect. The important part here is knowing how to talk about your household’s mental load imbalance in a way that’s simultaneously validating and productive.


So, not just sending articles or TikToks or Instagram Reels to your partner (raises a guilty hand). I get it, it’s tempting, and it takes a lot less energy. But take the advice of a professional who’s seen that tactic backfire for hundreds of couples: “Address the issues instead of hoping your partner ‘gets it’,” Freeman says. “Sending subtle cues because you want to be validated or understood is avoidant and can cause other harmful dynamics in the relationship.”


Or maybe you’ve tried talking about it directly, but the discussion ends up one-sided—a pattern that Alainna, mom of two in Charlottesville, has noticed about her communication efforts. “My partner gets exhausted talking (hearing) about the mental load. His eyes glaze over. He gets defensive. He stops listening.” It’s discouraging.


That’s why having this conversation takes courage. You’re making yourself vulnerable by addressing the issue and setting yourself up for potential rejection if your partner isn’t open to the discussion. To help things go a little smoother, here’s what experts in relationships and communication recommend:


Take away the resentment and blame

Easier said than done, especially if you’ve been dealing with a mental load imbalance for years. And this doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to feel resentful! But it makes two-way conversation a lot easier if you keep those feelings out of it.


Rather than focusing the conversation on what your partner is doing/not doing, focus on your own thoughts, feelings and needs. Freeman recommends using “I” statements instead of “you” statements, which might look like:


“I feel dismissed when you assume I can leave work early every day for pick ups. Can we talk about what options we have? I want you to value and respect my job as much as I do.”


vs.

“I’m tired of you thinking my work isn’t as important and I can leave to pick up the kids anytime. You don’t understand how this makes me feel and I’m frustrated with you.”

If your partner has been shutting down during these conversations, it can also help to say how much you appreciate what they are doing. “Leading with appreciation and acknowledgement often keeps the defenses down,” Freeman says. So you might start with something like “Thank you for taking the kids to the park last week. I’ve been feeling so overwhelmed, and I’d like it if you can do that on a more regular basis. What do you think?”

For the non-mental-load-carrying partners reading this: the other component of these “I statements” is the response, which is honestly even more important, considering how vulnerable your partner is being. Speaking for all the exhausted moms out there who were brave enough to even start the conversation: please don’t get defensive or dismissive. “If your partner tells you they’re worn out, feeling lonely, starting to feel resentful, losing their sense of self, etc., take them seriously,” Freeman says. “One of the worst things a partner can do is dismiss or minimize the other person’s feelings. Listening is just as important as talking.”


Talk about the physical and emotional effects

When you’re talking openly and honestly about your experience, it’s important that your partner understands the full why. Yes, a mental load imbalance causes strain in the household and your relationship, but it directly affects your health, too.

When I asked both Freeman and Passaler if carrying too much of the mental load could make someone literally physically ill, they both responded with a resounding YES.

“When one parent, particularly in the early stages after welcoming a new baby, carries most of the mental load, it can lead to chronic cognitive overload,” Passaler says. “Fathers, too, can experience their own form of cognitive overload, though it might manifest differently. This ongoing high-alert state, for both mothers and fathers, leads to a chronically stressed nervous system, often making it challenging for them to relax. Such constant vigilance can result in a dysregulated nervous system, impacting their overall well-being.”

That impact can show up in a number of ways, Passaler says, and if you have an imbalanced mental load (i.e. a lot of stress), many of these symptoms will be familiar:

  • Chronic fatigue

  • Muscle tension

  • Headaches

  • Digestive issues

  • Compromised immune system (getting sick more often than in the past)

  • Increased anxiety

  • Mood fluctuations

  • Impaired concentration

And cognitive overload can impact your emotional health, too. “I have witnessed this as a parent and a therapist,” Freeman says. “Parents suffer emotionally if they don’t feel supported or appreciated.” She says that the emotional effect of the mental load can feel like:

  • Depression

  • Isolation

  • Feeling “not enough”

  • Anger

  • Self doubt

  • Hostility

  • Shutting down/burning out

These are serious symptoms that often lead to parent burnout, sucking the joy out of the parenting experience. If you’re currently feeling some of these symptoms, talk about it honestly with your partner and work together to relieve some of your stress so you can start feeling better.


Get aligned on values and expectations

Most families experience a mental load imbalance simply due to a difference in expectations, like how often the bathroom needs to be cleaned, how big of a birthday a one-year-old should have and how much time they need for self-care. And the only way to get aligned on your expectations is to talk about it.


“I have parents talk about their values and expectations as much as possible,” Freeman says. “Find the places that you are aligned on and build from there. You and your partner will most likely do things differently because you’re different. You bring in your own history and experience into this new family. Instead of being critical of or just dismissing their expectations, talk about why and how you’re approaching the mental load and work toward collaboration. One way is not the only way.”


One of the major misalignments that parents experience is the expectation of personal time—how much time do I get for myself versus time spent managing the invisible labor of the household? As Eve Rodsky points out in Fair Play, the viral best-selling book that sheds light on the mental load of motherhood, partners may be putting different values on their time.


Society tells us that “men’s time is guarded as a finite resource (like diamonds),” Rodsky says, “and women’s time is [seen as] abundant (like sand).” And that discrepancy gets even worse after you have children. So what does Rodsky say to do about it? Her Number One rule of establishing fairness in your mental load is that all time is created equal. As you and your partner discuss your values and expectations, keep this top of mind. The time it takes for you to unload the dishwasher holds the exact same value as the time it takes for your partner to unload the dishwasher. Their time isn’t any more precious than yours.


This can be a tricky step, especially if there’s any remaining resentment, blame or need for control. But this part is absolutely crucial—until you’ve talked through your expectations together, there’s no way to know if you’re operating on the same page, which means the cycle is likely to keep going.


What about couples therapy?

If you’re having trouble seeing eye-to-eye, or if you’re struggling to even get the conversation started, consider seeing a couples therapist. Some people may still think that couples therapy is only for those who are on the brink of divorce, but trust me, couples therapy can be hugely beneficial at any stage in a relationship.


Bringing in an unbiased third party can provide a much needed mediator and sounding board, and they can help tailor the conversation to the unique needs of your relationship and household.


I can’t stress this enough: there’s absolutely no shame in seeing a couples therapist. It doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed—exactly the opposite, in fact! Seeing a couples therapist was a game changer for my husband and me—we learned how to communicate openly and effectively with compassion and without blame. We aren’t without problems, not by any means, but now we know how to listen to each other.


Keep communicating

If there’s one single thing you take away from this article, it’s that this isn’t a one-and-done solution (which probably isn’t what you want to hear right now). My husband and I have been working on balancing the mental load between us for our entire decade-long relationship, and we’ve had to reevaluate and continue the conversation at multiple steps: when I started grad school, when we had our first child, when he got a more demanding job, when I got a more demanding job, when we had our second child…

The point is, you have to consistently show up and put in the work. Even when things feel fair and balanced and great, check in with each other. A simple “How are you doing? Do you need anything?” can go a really long way.


Conversation starters for discussing the mental load

Ready to talk about it, but not sure where to start? I get it, this can be super awkward, especially if you’ve previously come at this from a place of frustration, blame, even anger.

That’s why Freeman suggests following a script. After working with hundreds of couples, she’s got a few suggestions that you can use to help you employ the key tips above:


  • “I want to share with you what I am feeling and what my experience is. I am not trying to blame or criticize you, I am hoping you can understand what I am going through. I also want to hear what it’s like for you.”

  • “These things may be difficult to hear and talk about, but I believe if we don’t address them then we will grow farther apart. I don’t want that.”

  • “I feel like I am carrying the mental and emotional load of caring for the kids and I am feeling [insert emotion here] about it. I really need your support and help with this. Can we talk about creating some balance?”

  • “It’s a struggle with all the demands of parenting and I am feeling weighed down by it all. How are you feeling? Do you think we can find a way through this so we both feel better?”


Again, this isn’t a magical fix-it that’ll make your life easier after just one conversation. Help your partner understand how important this is not just for you or them, but for your entire family. Just keep at it—the more you practice communicating, the easier it’ll get. And you’ll be setting an amazing example for your little one, too.




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