Women and the Mental Load

From French comic, Emma’s post “You Should Have Asked

I went away this weekend for the first time in a year. (To the Rocky Mountain Retreat which was awesome and you should totally go next year but that’s a post for another day).  As I was walking out the door to head up to the mountains I reminded my husband that one of our children had a birthday party on Saturday and he would need to stop by the store to pick up a present. I had not had time to fit that in between my full time job, church commitments, end of school responsibilities, Kindergarten graduation, and taking care of our home and children. As soon as the words left my mouth I saw a look of horror cross his face. I get it, I hate going to Target with four kids too. So instead of telling him to suck it up I went to my closet and picked out one of the toys that I have stashed in case of a situation like this. I quickly wrapped the gift, called my son up to make a card and the whole thing was taken care of within 10 minutes. No big deal.

Except it is a big deal. Think of the mental space I dedicated to this birthday gift for a child that was not my own. Several months ago I was at the store and saw a toy on clearance, picked it up thinking it would be good to have on hand in case one of my kids was invited to a party last minute. Then on Friday I reminded mr. mraynes about the party and that a gift would need to be acquired. When it was obvious that doing so would be a problem for him I went to my closet, picked out the previously thought about toy and took care of it myself. While this is a relatively minor thing it was taking up space in my brain that probably should have been devoted to what I needed to take up to my retreat (I forgot several things), or to the big reports that are due to my employer this week that I’m still trying to finish, or even to thinking about what I wanted to write about for my post today.

I’m not interested in throwing my husband under the bus–I will be the first to acknowledge that there are times that mr. mraynes picks up more than his fair share of the domestic and care responsibilities. And more generally we get about as close to Equally Shared Parenting as you can. But I still carry more of the mental load than he does. I don’t think that’s unique to our relationship, though perhaps it’s more depressing because we do make an active effort to split things evenly. The reality is, I’m the one who thinks about the future birthday gifts. I’m the one who knows where the underwear is for our youngest. I’m the one who knows who is going to need new summer clothes. I’m the one who thinks about the babysitter we’re going to need in two weeks.

I don’t really have an answer to any of this and honestly, I’m not sure I’m willing to devote the energy to distributing the mental load more evenly. But I’m interested, did you read the comic? Did you relate to it? Do you agree the women carry more of the mental load in families? What does your mental load look like?




Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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27 Responses

  1. Wendy says:

    Great post, Mraynes! And yes I can relate SO much to this. My husband and I have been talking about the uneven distribution of the mental load of the intangibles in our relationship when it comes to parenting etc. He gets it, but we haven’t found a way to remedy it. My guess is that our socialization, especially around gender roles, are to blame. I’m afraid that could take a lifetime to undo. In the meantime I intend to make it a regular topic of conversation so little by little we can share more in this invisible work. In the meantime, I’ve given him back the responsibility to take care of his family’s birthday and holiday gestures/gifts. And when I think of it, I hand over tasks like researching a pediatric opthomologist etc to him. My goal is to eventually identify the main areas of parenting and domestic tasks and evenly distribute them. But it may take a lifetime to just identify them, ha! Thanks for bringing this issue up here. It’s so important.

    • Andrew R. says:

      “My husband and I have been talking about the uneven distribution of the mental load of the intangibles in our relationship when it comes to parenting etc.”

      I can honestly, and gratefully, say that in thirty two years of marriage such a conversation has never come up.

      ” My goal is to eventually identify the main areas of parenting and domestic tasks and evenly distribute them.”

      I know what I am about to write is not going to go down well here. However, maybe, just maybe, this is how it is because of the fact that gender is eternal, and comes with differences. Shock, horror, I know.

      Maybe women are better at maintaining a diverse mental load than men – and that this is part of an eternal nature we don’t yet fully understand. Just saying.

      • Anon says:

        Andrew R., maybe you should bring up the conversation. Perhaps your wife would appreciate such an attempt on your part to be a better partner to her. I know I am happy when my husband shows an awareness of the extra work I do for our family.

      • Andrew R. says:

        Please note, I didn’t say we don’t share day to day tasks. And many have devolved simply out of situation. For instance, my wife doesn’t drive. As a result I do all the fetching and carrying.

        What I said was I have never had a conversation about “uneven distribution of the mental load of the intangibles in our relationship”

        And if I couched it in those terms my wife would raise her eyebrows and carry on doing what she was doing.

        We share the cooking – but we share it based on what is being cooked, not so that we do 50:50. We do this because there are things I like to cook, things I am better at cooking, and much that only I eat (so cook for myself). There isn’t much of a discussion about this, it has evolved and is how it works.

    • MRaynes says:

      Thanks for the comment, Wendy! I love your approach of taking on one task at a time and reassigning it. That seems doable to me. I agree that it’s important to fight the socialization and have these conversations.

  2. Caroline says:

    I totally relate. What you say here applies completely to my and my marriage. “The reality is, I’m the one who thinks about the future birthday gifts. I’m the one who knows where the underwear is for our youngest. I’m the one who knows who is going to need new summer clothes. I’m the one who thinks about the babysitter we’re going to need in two weeks.” Last week when I was gone one morning my husband got our preschooler dressed and took him to preschool — which is awesome– but he allowed the kid to go to school wearing his big brother’s size 10 sweat pants. Poor kid had to hold his pants up all day long. Making sure the kids have and wear appropriate clothes is definitely my mental load in this relationship. Among many other things. Right now I’m mostly ok with it because he works full time and I work part time writing my dissertation. But if we were both working full time I would be pretty frustrated with the imbalance of the mental load. I think Wendy above has a great plan of attack to fix this — identify as many of these tasks as possible and evenly distribute.

    • MRaynes says:

      I love the image of your preschooler wearing his big brother’s pants! Honestly, I sometimes envy the ability to just not care whether the kids are in the wrong clothes or if their hair is brushed–it would take a lot of the load off. But I don’t think the children are better off with nobody thinking about these little things. And then there’s the whole problem of moms being judged much more harshly for letting their kids look disheveled. There is just so much to unpack. Anyway, thanks for the validation that I’m not the only one who carries the load!

  3. Amanda says:

    Just finished a great book about this called “Drop the Ball”. The basic idea is figure out what you really care have passion for, focus on that, and drop the rest. Either let your husband do it (communicate and then let him do it his way and don’t step in, period) or outsource it or just don’t do it. And make a table writing down all responsibilities, even mental life kind of stuff, and split it up. She did it even when her husband was overseas for years. I am still trying to figure out how I can implement in my life as I am home most of the time but work part time.

    • MRaynes says:

      Interesting, I’ll have to look into the book. I like the idea of writing it all down and determining whether the task is necessary and if so, who it belongs to. It seems like it could be an interesting couples exercise. Thanks for the suggestion!

    • Julie says:

      Don’t underestimate the rebound affect. My ex resented the idea of taking on responsibilities and sabotaged my efforts to get training outside the home by changing his work schedule so I was still stuck with everything. If the other party doesn’t want to do their share, the tasks you don’t do will just remain undone…like overflowing trash can rotting.

  4. Andrew R. says:

    “The reality is, I’m the one who thinks about the future birthday gifts.”

    I would take it one step further. It’s not that I wouldn’t think about it, it’s that I wouldn’t care about it. Additionally, taking four children to Target, not a problem. Having to choose a present for a young child I probably don’t even know – not something I would want to do, and would probably get wrong.

    • spunky says:

      Andrew, your apathy is noted. It has come across is other comments you’ve made in but the past, but never so much as your comment here. I’m not surprised that you function in such an apathetic manner, many men do as the flux and change in family life can be overwhelming- especially in large families with many children. It sounds like you gave up trying, as many (not all) men do. I’m sorry, but I can’t help but feel sad for you, and your family.

  5. MRaynes says:

    Andrew, I’m not quite sure what to make of your comment. There are lots of things grown ups have to do that they would rather not do, that’s just part of being a grown up. And I don’t believe that there’s any inherent characteristic that allows me to pick a better present for a 6 year old boy than my husband. If I do it better it’s because I’ve had a lot of practice–there is nothing stopping my husband from developing that skill.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into your tone but it seems as if you think it’s a virtue to not care about a common care task (picking a birthday present) and being proud that you’ve never had a conversation with your partner about the distribution of care tasks. Please correct me if I’ve misunderstood your feelings. But if not, I strongly disagree. I’ll give you a role reversal example. My husband is solely in charge of the finances because dealing with money bores me. I just don’t care about it. I know that handling our finances is a big burden and that even little efforts by myself to understand our financial situation would take a lot of stress off of him. My inability to work up the cares to help my husband with this load is not a good or virtuous thing, it just makes me a bad partner.

    • Andrew R. says:

      The only thing that would make it easier for my wife to choose a present over me is familiarity, with the child, with what is a usual price to pay, what kids of that age are in to having. However, I would have gone, and have done in the past, and bought a present.

      “never had a conversation with your partner about the distribution of care tasks.”
      I didn’t say that, as explained above. I was referring to the whole “distribution of the mental load of the intangibles” conversation. Now you’ve toned that down to read “distribution of care tasks” it sounds more like something my wife would want to discuss.

      One of the major differences, it would appear to me, about those that post and comment here and my wife is education level. My wife, by your standards, would be considered highly uneducated. However, she is a fantastic mother of seven, superb home maker and diligent in all she does. She exudes love for her children and grandchildren. But I can absolutely guarantee she would not know what you were talking about. She could figure it out, but it would not be immediately understood and processed.

      Discussing how we share work loads is something we have not ever done knowingly.

      I drive – she doesn’t
      She irons – I can, but it takes me way longer
      She provides good food for our family – I do the things that are different, not had often, or take different types of preparation
      She deals well with clearing up vomit, etc – I deal well with sick children in the middle of the night

      We play to our strengths as much as we can.

      But, I have never managed to dress any of my children in the wrong clothes. Nor have they left the house without all they needed. The only thing I have never mastered is the girls’ hair. I can comb/brush it to get out the snags and tangles. But I can’t do much else. But when they were little my wife bathed them, I dried them and their hair.

      I think we have done very well in our work load distribution.

      Finances are mine – except for house keeping, I give her the money for that and how she spends it is up to her.

      I know there are many couples who share this, and many who seem to pay little attention to it. My belief is that someone has to be on control of the money – husband or wife doesn’t matter to me.

      • MRaynes says:

        Ah, that makes more sense to me, thank you for explaining further. It sounds like you have fairly evenly split domestic tasks in a way that works for your family. Thanks for engaging with me!

  6. Violadiva says:

    This comic really struck me. I sent it to my husband, and then i checked up like a nag asking him, “Did you read that comic yet? Did you read that comic yet?”
    Sometimes i start to feel frustrated by the amount of mental load I carry that he can seem aloof to. (And he’s a fantastic partner and a very equal load-sharing parent, like your Mr.)
    And it’s not that he’s not thoughtful about remembering details, either. I do think we fall into our rituals/patterns of “who does what” and once you know the other partner is taking care of it, it might be easier to not think about it at all — like you get a “pass” on carrying that in your own personal mental load.
    I do a lot of the kid stuff: remember to register for swimming lessons, contact the music teachers, buy a box of diapers for the baby. But he deposits all the checks and keeps the bills paid. I don’t even think about that in my mental load….does that make me a bad partner in that regard? Not sure.
    By being the one who carries a bulk of the kids/house/food load, I do get to pick out my least favorite jobs and ask him to cover them. Kind of a weird, twisted privilege. like, “there’s cat poop in the sandbox again.” or “the car needs to go in to be serviced.”

    • MRaynes says:

      It’s an interesting question about whether allowing some things to belong solely to one person makes you a bad partner? I go back and forth about it as well. This topic has given me a lot to think about!

  7. Quandmeme says:

    In psych class years ago I read a study that spouses create a distributed cognition and memory system over time. After a while, if both are present and they hear a birthdate or a phone number, say, one will remember it and the other will hardly hear it. But if the ignoring spouse is alone s/he will pick it up.

    I personally benefit from David Allen’s GTG philosophy in the way it emphasizes getting the mental load out of one’s head and into a trusted bucket. The key becomes determining who gets to bind you to a commitment.
    Those are the heaviest loads, not just stuff that is out there that could be done but stuff that I have made a commitment to do. It became important to limit who gets to create commitments.

    • MRaynes says:

      Interesting! I haven’t studied much psychology so the idea of a distributed cognition/memory system is new to me but makes complete sense. I’ll have to look into David Allen, it seems like his philosophy might be helpful. Thanks for the recommendation!

  8. spunky says:

    Mental load is real. I survive with lists- long lists. I add everything from “respond to x’s email” to “lay out 7 year olds clotges” to “shower”. I’m not kidding about the shower part.

    I get a sense of satisfaction crossing and adding things to the list- and DH knows where the list is, so he adds to and takes things off. Its more fun than it sounds- he adds ” kiss spouse” and I’ll add “hot sex tonight” for examples. But he can’t seem to remember to ever get a babysitter. That drives me crazy- but I think he is uncomfortable calling teenaged girls. I’d like it if he got over that.

  9. spunky says:


    • MRaynes says:

      I find that I have to use lists at work in order to get anything done. They’re a useful tool so maybe I should start using them at home. And I like the idea of letting the husband participate in my lists! 😉

  10. MaddMaxx says:

    First time poster here…
    Mental load is an interesting concept. I get it, I really do–but I finally just had to resign myself to reminding/asking/re-asking my husband to do things. Do I think it’s a kind of co-dependency? Yes. I think if he *had* to remember on his own, he would. But the brain is a terribly lazy organ and will outsource its chores however it can. And this is equally true of *my* brain, because the husband is also constantly reminding me of things he’s asked me to do or that I should do. After 33 years of marriage, it’s definitely a case of distributed memory. Between the two of us, perhaps one functional mind (at any given moment).
    And, forgive me if I misjudge you all, because I don’t know everybody’s life experience–if your kids haven’t been teenagers yet, get ready for more mental load than you ever dreamed was possible.

    • Andrew R. says:

      Teenagers? Whilst it is harder then than younger, don’t expect it to get any easier when they are adults, married, parents of their own.

      • MaddMaxx says:

        But while I worry about my adult children, I don’t have to be involved in their day-to-day choices–none of them would let me even if I wanted to, even the one still living at home. I am happy to participate in their lives but I don’t have to *manage* them. I don’t count the occasional reminder or piece of (solicited) advice or helping out as managing. They are responsible for themselves–at least so far.

  11. Patty says:

    I get this!! It happens to me all the time, perhaps because I am an older generation. When I went to a workshop several years ago and called my husband to touch bases, he pointed out that we were out of mayonnaise and that I should buy some when I got home. Yes, really. I actually had to say, “The grocery store will sell YOU mayonnaise. Why don’t you buy some instead of waiting for me to get home!” Funny/sad.

    • Amy says:

      This is what I struggle with. I can’t understand why I have to remember or address things that my husband is capable of doing. If there’s no milk, clogged toilet, car inspection due, overflowing garbage can in the bathroom, a pile if clean clothes that need folding or dishes in the sink, clothes in the washer… why doesn’t he just handle it? Why can he remember to remind me to do it, but not just DO it? Then when I complain, he pulls the ” you never asked” card. To me it’s just infuriating that he’ll remind or ask me to do things that he’s perfectly capable of doing himself. I go to school part time, work part time, have child with Down Syndrome, an elderly mom that lives with us… I manage my schedule, keep track of my daughter’s appointments and school related activities, mom’s Drs appointments, grocery shopping… I just don’t get how I can do all of that and he can’t cook a meal for us or do anything without being reminded or asked.

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