The Surprise Origin of Women's Mental Load

mental load

Early last year, a French cartoonist went viral with her pictorial of mothers as Keeper of All Things - the living, breathing calendars of appointments, carpools, activities, and everything else collectively known as the family's "Mental load."

Men are expected to help, she said; women are expected to remember...everything.

The comic struck a chord. As one commenter put it on "Today," "This mental load is SPOT ON. My husband is a great man and takes care of his children, but my frustration comes at always being the manager."

On Overload at Home and At Work

The syndrome is not merely the stuff of comics. Our newest Modern Family Index (MFI) shows the phenomenon and its effects are real and playing out profoundly - not just at home. Data shows more than two thirds of women cop to carrying the Mental Load; more than half say it's burning them out at work.

It's easy to write the problem off as purely personal; after all, if there's unfair division of labor between a mom and her partner, who's to blame but the affected parties? But it's not so simple. Gender roles don't drop into our houses out of air: they're continuations of what exists out in the world...the norms passed down generation to generation designating who does what, and that not-so subtly keep family in a woman's camp, and career aspirations squarely in a man's. And they're deeply entrenched in our workplaces.

Picture the new dad announcing a baby to the boss. Our previous MFIs showed that going from childless employee to working father transforms the work experience into a surprisingly hostile place - even more so than for mothers. That seems to contradict one study showing fatherhood might actually benefit men professionally (the "fatherhood bonus" that makes men look more stable and nets them a raise). But the study makes no mention of actual parenting. In other words, the so-called fatherhood bonus only applies if men don't sacrifice work time to raise said children. Once they start participating in dad duties that take them away from the job, all bets are off. For fathers who take flex time, for example, their careers have been jeopardized."

Relief for the Mental Load? Fathers Who Can Father

If men are discouraged from active parenting, who's minding the store? That would be mothers, thus perpetuating the status quo. Perhaps that explains another wrinkle illustrated in our MFI: that even moms who are primary earners - and more than 40% of today's families are headed by a female breadwinner - actually take on more of the Mental Load.

"Even in the age of 'Lean In,' when women with children run Fortune 500 companies and head the Federal Reserve," read a New York Times article on the fatherhood bonus, "traditional notions about fathers as breadwinners and mothers as caregivers remain deeply ingrained."

So what's the answer? Part of it is surely to include men in the equation. Ensuring both sexes are equally represented - meaning both are accepted as active parents - can start a shift. If men know they have permission to do their share, perhaps they will. As our friend Jodi Detjen wrote, to get more women into leadership, "Give men time off."

Our own CHRO Maribeth Bearfield concurs. It's about time to upend the order, she says. "By creating environments where men are encouraged and valued for taking advantage of work/life supports," she says, "workplaces can start to catch up with the culture this generation of working families demands." 

Webinar On-Demand: Lighten the Mental Load 

Discover the true impact of the Mental Load on working mothers and what top employers are doing to help lighten the load. Watch Now>> 

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.