Do you know which day your bins are collected? Do you know if there is bread in your freezer? Do you remember to buy Christmas cards in October? Do you have the phone number of your doctor’s surgery saved in your phone? Do you close the drawers after you’ve taken out what you need? If you have children, do you know the names of their friends? Their friends’ parents? Their teacher? Do you know when you last did a Big Shop? When the toilet was last cleaned? Do you remember the name of your friend’s new girlfriend? If you have a partner, do you know the name of their grandmother? Where they live? How they like their tea? Do you know when you’ll next need to water the plants? Do you organise someone to come and feed your cat if you’re away? Do you remember to call your mum on a difficult anniversary? Do you know where your passport is, right now? Could you say, off the top of your head, exactly how much milk is in the fridge?
Did you even realise that you were carrying the burden of storing all this information? That’s mental load – the state of living in the shadow of a never-ending to-do list. It’s not to be confused with emotional labour, which was defined by the American sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart, as having to "induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others."
According to a 2017 report, commissioned by the nonprofit care organisation Bright Horizons, mothers are responsible not just for their half of household duties and childcare, but also for organising, reminding and planning virtually all family matters. What’s worse, the more a woman earns, the more responsibility she will carry at home, which seems completely counterintuitive. According to the study, primary breadwinning women are: three times more likely than breadwinning fathers to be keepers of their children’s schedules and responsible for getting them to activities and appointments; 34% more likely to manage the family finances; 30% more likely to organise family gatherings and holidays; and 38% more likely to take care of home maintenance.
Because women take their professional opportunities seriously too, the report says that they simply end up with more on their plates than men. Sixty-nine percent of working mothers who responded to the survey said that the thought of all their responsibilities alone creates a mental load, while 52% said they were burning out from the weight of it all.
And as another study published earlier this year in the journal Sex Roles found, all of this affects women’s wellbeing and can lead to "feelings of emptiness".
I found myself thinking about all this while reading Gemma Hartley’s excellent book Fed Up, after one of my 1-year-old son’s rare early and easy bedtimes. After I’d washed up from the meal I’d cooked, folded and put away the load of washing I’d done that morning, put away the toys my son had played with beside his father, texted about five different people to try and organise a babysitter so I could spend two hours that week interviewing someone for an article I was writing, paid the electricity bill, thanked my boyfriend’s mother for the felt tips she’d brought round that day and picked up both my boyfriend and son’s shoes and socks from the middle of the carpet and put them on the shelf and in the washing machine respectively.
The way Hartley describes being forced into the role of omniscient, logistical manager for everybody in her family, clearing up after her husband and watching him walk past a box he left in the middle of their room every day instead of just putting it back on the shelf made me want to scream. I wanted to punch a hole through the wall. I wanted to go on strike.
That is the tearful fury of mental load. Its main symptom is the exhaustion that comes with being the household manager who at once notices problems, delegates solutions and otherwise carries all the domestic upkeep in order to relieve others.
However, contrary to much of the available literature, it is not only mothers who carry this invisible burden. If you were to put the list of questions at the top of this article to a thousand people – men, women, non-binary – those who reply yes to the majority are, I’d bet my left butt cheek, the same people who also do the majority of emotional labour in their house. But they’re not all mothers.
As Leo, a 34-year-old trans man who is working in academia puts it over the phone to me: "A lot of existing in the world as a trans person is avoiding confrontation." The sheer effort of avoiding, evading and seeing off confrontation before it can ripen into existence is a mental load that people like Leo have to undertake every day.
"When I came out as trans I had the additional burden of proving to my family that I am both massively sorted and also, separately, trans," he explains. "I feel this enormous pressure from my family to be a complete adult, even though nobody is a complete adult. As part of the performance of being trans I have to show them that I’ve got it all together. I can’t have unwashed dishes, or lose my credit card, because they would see it as a harmful effect of hormone therapy. I’m not being hyperbolic – they think hormone therapy is going to ruin me."
As a result, all Leo’s insurance policies are up to date, he knows where his debit card is, his bills are paid, he knows how much money is in his account, he files his taxes on time, he has a clean house, clean washing, and all his surfaces are tidy.
"I mean, I actually dust behind the bed," he laughs down the phone. "When people say the term 'mental load' I think of the kind of thinking you have to do to keep your life running effectively, whatever your life looks like," says Leo. "Our household runs incredibly well and the biggest factor in that is that both me and my partner were socialised as girls. We very much had that experience of being taught to look after the house in the insidious way girls are taught to look after houses. My mother did, and still does, the lion’s share of that work."
Talking of mothers, since having a child of my own, I now realise quite how starkly breastfeeding, unfit paternity leave, the gender pay gap and sexist work practices conspire together in Britain to shoehorn modern childbearing women into grossly outdated gender stereotypes, often for years.
If you breastfeed your baby, you cannot be away from them for longer than three hours for the first three to six months, making full-time paid employment in a traditional workspace extremely hard, if not impossible. With women still earning on average 18% less than men for equivalent work, it is all too easy and common for fathers to go back to full-time work and for women to stay at home and raise children in order to maximise the family’s earning potential, despite the fact that we know this has a long-term negative impact on parental bonding, child development, female professional development and the economy.
Martha Lane, a 31-year-old mother of two children living in Tyneside, describes how, despite still undertaking paid shift work, being raised with a stay-at-home dad, having been with her partner since they were 17 and previously living in a state of domestic equality, since having kids, the majority of the mental load has fallen to her.
"I’m the one remembering birthdays and sorting out 30 presents for a class of reception kids," she tells me from her home near Tynemouth. "My partner does all the heavy lifting – things that look like jobs on the outside – while I’m expected to know where everybody’s shoes are, if we bought pitta bread last time we went to the supermarket, whether there’s a birthday party coming up. It’s up to me to stop our son sticking his penis in the Xbox, and do the dishwasher, and plan dinner and remember what lessons they have tomorrow. And what gets me is that if anything gets forgotten, it’s me. I’ll forget to pack myself enough underwear on holiday, while I’ve packed all their suitcases with plenty of spare clothes and toys and toiletries. I’m responsible for the minutiae of family life. And if you add all those tasks up, it’s absolutely endless."
The mental load, like everything in life, often exists most starkly at the intersection of different social categorisations like race and class, as well as gender. For Southampton-based illustrator Anshika Khullar, being a trans person of Indian heritage, the mental load is in many ways different from mine: a cis-gendered, middle class, heterosexual white woman with a child.
"For me, the mental load means the minutiae of daily life but it’s added on to by your identity and how you move through the world," Anshika tells me over the phone. "Any kind of marginalisation you face adds to that mental load. I don’t have the financial freedom to live away from home right now. That’s influenced, in part, because I don’t have a traditional job and the reason I don’t have a traditional job is because I don’t feel supported in a traditional work environment."
As a "relatively light-skinned North Indian person", Anshika says that much of their life is spent trying to manage other people’s expectations of them. "Throughout my schooling I was 'that new Indian kid'; that was an identity that was given to me. I consciously made the effort not to be that; I literally used to say things like 'I don’t like Indian food' or 'I don’t like Bollywood'. But I do. Of course I do! I just didn’t want to be known as a 'freshie', as in 'fresh off the boat'. So much of the mental load is that feeling of walking the line of being 'acceptable'; of not making other people uncomfortable."
Away from domestic life and work life, Anshika also carries a type of mental load in their sex and relationship life that white, non-trans people do not. "On dating apps, I’m expected to explain marginalisation to people, I’m expected to explain oppression to people all the time. So I have to expend my mental labour just getting things understood, as well as trying to predict how those people are going to react," says Anshika. "It doesn’t enrich your life to tell people your pronouns over and over and over again. It’s work they could be doing themselves. I suppose correcting people about pronouns is my equivalent of you having to go round the house picking up damp towels."
I woke up at 5am to write this article. I had actually been awake since 4.45am, when my son started crying in his bedroom and I went through to feed him. Before my partner wakes up I will have cleaned the kitchen, made my son’s breakfast and lunch, done two hours of paid work, spent 20 minutes looking on property websites to try and find somewhere we can afford to rent, booked a train ticket and thought about what shopping I need to do for the week. The breastfeeding he cannot do; the rest, however, could be better shared. As Martha Lane put it, referring to her own domestic inequality: "It can’t just be that he’s a man."
Until we dismantle the structures and systems of the patriarchy that allow women to be paid less for equivalent work, until we have universal, state-funded, free-at-the-point-of-use childcare that allows all parents to work as and how they want and need, until women stop being judged differently from men for the same behaviour, until domestic work is recognised as real labour that deserves to be financially remunerated, until we break apart the white, cis-gendered, ableist, heterosexual supremacism that exists throughout every layer of British life, until some people learn to hang up their own fucking towels so they actually dry and the rest of us unlearn the impulse to do it for them, carrying the mental load is going to strip some people of their opportunity, potential and freedom, while others flourish as a result.