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The Mental Load

Constantly thinking of everything to ensure the smooth running of one’s home—the “mental load”—takes a heavier toll on women than their spouses. How can this be fixed?

Constantly thinking of everything to ensure the smooth running of one’s home—the “mental load”—takes a heavier toll on women than their spouses. How can this be fixed?

The laundry is folded and put away, the report card is signed, the rent has been paid, and there’s even a chilled bottle of wine in case of a surprise visit. Everything is going well, or almost… The iron, which you left on by mistake, has burnt the ironing board. “You should have told me you needed help,” says your spouse.

“You should have told me you needed help,” says your spouse.

Lists, either on paper or in your head, are part of your day-to-day routine. Even if the workload seems pretty well-divided in your relationship, you have the feeling of a never-ending obligation to be organized in order to ensure the smooth running of your home.

Nicole Brais, researcher at Laval University in Quebec, calls this looming instinct the “mental load.” Brais goes on to say, “this task of managing, organizing and planning, which is at the same time intangible, essential, and constant, has as its objective to meet the needs of others and the smooth running of the household.” This stress-inducing load particularly concerns women who, on top of their job, must make sure the shop runs smoothly.

In a comic strip dedicated to the “mental load”, the cartoonist Emma accurately illustrates this situation.

Cover of Emma's comic, "The Mental Load"

Cover by Emma

The piece titled “Fallait Demander” was translated into English under the title “You Should’ve Asked.” It is incredibly well-crafted and stunningly easy to relate to. The comic depicts one of motherhood’s greatest struggles— bearing the burden of most day-to day obligations.

Instead of trying to keep things even, we arrange for the babysitter, we make the doctor appointments and the dentist appointments, and we do one thousand tiny tasks without anyone noticing at all. That’s why it’s called the invisible work— because no one really sees it, but it is constant and consuming and exhausting.

That’s why it’s called the invisible work— because no one really sees it, but it is constant and consuming and exhausting.

Emma describes the situation: “When a partner expects his wife to ask him to do something, it is because he sees her as responsible of the domestic work. It is therefore up to her to know what to do and when to do it.”

Juggling domestic work, parental work, and paid employment— all while trying to conserve a social life (which often comes after)— forces many women to organize themselves like professionals: “As the head of a veritable Small to Medium Enterprise (SME), they therefore have to possess multiple competencies such as stock management, the anticipation of crises (who will take care of the kids if the teachers strike?), and the organization of planning, all of which would be required in an enterprise.”

Strip from Emma's comic "You Should've Asked"

Illustration by Emma

One solution in agreement with Emma’s comic strip is that “men need to learn to feel responsible for their home,” contrary to previous generations. “We see our mothers take charge of the entire running of the house, whilst our fathers only participate in its execution,” Emma analyzes. She also reminds us that in order for this to change, it is necessary “to sometimes be absent, without organizing everything and without feeling guilty.”

“The reversal of roles is sometimes more effective than confrontation.”

Header photo by Caroline Hernandez

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