The Loads We Carry

(by Audrey Riley)

As I sit here, trying to concentrate on this blog and get something useful on paper, I am conscious of the thoughts running at the back of my mind and they are consumed with one thing at the moment – Archie, aka The Ginja Ninja, our ginger cat. We’ve had Arch for a year now and he arrived in our lives post a home renovation which saw us replace most of our doors with glass stacker or sliding doors. Having been a dog-only house for the past number of years, those doors were replaced with no thought of a cat flap. Now Archie, who is about year and a half, is very beautiful, very social and like all cats, very nocturnal. Every night, at any time between 10pm and 5am, Archie wants to go out or come in and when he’s in, he wants attention. Somehow, my daughter and my husband manage to sleep through all his demanding meows [‘let me in’, ‘let me out’, ‘I want access to my food bowl’, etc], the bangs as things are knocked off the tables and the yelps, as he pounces on the sleeping dogs. Therefore they see no need for a cat flap because I am the cat flap! My thoughts have been consumed with planning how to get a cat flap installed, where, how, when, costs, etc and even when I’m meant to be concentrating on other work-related things – like this blog, my Archie-induced sleep deprivation keeps me planning. And this is only part of my daily mental load…

Everyone has a mental load – that is the load that we carry in the thinking and planning and executing of our daily tasks. Research has shown [and as most women probably know], that women in heterosexual relationships and those with families, carry a much higher mental load than men do, on a daily basis. This mental load can show up in the form of logistical planning and organising, and not necessarily in the execution of tasks. What this means is that even in those relationships where our partners carry out their fair share of household tasks, the planning of those tasks is up to the women in the relationship. So our partners may happily make dinner or help pack away the laundry, but usually the decision about what to eat and ensuring all the ingredients are available, and when to actually do the laundry, has fallen on the woman. This type of planning, which requires time, needs to happen in addition to everything else that women need to do in a day. For those women who are working, full or part time, juggling our mental load between work and home can sometimes become too much to handle, resulting in ongoing fatigue and ultimately burnout. The worst-case result is that women often drop out of the workforce in order to focus on running their families, to the detriment of their careers and personal fulfilment.

The onus on managing the mental load seems, ironically, to fall on women. As if we haven’t got enough on our plates! Now we have to think about how to get our partners to think about how they can contribute more, so we don’t have to think so much about everything that needs doing! And if that sounded complicated, it was meant to, as it’s just like the mental loads we carry – often complicated and ongoing. We’ve made great strides in equality in both the personal and organisational contexts and there is a growing awareness, amongst both women and men, that equality is not just a nice to have, but a mental health imperative for women. Being mentally well doesn’t mean that we will have no stress or mental loads to carry in our day. What it does mean is that organisations will recognise the systemic, often unconscious biased processes they have in place which perpetuate these loads. A number of studies have shown that as soon as women have a family, their career ceiling is lowered, in terms of promotion and pay opportunities. Interestingly, when men have families, there is no impact on their career and often, they get to speed ahead, as more women drop out of the running for more senior roles. This further entrenches the load that women carry and so the catch-22 cycle continues. Organisations need to take a good look at how they support women in the workplace, and they need to surface the biases they may have. A good way to do this is simply to ask the women who work in the organisation about their experiences. Honest, authentic dialogue can help an organisation recognise that by putting down a load, it doesn’t mean we don’t care, it just means that for the moment, we may need a break from that load and after a breather, we can come back to that load, stronger than before. It may also mean that some loads don’t need to be exclusively women’s and that by freeing our focus, we can make greater contributions and be more impactful.

On a personal level, I suspect that the onus will still remain on us, the women, to help our partners step up and be responsible for some of the thinking and planning that is needed to ensure that children are fed, groceries are bought and laundry is done – and the cat has a cat flap!