I NEED AN ESCAPE FROM MY LIFE
I literally said this the other day under my breath in a huff while gathering: water bottles, snacks, shoes, sunscreen, hats, a check to deposit at the bank, + 3 packages to return to UPS…crap I need to call the insurance company.
My dad called, “can you talk for a minute about creating a giveaway for this conference I’m going to?”….yeah sure…drops all the things I’ve gathered.
My blood pressure rising + my patience dwindling. Ok, so I can add that to the list of things to get done today..maybe when the kids go to bed…… “Oh and don’t forget to pick up Teddy’s meds from the vet.” check…one more thing.
The day has just begun and I’m already exhausted and feeling stressed.
My friends, this feeling of wanting an escape from life is the result of a full and seemingly endless mental load.
I am sure you’ve been there too or are there right now.
So, if you aren’t familiar with the term the mental load, I am certain you will recognize what it feels like.
The mental load is the running list of all the “to dos” that you do to manage your life, home, work, relationships, and those who are dependent on you. A key feature, which makes it all the trickier to deal with, of the mental load is that it is often invisible. And the reason why it is so draining, is that it takes up a ton of cognitive capacity or space in our brains!
Some parts of the mental load are:
- RESEARCHING: does this shampoo cause cancer? can I bring scooters to the airport? what preschools get good ratings?
- ORGANIZING: activities, social calendars, summer camps, etc.
- MANAGING THE HOME: are we out of q-tips?, what’s for dinner, go to the grocery store, shoot no clean undies, how do all of the kids shoes suddenly not fit?
- MANAGING EMOTIONAL NEEDS OF FAMILY: who needs hugs?, our oldest is being bossy we need to do something about that, but don’t squash her spirit, make sure they’re kind, but strong, and share but not the special stuff, but yeah be kind.
- WORK: deadlines, feeling like you’re falling short, being the one to have to take time off when the kids are sick, don’t have school, etc.
Truly, the list goes on and on. I want you to hear me when I say, the reason you feel so drained or stressed may very well have to do with the mental load that you’re carrying.
Naturally, the follow up question is: what can we do to lessen the mental load?
I want to give you four tips to consider when you’re thinking about how to lessen your mental load.
Be aware of unintentionally piling on precedents
Piling on precedents is a term I came up with to describe the process by which we do things for our partner or our family out of love and care BUT we do them (almost always) without conversation. These gestures that we did out of love then suddenly become OUR responsibilities because when we took them on, our partners and family tend to remove them from their awareness. If we’re honest with ourselves, there are likely countless examples of things that we’ve just “taken care of” without any conversation or discussion.
If you think back you may remember them starting early in your relationship. Things like, “I would love to cook him his favorite meal and then let him chill out on the couch while I clean up too.”
This is a sweet gesture of love and care, but what message does this send? It says, “don’t worry, I’ll take care of this.”
And I promise you, your partner doesn’t worry. Your partner has absolutely removed this from their mental list of “to-do’s” and now let’s you take it on.
This happens over and over in relationships. So, pay attention to it.
Also, this is NOT BLAMING YOU! This is a natural thing that we do in our relationships and it’s really lovely (or may be a continuation of what we saw in our own family growing up). HOWEVER, when the pile has become so huge it can feel overwhelming and ultimately lead to resentment and frustration in your relationship.
If you don’t have kids yet, be careful what you take on when you introduce kids to your relationship, be intentional about involving your partner early.
If you already have piled on the precedents, be careful what more you take on. Be mindful of the moments you are just “taking care of things” and if it isn’t something you want to be forever yours, then speak that to your partner. Something like, “Hey, I RSVP’d for the dinner party next weekend. Next time, will you make sure to handle that?”.
The antidote to piling on precedents is making them and the process to get them done VISIBLE. Speak out what you are taking care of, let you partner know, and then either ask for your partner to take over a piece of it, or let you partner know that next time it’s on them.
You shouldn’t have to ASK but you just might have to!
Probably the number one irritation I hear from women about tackling the mental load is summed up by these words, “but I shouldn’t have to ask.” I agree that you shouldn’t have to ask, but to move toward off-loading some of the mental load, you just might have to.
So let’s rebrand what “asking” to mean involving, teaching, engaging.
When you ask, you are:
- involving your partner,
- you are showing them what needs done so hopefully they will think of it next time,
- you are releasing some of the responsibility, and
- setting the stage to turn over more of the mental load.
Ask by ask you are making some steps forward and getting closer to having a partner that takes initiative more often.
Beware of stories that sabotaged or behaviors that backfire.
In my course entitled, The Mother Load: Helping Couples Unite to Tackle the Mental Load, I talk about tackling the mental load in two ways through the within and the between.
This tip is focused on the within, or the work that you can do if your partner does nothing! Remember, relationships are a dynamic, if you change one piece the whole is impacted.
Stories that sabotage and behaviors that backfire are the things that you may think or do that sour the tone of your relationship or inadvertently discourage your partner from taking more responsibility for things in the future.
Stories that sabotage are the running stories that replay in your mind like: “if I don’t take care of it, no one will.”
Usually this story ends in the same way, you take care of it, and no one else does. It’s self-fulfilling.
The tip here is to be aware of these stories you tell yourself and rewrite them and test them out in reality. Examine how they sabotage your desire to get more help from your partner.
Behaviors that backfire are the behaviors that ultimately may result in the same thing: inadvertently discouraging your partner from taking on more responsibilities.
Some examples of these are:
1.PERSONALIZATION. It’s just way too easy to jump to the conclusion that when your partner doesn’t step in, anticipate needs, or neglects to take care of something that he/she just doesn’t care about you. That it is disrespectful or that you don’t “matter enough” to your partner. Or that your partner is selfish or thoughtless.
Know that more likely reasons for their behavior are: socialization, learned roles, how they were taught responsibilities, long standing patterns in your relationship or others, or just plain obliviousness.
When you attribute your partner’s behavior to the later vs. the former it can help you to be more patient, forgiving, and gracious as you are working to hand over some of the load.
2.IMPATIENCE. I cannot tell you how often I hear “I asked and he didn’t do it right away so I just took care of it” or “it’s easier to do it than explain it.”
I get it, I’ve said these things myself, however be aware that this approach will not move you toward the end goal of handing over some of the mental load, instead it perpetuates the idea that you will take care of everything.
3.MICROMANAGING. If you’re turning something over to your partner, let them find their way. Don’t hover and correct. It may look different, but hey you aren’t doing it so that’s moving in the right direction.
4.CRITICIZING. If you ask your partner to take something over, and he does it, be careful of criticizing his approach. Like, “is that what you’re feeding the kids?!” There is definitely a time and place to talk about how you would like things done, but as you’re making this adjustment be careful of discouraging forward momentum.
5.KEEPING SCORE. It’s likely that you carry most of the mental load, especially the anticipation of needs and keeping a running inventory of all things home and kid related. You win! You do more. This should ABSOLUTELY change but when you keep score everyone loses and this quickly builds into a negative attitude and resentment toward your partner.
The thing is, when we make a request of our partner, we need to then give them the space to meet our request, make mistakes, and figure out his own way of doing things. You never know, they may even do it better or more efficiently.
Reimagine roles + responsibilities, renegotiate, redistribute, and revisit the conversation often
This last tip is an example of the between work and it is done primarily through a conversation and ultimately a renegotiation of roles and responsibilities between you and your partner. Three steps are outlined below.
1.WRITE DOWN YOUR MENTAL LOAD. Take the tangled mess in your head and get it out. Free up some space. When it is on paper and out of your head, it doesn’t require as much effort to manage. It becomes tasks to tick off vs. competing demands and distractions (In my course, I give you a pre-populated excel sheet with tons of tasks that make up the mental load).
Both partners can do this and it’s a great way to make the invisible aspect of the mental load visible. It is also helpful to separate things into categories of how often they need done or whether or not they are ongoing or one-time tasks.
2. LOOK AT THE LIST TOGETHER. Consider what your strengths are and what you each like to do. This doesn’t just help initiate a conversation, this also helps to show to your partner what it is that you are “taking care of” that he likely doesn’t even think about or notice.
3.RENEGOTIATE YOUR ROLES. Really, when was the last time you renegotiated your roles? Consider what items can be permanently given to your partner to take care of, what you can reasonably afford to hire out, and what you can remove from your list.
The goal here is not equality but what ultimately feels fair. The reality is that nothing is truly equal when it comes to roles in relationships, but if you two can renegotiate your responsibilities in a way that feels fair, that will make a major difference.
Finally, revisit this conversation often. Life throws curve balls at us that involves periodic increases in responsibilities (hello, pandemic!). So, get in the habit of regularly touching base with one another and discussing how you can support each other through busy seasons of life.
Ultimately, if you and your partner are able to work on the within and between aspects of the mental load, you will see major strides in your relationship and experience of equity and fairness.