The one simple question to help unpack the mental load
Woman Looking After Baby


Psychologist Sabina Read believes asking someone: “What is the hardest thing about being you at the moment?” can be a great way to open a conversation about the worries and responsibilities we are carrying around inside our minds every day.

Juggling the demands of a career, maintaining a tidy house tidy and keeping children happy, healthy and on time to their many after-school activities results in many working parents shouldering an increasingly heavy mental load.

With so much to do and so little time to do it, it’s easy for resentments to grow and conversations about who does the ever-growing list of jobs to become a blame game rather than a constructive conversation.

“The first thing we need to do is not just look for solutions but find out what’s happening for each other — and that’s not just partner to partner but parent to child, sibling to sibling, sibling to parent,” Sabina explains.

“One of the best questions we can ask each other is: ‘What’s the hardest thing about being you at the moment?’ It’s not a loaded question. It’s not judgmental. It’s a really open-ended question and, if you ask it, wanting to listen fully, you will learn a lot about each member of the household.

“And that’s whether you are a single parent. Whether you have one child or 10. Whether you are married, blended or swiping left or right on Tinder.”

A helpful way for families to stay connected about their thoughts, responsibilities and feelings — thereby sharing their mental loads with each other – is by holding a weekly meeting. In these family meetings each member can talk about their achievements and concerns and troubleshoot ways to share household tasks or upcoming appointments.

Another tip Sabina offers for balancing the mental load ledger is to avoid starting these conversations by pointing out where the other person is failing because that can quickly snowball into an argument rather than a productive process.

“When you start a conversation with ‘you’ –and this applies to a conversation in the workplace, with a child or anyone — you’re pretty much opening that conversation with what’s going to be heard, if not intended, to be an attack, especially when it’s statements like: ‘You shouldn’t…you couldn’t…you wouldn’t…you didn’t!’.

“Once someone feels attacked or criticised then they will defend. Lose the ‘You’ and start with ‘I’.”

Unfortunately, studies show that it is women who largely still do the lion share of home duties and childcare irrespective of whether they are also in paid employment. Yet Sabina says these statistics don’t necessarily mean we should assume that it is women alone who are burdened with an unspoken mental load.

“Whether you are male or female there is a mental load that all of us carry,” she explains.

“I know what the research says and that this is heavily in the domain of women but I think we need to all have the conversation – men and women – and ask each other what mental load we are carrying.

“I know there would be a lot of men who would say, if asked, that they carry a lot of things that they don’t talk about that they carry around in their mind for the wellbeing of the family.”

So, what is the solution and how do we become better role-models for gender equality and mental load sharing for our children?

“It’s important to look at where we come from,” Sabina says.

“Our family of origin stories are very deep, and we can’t ignore them. I talk about this being either the repeat or the repel experience.

“So, we see things in our parents during our upbringing and we either say: ‘Oh I’d never do that’ or we think, unconsciously or consciously, ‘Well that worked for me’ and repeat it.

“We need to figure out what behaviours we want to have repeat, repel or rapport with otherwise we just end up playing intergenerational handball with patterns of behaviour.”

When is the best time to set some ground rules or expectations for how you will share domestic duties and parenting roles?

“While you’re still in the first throws of love, that is probably the best time to have conversations about expectations and what parenting will look like and carving up responsibilities.

“But if we didn’t have that conversation before, we were married and had kids –it’s never too late – have that conversation now!”

How do you prevent the conversation about sharing the mental load from becoming a competition about who does more work or a blame game?

“When we see scorekeeping in a relationship it is indicative of the fact, we are not feeling appreciated, valued or heard. Even if you haven’t said these things to your partner, the fact that you’re thinking or feeling like you’re doing more is a sign you need to speak up or it will get to the point of blowing up.

Show me a couple, or a human, who doesn’t experience conflict –I’d love to meet them. The conflict isn’t the red flag here, it’s how we deal with it. Do we sweep it under the carpet until there’s just a massive mountain under the rug and we all go tripping over it until we really lose our shit? What we all need to ask ourselves is, what is the barrier for me not speaking up? Am I fearful of rejection? Of criticism? Or am I fearful of conflict itself and that’s why I am choosing to stay quiet. Usually what we are not saying is much louder than what we are saying.”

Does our current parental leave scheme – which assumes one parent (usually the mother) will be the primary carer – set women up to largely end up carrying the bulk of the mental load. And, if so, how do we change that?

“Change starts at the very beginning. Talking about — not what can you do for me — but what we can do together to raise a family that is loving and healthy. We all share that same dream.

Then somewhere along the way we lose sight of that dream and become resentful. I don’t want to play a blame game here but I hear so many women say: ‘Well he doesn’t do right so I just do it myself’ which can feel like a short term win but does set us up for a long term struggle. At every turn we should instead be saying to each other: ‘This needs to get done, who is going to do it?’.”

Does that approach apply to the entire family rather than just your partner?

“My rule with children is if they can do it then they should and it’s the same with parenting. Why should I assume that I have expertise over parenting and my partner doesn’t?”

With that philosophy in mind, how should we then share our mental load with our kids, particularly when they are teenagers?

“We do our kids a disservice if we assume they don’t know how to cook a meal or put on a load of washing or walk a dog because of course they do.

“And if they haven’t before now then today is a new day and it’s never too late to start. Don’t broach it as a conversation about chores because that’s really boring and nobody wants to buy into that. But if you ask them: ‘How do you want the house to be?’ That’s a good start. Most will say we want it to be fun or happy. It’s good to set the conversation up to be about what we do want. Kids want autonomy and independence just as much as we do whether they are a teenager or a two-year-old.”

If you are a natural worrier then you tend to carry a much heavier base mental load, have you got any strategies for people in that space?

“One of my favourite things that I say about anxiety is: ‘Take your thoughts to court.” If we had to take all our thoughts in front of a judge and jury chances are we would be asked:  ‘Well have you got some evidence for that?’ or ‘Help us understand why we should even review this.’ And if the only reason we could present to the judge and jury was: ‘Well because I worry about it,’ it wouldn’t stack up.

“We need to look at whether there is evidence to support us worrying about certain things and if it doesn’t exist then we need to challenge our thinking otherwise the worry will become so hijacking that it will bleed into the mental load.”

So, are you saying that change can begin within yourself?

“We are all listening to our own radio stations in our heads and if your radio station is saying:  ‘You’re not good enough’ or ‘You need to do better’ or ‘No-one else can do it for you’ then you are going to end up with mental load that is much heavier than it needs to be.”

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