Mental Labor Is Labor — and It Should Be Recognized
“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” – The Wizard of Oz
When we think of what a good life entails, many of us have this idea that it’s sipping Aperol spritzes on a beach in Positano or taking Instagram-worthy photos from a balloon in Turkey.
And if that’s your life, there’s nothing wrong with that. Take all the Instagram photos. Eat all the pasta and lick the proverbial plate. But if it’s not? Just know that the good life isn’t defined by what you do but by how you go about your day.
This life doesn’t exist outside of us, and it’s not something we need to “go out and get”. It’s about sinking into your current life and really experiencing it.
Women struggle more with enjoying the good life because it’s nearly impossible to savor your experience when you’re overwhelmed by the mental load of Invisible Labor.
Most people believe that constant multitasking doesn’t “count” as labor. But these things add up. The constant picking up when you’re headed to the kitchen to grab a glass of water. The putting-away of jackets and shoes and book bags. The mundane scheduling and organization that lives in our brains. These components are all a recipe for burnout.
It is labor, and it should be recognized.
But if labor feels like a load, it’s time to offload and delegate.
For me, it’s complicated because I do all the cooking and food shopping. And if I’m the one preparing the meal, someone else needs to be the one to clean up after — a job that falls to my husband.
And he used to resent this, which in turn, made me resent him.
Here I was, giving the gift of well-thought, home cooked meals (prepared and planned by and shopped for by me), and I did it joyfully. I was offering up this gift, and I craved to be met on the other side of that with enthusiasm. But instead of, “I’m going to clean up and I’m happy to do it because this is my contribution,” I was getting, ugh, I gotta clean up after that meal, energy.
I had to sit down with him and have a talk about it.
To his credit, he found a way to enjoy the task and complete it in a way that showed he cared for me and our home. He started bringing the boys into it, and now cleaning up the kitchen is a way to have a fun connection.
Instead of thinking this is labor, he’s starting to see it as precious time with our boys. Soon they’ll be out of the house, and this is quality time they can spend together.
When you’re oriented toward caretaking, you’re doing the things that make a home a home. Caring for another person. Satisfaction in seeing the growth of the people you’re raising.
When we tend, that’s what makes a good life. As a mom, wife, sister, and daughter, I’m living my life to be more connected.
But what happens when we start to feel the burden?
When it feels like labor, you know it’s time to delegate. Because “labor” can rob you of the beauty of your life. Especially if your tasks use more mental load than the other household members’ tasks do. It takes extreme vigilance to ensure you’re not slowly taking on too much.
I know I have so much capacity (and so many control issues). I have to do everything because I can do it better and I can do it now. It’s happening at work too, where women do a lot of operational tasks and they’re connecting people, and they’re engineers.
Sharing Your Mental Load
When we delegate household tasks, it’s important not to just divvy up the number of tasks by the length of the job — we also need to delegate tasks based on their mental load.
Raking the leaves takes virtually no mental load. Grab a rake and go. But grocery shopping? Even with Instacart, you need to plan:
—What’s for dinner?
—What do we have in the fridge?
—What needs to be ordered?
If the mental loads of our household tasks are too much to bear, we start to resent the day-to-day labors of creating and caring for a family. If we don’t ask for help and we don’t push back, the default is that women do everything. And the men come home with their hands out waiting for their highball.
All of this can rob you of the joys of sinking in and really experiencing your life. Joys like folding a tablecloth on a warm fall day. Of planning a meal or taking care of your neighbor, of thinking and caring for someone through good wishes.
We need enough space in our brains and thoughts to care for others. To do this, we need to reduce our mental loads at home (and at work, too).
4 Ways to Reduce Your Mental Load at Home
1. Evaluate the Distribution of Labor
Take a good hard look at what you’re doing and how you feel.
Are you overwhelmed? Do you find it hard to keep all your tasks straight? Are you forgetting things?
These are all signs of a heavy mental load or emotional load.
2. Make a Master List
Educator Alison Armstrong suggests making a master list of household duties to find out who is doing what.
This list should show each task, the time it takes to complete the task, its difficulty, and its mental load. This way, you can see who is carrying the household.
Start with your personal life.
— How much are you doing?
— How much mental load are you carrying?
— How much emotional load are you carrying? (For example, if you’re caring for an older person.)
When you write it all down, you can see exactly how much you’re doing.
3. Divide and Declare Ownership
Make your own household master list. Everyone in the home “owns” their own list. If someone needs help, they can say they need help. But they still “own” those tasks.
Keep that master list handy when you have a lot going on in your personal or professional lives.
What does a good life look like?
Ask yourself, what would your life be like if you had more support or more space in your brain for creating and thinking?
— What does it mean to live a good life?
— What brings you meaning?
— What do you care about the most, and are you making time to include those things in your life?
— What are those elements?
When you reduce your mental and emotional loads, you can start living your best life.
Some examples might include journaling, meditation, nature walks, cultural dates, fun and play (cooking, pottery, travel, etc.), community activities, and connection.
Fun and Play: take yourself out of the box to learn things about yourself. Do things that are not familiar. Challenge yourself.
Stay in Connection: strong relationships are the core of living a long life.
The Arts: take yourself on art dates. Go to concerts, go dancing.
Community: know what’s going on in your neighborhood and in your town or locality. Get involved.
Movement: make time to practice being in your body. Dance, connect to your feminine side. Get out into nature, meditate, pray.
The bottom line is that a good life doesn’t look the same to everyone. Only you know what makes your life good.
But if you’re constantly searching for that life outside of yourself, it may be time to evaluate the distribution of labor in the household and delegate some of the mental load so you can actually enjoy the small moments that make up the life you’re living.
When you celebrate your life through play you are sending a strong message to the universe: ‘More of this please!’