Stress itself isn’t a gendered issue because it doesn’t discriminate and different forms of stress can impact literally ANYONE. However, I will say that women tend to carry the emotional and mental load of a household, which can create a burden that's hard to pinpoint, name or alleviate. Never heard of this concept? It’s fascinating, a little infuriating and SUPER important if we’re to accurately understand how stress impacts us as women and what to do about it.
What is Emotional Labor?
The mental load, also known as emotional labor, simply put is having a lot on your mind, ALL THE TIME (1). It’s remembering to pick up almond milk, sending the e-transfer to the babysitter, scheduling the doctors appointments, responding to the parent-teacher conference invite, organizing with the mother-in-law what dish you’re going to bring to dinner, knowing where the stapler is or how the sippy cup pieces fit together. The list goes on...for days! Rachel Carrell describes it as not just doing things around the house (because lord knows there’s a lot of doing that goes down), but the mental load involves overseeing tasks and making sure they get done too (1). It’s a full time job on top of working full time and/or parenting. Essentially, it’s project management. Well, that’s what we would call it if we were in a corporate job earning the big bucks. But when it comes to home life, it’s often invisible work that goes unacknowledged and as is the case with parenting as a whole, is undervalued too. When it comes to this particular kind of stress, it is gendered, resting on the shoulders more often than not on the woman of the household.
And this isn’t only for heterosexual couples, Trish Bendix says: “though same-sex or non-traditional couples rail against stereotypical gender roles, we often fall into them. We live in the same patriarchal, heteronormative society that dictates how partnerships should work, and just because you’re both women—or both men, for that matter—this problem doesn’t disappear; it simply manifests itself in different specificities or nuances.” (2)
To add injury to insult: On top of carrying the weight of the mental load for the household, women are often the ones doing the heavy lifting when it comes to the difficult, but necessary emotional labor involved in initiating conversations, facilitating connection and making sure the relationship doesn't fall apart.
The Mental Load is Exhausting
When you’re constantly overseeing the smooth operation of your household- day in and day out, it can take a serious toll. Seeing that the bathroom needs cleaning (and then cleaning it yourself or deciding you’ll ask your partner to clean it in an attempt to reduce your load, just to have to ask again until it actually gets done... and then seeing that they missed the toilet, and having to scrub the toilet yourself. Oh ya, and while they were cleaning it you were making dinner with the groceries you picked up on your way home after working all day!). This dynamic becomes exhausting. It’s constantly having to keep on top of things. Be on your game. Keep track.
Because the roots of emotional labor come from the patriarchal gender roles we’ve all been brought up with and seen reenacted through our own family dynamics and the media, it’s tough to suggest a simple solution (other than overthrowing the whole system of patriarchy!? Anyone?). But what I do know is the shifting of this dynamic starts at home. It starts with us. And while this dynamic can be deeply ingrained and REALLY hard to reverse, we can take small steps towards sharing some of the load.
Side Note: This article is heavily focused on two-parent households. To all my single mamas (or papas) out there, you are my heroes! From one single parent to another, I FEEL YOU. And for you, creating a community of support around you to share the load with, to take breaks, to refill your energetic cup might be your best bet.
So how do we keep ourselves from burning out and spinning in overwhelm on a daily basis?
Self Care: A Revolutionary Strategy to Get Your Needs Met
As far as I’m concerned self-care is a bit of a revolutionary act these days because it requires you to take time for yourself, without guilt, which is no easy task when you’re used to prioritizing EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING before yourself. A super cliche example is the mask on the airplane… you need to put your mask on FIRST before you can help anyone else. Without oxygen, you’re not really good to anyone, am I right? Same idea for self-care. If you’re constantly running on fumes, you have nothing left to give the people you love in your life, or your creative projects and dreams.
Taking on the burden of the mental load can leave us feeling constantly overwhelmed, which over time eventually leads to burnt out. This can spiral into really serious mental and physical health consequences like depression, anxiety and deep resentment.
Did you know engaging in self-care routines have been clinically proven to reduce or eliminate anxiety and depression, reduce stress, improve concentration, minimize frustration and anger, increase happiness, improve energy and reduce heart disease, stroke and cancer? (3)
If that's not a reason to get on the self-care train, then I don't know what is!
9 Rockin' Reasons to Self-Care
1. Embrace Your Self-Worth & Teach Others How To Treat You
As you take time to yourself, it communicates to YOU that you’re important, that you’re valuable and worthy of rest and care. When you take the time to take care of your own needs, it teaches others in your life that you have needs just as much as everyone else and that they’re important. If you have kids, you’re modeling to them that taking care of your needs is part of being a healthy well-balanced human being.
2. Reduce Stress
Taking time to wind-down, have fun and and do things that replenish your energy, you’re essentially calming down your nervous system. Stress takes a HUGE toll on our mental, emotional and physical well-being. Reducing stress makes you a more patient, kind and happy human being all around.
3. Have Good Boundaries & Practice Saying No
To practice self-care, we have to say no to other things so we can make time and space. It means saying no to the people, projects and commitments that drain our energy and leave us feeling depleted. It means not over-extending or saying yes when we really mean no. It means being clear about what's worth our time and what isn't. It's doing the things we know are good for us, even if it's inconvenient to someone else. It's being OK to take up space and take what we need, too.
4. Surrender & Release Control
Allowing a partner or someone else to take on some of the mental load, do the chores, cook dinner, put the kids to bed while we unwind isn’t always easy! Especially when we’re used to managing everything ALL.THE.TIME. So scheduling self-care actually forces us to let go of the reigns a bit. Sometimes we’ll be pleasantly surprised at how smoothly things go in our absence ;)
5. Improve Your Physical Health
Self-care can involve exercise you enjoy: Going for a walk in nature, doing yoga, running, cross-country skiing or swimming. Any form of physical activity you enjoy can be considered self-care. But more than that, just the act of slowing down, laughing, enjoying, reflecting...all of these activities reduce stress and that alone can improve your physical health. Remember how I said self-care has been proven to reduce heart disease, stroke and cancer? Those aren't small potatoes!
6. Enjoy Your Life Right Now
I hate to break your bubble, but that to-do list will ALWAYS be there. It’s never-ending. That’s life. By taking smaller moments of self-care along the way, you’re able to better enjoy what is right in front of you on a daily basis: your family, your pet, your friends, nature. You’re more centered and able to take it in.
7. Connect With Your Spiritual Self
Often our connection to the universe, God, Allah, Nature (whatever you believe in) gets lost when we’re always focused externally on others and don’t take time for ourselves. When we’re with ourselves, alone, we have time to reflect, to breathe deeper or to ponder those big thoughts we’ve been avoiding. When we give ourselves s-p-a-c-e and open up our field of focus from the busyness of our lives to the world around us, we can begin to feel like we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves again.
8. Be More Productive
Running on fumes and never taking the time to rest makes you less efficient at completing tasks, decreases concentration and affects your memory. A rested body and mind will make you sharper and quicker at accomplishing the tasks that are important to you.
9. Be A Better Person (Partner, Friend, Parent, Human Being)
When your cup is full you have more to give. It’s that simple. Taking care of yourself makes you more available to those you love when you spend time with them. When our needs aren’t met and we’re exhausted, watch out world! We can be irritable, impatient, and just downright cranky. Taking care of ourselves means we can show up with more presence and kindness on a daily basis.
Need Ideas for Self-Care (Cause It’s Been a While)?
❤ Get active doing something you LOVE (swimming, skating, hiking, nature walks, jumping on a trampoline, whatever!)
❤ Go to bed early so you can wake up feeling refreshed
❤ Bubble baths (Candles, Lavender essential oil, epsom salts)
❤ Say no to commitments that suck your energy and leave you feeling drained
❤ Pull a card from your favorite deck to get guidance (I love my faery card deck, but any cards will do)
❤ Take your vitamins daily
❤ Ask your herbalist to custom-blend you a "stress-busting" formula that will support your adrenals and calm & soothe your nervous system.
❤ Book an appointment with your therapist
❤ Get your favorite take-out and binge watching your favorite show (yup, this can do wonders for feeling like you’ve had some down time. Take it from me!!)
❤ Snuggle up with your favorite book while drinking warm tea in your PJ’s
❤ Jump in your car, crank the tunes and sing at the top of your lungs
❤ Book a massage or an acupuncture session
❤ Surround yourself with positive people who lift you up and cheer you on
❤ Meal prep so you can be well nourished all week and save time to dedicate towards other things
❤ Meditate or pray daily
What forms of self-care do you use on a regular basis? What would you add to this list? Let me know below!
If this topic hits close to home and you want to learn more about it, I recommend reading this very relatable article written by Gemma Hartley that gives words to the lived experience of emotional labor and how it plays out in a household: Women Aren't Nags—We're Just Fed Up (Emotional labor is the unpaid job men still don't understand) and this “You Should’ve Asked” comic by Emma is absolutely brilliant to break it down in easy to understand images.
1) Forbes.com. Carrell, R. (2019). Let’s Share Women’s Mental Load
2) Harpersbazaar.com. Bendix, T. (2017). I Live With a Woman—We're Not Immune to Emotional Labor: How LGBTQ couples navigate gender roles at home.
3) Southern New Hampshire University. Glowiak, M. (2020) What is self-care and why is it important for you?