Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Why the mental load is intense for female breadwinners & entrepreneurs

By Jessie Healey, CEO of Webtopia

I have always earned more than my partner – so when we had our son, we agreed it made more sense for me to continue to focus on my career. I had launched a freelance marketing business that I later evolved into an agency and it was doing well. 

My partner took on more of the cooking, laundry and most of the day-to-day childcare, on top of his usual duties to do with the car and rubbish bins. When the pandemic hit, he stopped working temporarily so I could focus on my business. We kept our cleaner as our son is a handful and I felt like childcare was enough of a job (aside from during lockdown). 

So far, so good. I felt like a powerful feminist bucking societal norms. 

But then I started to notice something. 

My partner was fine to look after our son, but really struggled to plan meals as well. I still had to take care of all family finance decision-making and related admin, holiday planning, social planning and was the one reading books on child psychology and thinking about our son’s development. 

In short – my partner was doing more domestic work – specifically childcare. But I was handling all of the mental load. And running my business that was growing like crazy. This left me exhausted and burnt out a lot of the time. 

The idea of the ‘mental load’ or the ‘hidden load’ and is nothing new in feminist circles – but for those not familiar – here’s a quick recap. The hidden load refers to the idea that women take on a hidden load that includes cognitive labour – all the planning around household responsibilities, including organising playdates, shopping and planning activities. Then there’s emotional labour, which is maintaining the family’s emotions – making sure everyone feels loved and cared for and have their emotional needs met. 

This ‘workload’ often makes it difficult for women to also take on an ambitious career or more financial responsibilities. 

I spoke to dozens of women when researching this article – and almost 100% of the time – when women took on a bigger share of the financial burden – they rarely gave up the mental load they were carrying. 

They’d say that their partner was doing more around the house – but that they were still the one being called first about stuff at school, they were still the ones to organise playdates, they were still in charge of planning for family events, shopping and more. 

Among my female friends who aren’t in the breadwinner role, and sometimes working part-time – the split of labour seems a little fairer – with the man doing the finance and long hours making money – and the woman doing more of the domestic and mental labour. 

When the roles are reversed however, it seems that in the large majority of cases, the man might take on more domestic responsibilities but not the mental labour as well. 

In my own personal situation I found myself feeling angry and resentful, and would be particularly triggered hearing how female friends were supporting their breadwinning male partners – by giving them extra space from kids, tasks at home or by taking on emotional labour. 

Why wasn’t I getting the same level of support from my partner? Why was everything falling on me? 

What’s the solution? 

I run a busy digital agency – and have gotten really good at realising when I have too much on my plate,  documenting the tasks, hiring and delegating. 

But for my family I wasn’t doing this. I was trying to squeeze all the family admin, finances, social planning and emotional care into stolen hours at the end of the day. I wasn’t communicating to my partner about how much I was struggling, I wasn’t asking for help and I wasn’t delegating. 

I realised I had to change and take action – hand over those tasks, rather than keep struggling, seething and eventually burning out. 

It’s not easy to change the habits of a lifetime – both my partner and I had mothers who were very much in charge of the mental load – so both myself and my partner were socialised into our gendered roles – me as household project manager, him as handy-man available to take orders. 

We have to actively and proactively change the way we are doing things at home to make it more fair and break this mould. 

Here are a few of the things that have helped us – interestingly, a lot of these are things I have learnt running a business – systems, communication and documentation! 

  1. Weekly meeting – check in on what is happening for the week, who is doing what pickup, and who is in charge of what. In this meeting things get written down (in the same place) and handed off so I don’t have to keep tabs open in my brain. 
  2. A handbook to brain-dump all the information and processes. In my business, once a task has been established as a process, it gets documented and clear instructions captured. 

I have learnt I need to do the same at home. Everything from passwords, to school newsletters, key dates and other happenings gets documented in a google Doc, that way tasks can be shared without me needing to show my partner how to do things. Yes it’s annoying to have to do this, but if it means in future I get to share the jobs more, I am all for it. 

  1. Outsourcing – my partner now works full-time too, so we have outsourced cleaning, as well as meal delivery – at this time of life when our son is small we need to buy back time to manage our energy. 
  2. Communicating what is on your mind – I remind myself to say to my partner ‘I am worried about these three things, I am going to do X today’ etc so that he can see the labour that is going on, and proactively help in other ways to give me space. 

We aren’t there yet, I still feel like I am CEO of the household, but at least I have a more willing and informed personal assistant now, rather than a clueless intern who is out to lunch. 

This is a call-to-arms to mothers everywhere to look for solutions rather than seething with resentment. Funnel your ambition, organisation skills and talent into creating a better system in your home that hands more responsibility to your partner.

The very real alternative is probably burnout or divorce so why not give your partner an opportunity to share more of the load before you fire them completely? 

And for the men reading this article – how can you help your partner by taking over more of the hidden workload? How can you build a system like this for your home?