Mental labour

I have previously written

I think many women carry a mental load of which they are unaware. A women is generally the person who remembers all the family birthdays, is responsible for buying birthday and Christmas gifts, remembers family dentist appointments and school sporting events, creates the grocery lists, knows when school projects need to be done and what needs to be bought to complete it etc etc. Even if other people actually carry out the tasks, women often take the mental load of remembering what happens when.

This mental load, also called worry work, cognitive labour or invisible labour is often carried out by women at home. This is not the actual doing of the task, but the remembering, preparation, and reminding.

The American Sociological Review described the cognitive dimension of household labour as as the responsibility of anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress.”

For example:

  • remembering to wash the kids’ sports clothes before they need them
  • making shopping lists, and buying ingredients for a birthday party or bake sale
  • listing and buying all materials for school projects
  • remembering birthdays, anniversaries, special days. Buying, writing, and sending cards
  • making regular calls to family and friends
  • organising catsitters, babysitters, and housesitters
  • remembering that the family or work is running low on something and needs to restock
  • reminding people of what needs to be done
  • knowing where everything is, so that when someone says ‘where is my xxxx’, you can help them find it
  • shopping lists
  • knowing where things are
  • reminding people of appointments, meetings, big events
  • keeping track of important documents, and when they expire
  • organising family or friend gatherings. Just pinning down a date and place is a lot of work. Without you, these meetings would fizzle out because no one else wants to do the work of organising them.

This type of work is invisible, and is often taken for granted. Unlike cooking and laundry, it is intangible. People start relying on you to know what needs to be done, and reminding them of it. I recognise this in my own life.

Even if someone else carries out all of part of the task, there is a mental load in remembering and preparing for it. I am one of those people who is seen as ‘good at remembering and organising’, although I am not. I just write things down.  Even though I enjoy doing it most of the time, staying on top of several schedules can be exhausting and overwhelming when I am feeling tired.

This is primarily a gender issue in the household, but I think many people who are organised are good at this type of ‘labour’, irrespective of gender. I write down birthdays, trips, reminders and lists in my planner. This makes things easier for me, but it also makes it easier for other people to rely on me to keep track of things.

Do you think planner people are better at this type of ‘cognitive work?’

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

6 thoughts

  1. Absolutely true. I am the planner/organizer/keeper-of-all-schedules/remember-er in my family. Great question, and I see it as chicken or the egg:
    1. Are we planner people because the work fell to us (in my case, and those I know, we are the wife/mom, though I certainly recognize there are dads/partners that this could fall to). My natural tendency is to be organized and keep track of things, even did this as a kid. Probably also a bit of a control thing, so it was also natural I would take on this task as an adult. I would always be aware of what’s coming up (I do NOT like surprises of the scheduling kind).
    2. Or, did we BECOME planner people, born of necessity of all the above? For example, being a single parent, or having a partner who was inherently disorganized, which required SOMEBODY take on the task and also make a monumental change?

    1. Great comment! I think it is probably a bit of both. I have always thought that women do most of the unpaid labour at home because we have a biological imperative from the days women were gatherers and men were hunters. Because one partner takes on this labour (as you say it, does not have to be gender based), the other one does not have to. I sometimes just let things go and see if other people take up the slack, but I become so anxious that I cannot wait it out over time, and start picking up the pieces before disaster strikes.

  2. In our household, it’s me! I organise the budget, run the groceries, wrangle the vet appointments for the hounds and kitties, manage the resulting pet insurance claims, all while also organising a busy full time job where I also have to manage, plan and direct colleagues while also keeping the block diagram of how all the bits need to fit together. At home I’m known as “the finder”, because I’m usually the person keeping track of where stuff is. If there’s tidying up to do, that will be me, and I also organise a cleaning person who comes in a couple of times a week. These days my calendar (in outlook I’m afraid – the volume defeated paper some time back) is the master schedule for the household. Everything goes in there. My other half even got me a card for Valentine’s Day which said “in every relationship there is one person who is the adult, the organised one who makes sure everything runs smoothly… and then there is me, who would be lost without you!”

    Sometimes it’s very exhausting.

    1. I can only imagine how exhausting it is. My boss used so flatter me by calling me a ‘Superwoman’. It was only years later that I realised he flattered me so I would continue to carry the mental load.

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