Gillian Harvey: Why it was a relief to give the mental load of being a mother a name

Read the latest column from freelance writer, author and mum-of-five Gillian Harvey.

Am I a little late to this party? It wouldn’t be the first time.

But I’ve just been familiarising myself with the work of Emma, a comic-strip drawing feminist who literally nails it in her books.

Trethowans
Trethowans

I stumbled across an article on Emma’s work in a newspaper and immediately ordered her book.

It was a revelation; I finally had a term for the feeling of ‘nnaarrrrgghhh’ that I try to explain to my husband, Ray, from time to time.

I have 100 things in my head at any one time. Are the children up to date with their vaccinations? Did I make that appointment for a smear test? Is Robbie making friends at school? I mustn’t forget to post that letter. Does Lily need new pyjamas? What’s in the fridge for tea? Who’s eaten too much chocolate? Did Tim actually finish the apple he had at breakfast? Have I spent enough time with each of them? And must write ‘buy birthday cards’ on the shopping list.

Sound familiar?

According to Emma, the mental load usually taken on by women in a family or relationship means that while everyone else enjoys a meal (often but not exclusively cooked by you), you’re thinking calories, wondering if everyone else thinks the meat is tough, or whether there’s enough rice if people want seconds.

According to Emma, whose books are written in comic strip form, this mental load is something we accumulate as women because of the way we’re brought up, the way society views us. We carry the burden of our own feelings, while micro-managing everyone else’s.

You may have a helpful partner, but chances are if you ask him to do the shopping, you’re going to need to write him a list. Or if he takes your daughter to the dentist, it was still you who remembered she needed to go, and made the appointment.

For ages, I’ve been trying to explain to Ray about the constant chatter in my head – how it’s not doing the things, or the equal division of labour (I’ll give him his due, he is amazing when it comes to housework and anything practical), it’s the constant list of things that need to be done/not forgotten/checked on that wears me out.

This list, this need to please or soothe or worry about everyone in the family, is not something I’ve picked up by choice, but (according to Emma) something that I grew into having through being raised female in modern society.

Getting rid of this mental load is no picnic. It’s not as if I can implant a portion of my brain into Ray’s, and while I can write a list of certain things, I can’t pass on the analytical process my brain has to go through every time a child asks for a cookie (how long ‘til dinner? what did they eat for lunch? has anyone else had one?) or I wonder whether they’ve all cleaned their teeth this morning.

But just having a name for it, and recognising why it’s there made me feel a lot better about the constant mental gymnastics I go through on an hourly basis – and helped me to realise that while the load may not be removable, it can certainly be lightened.

Gillian Harvey is a writer and mum-of-five. Her debut novel Everything is Fine is out now.