Have you heard of the “mental load” or “invisible labor”? The mental load refers to the work associated with having children and managing a household and family that no one sees— remembering to schedule doctor’s appointments, planning family social activities and holidays, arranging appointments for house maintenance and repairs, booking travel plans, planning for meals and snacks, registering children for school and summer camp, and even reading articles like this one.

The mental load is often discussed in negative terms, focusing on the stress and unseen work that go into carrying this burden. And, of course, it is important that we recognize the immense burden of the mental load but in practice how the mental load impacts us may be more complicated. New research even suggests that there may be some positive impacts associated with carrying the mental load. It goes without saying that we should all push for societal changes that will minimize the mental load that all parents carry and make sure neither parent carries an unequal share of this burden. But, in the meantime, recognizing some positive aspects of this load may ultimately help the burden to feel lighter.

This study was published in 2023 in the Journal of Business and Psychology and provided some important insights into how the mental load impacts well-being.

The researchers identified three types of tasks that contribute to the mental load:

Emotional: the worry and concern that goes into setting goals for the family and maintaining everyone’s wellbeing, comforting your children when they are upset, tending to everyone’s emotional needs

Cognitive: anticipating the family’s needs and wants, making decisions for the family, researching different options, and remembering what needs to be done

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that women spend more time on all three types of invisible labor than men. This backs up previous research finding that about 88% of women report that they are mostly responsible for organizing the families’ schedules, about 78% of women indicate that they are mostly responsible for knowing their child’s teachers and administrators at school, about 76% are mostly responsible for maintaining order and routine in the home, and about 64% are mostly responsible for being aware of the children’s emotional needs.

The mental load matters because previous research has found that when women carry the bulk of the mental load they feel more overwhelmed as a parent and feel more exhausted. However, this new study helped to tease apart the different types of tasks contributing to mental load and the researchers found that different types of invisible labor are associated with different outcomes. The cognitive load was associated with greater family satisfaction (translation: being happier with your family) and improved job performance. The researchers also found that the managerial load was positively associated with work-family enrichment(translation: when your experience with your family enhances your work and your experience with work enhances your family life). However the emotional part of the mental load was associated with negative impacts, such as greater work-family conflict, exhaustion related both to job and family, sleep problems, and poorer job performance. This backs up previous research finding that ensuring a child’s well-being is particularly linked to distress and a feeling of emptiness in women.

This study had some important limitations. First, the researchers developed a new measure to look at the mental load so further research is needed to know how valid this measure is. This study also relied on self-report and, of course, people may over- or under-estimate their contribution to the invisible load (maybe you even have a partner who does this). Because the load is invisible, it is inherently difficult to measure it objectively. Finally, this study is a correlation study, meaning that we don’t know whether invisible labor causes these positive and negative impacts or if it is simply associated with them. However, the researchers did control for personality characteristics to make sure that the type of person who takes on more of the invisible labor isn’t also more likely to experience these positive outcomes.

I wanted to highlight this study because I think it helps to provide a different perspective on invisible labor— that it may not totally negative and may even positively contribute to parents’ lives in some ways. This may be because some aspects of the mental load help to give parents meaning and purpose.

This research (along with previous research) provides the following suggestions for the managing the mental load:

Reframe the mental load: It can be easy to get angry and resentful about carrying the mental load for your family but think about the positive aspects of serving this role as well. Does it give you a sense of pride or accomplishment? Are there any parts of it that you enjoy? Does it allow you to make choices for your family that are important to you? Do you feel good about serving your family in this way?

Seek help in being the default parent for the family’s emotional needs: This study suggests that managing the family’s emotional needs may be the most draining aspect of the mental load. This can include calming upset children, resolving sibling conflicts, and setting the emotional tone for the house. You shouldn’t have to do this alone— seek help for this role from your parenting partner or another person in your child’s life. You can also seek help from a mental health professional.

Make invisible labor visible and work with your partner on sharing more of the mental load: Write out on a piece of paper every “invisible task” you do for your family. If you have a parenting partner, have them do the same. Make sure to include all mental and emotional tasks. Writing it out will help you to appreciate each other and work towards making the split more equitable.

Evaluate each task of your mental load: How does it impact your life (including your happiness, life satisfaction, and work)? If a particular task only impacts you negatively, what changes can you make? Can your partner handle it or can you outsource it? Can you decide that it actually doesn’t need to be done?

Examine your own beliefs that have caused you to take on more of the mental load: Do you believe it is your “job” because your partner makes more money? Do you believe that is what a “good mother” or “good father” does? Challenge these beliefs if they are irrational or don’t make sense.

Dr. Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and mother to four children. She specializes in child development and has spent years researching child psychology and neuroscience and providing therapy for children of all ages and parent training.  She is the founder of Parenting Translator, which translates recent scientific research into information that is helpful, relevant, and accurate for parents and caregivers through an Instagram account, a newsletter on Substack, and a blog on Psychology Today. Dr. Goodwin is also a bestselling author of the children’s book, What To Do When You Feel Like Hitting.

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