Moms'â€‹ 'mental load' is real; let's accept the challenge
“Mental load.” If you orbit around any kind of female spaces online‚ you’ve probably heard the term.
The idea originated with French sociologist Monique Haicault‚ who wrote about the changing nature of work in the 1970s and '80s. The tail end of the industrial era marked the dawn of an age of abstraction‚ when due to automation and outsourcing‚ the work of the average person became less physical and more psychologically demanding. Haicault argued that the role of women within the family mirrored these abstractive trends in the broader society and that the essential function of the familial machine‚ that which fell onto her shoulders‚ became less a traditional productive role and more one of organization and management.
Christopher Lasch argued similarly in “Haven in a Heartless World” that around the turn of the 20th century‚ many of the functions once embedded in domestic life were swallowed by the expansion of the bureaucratic‚ “therapeutic” state‚ enervating the family’s authority and reducing its status. Not only did a mother’s role become tediously administrative‚ it became one of minimized importance relative to public-facing careers.
Around 2017‚ the concept of “mental load” began recirculating in the mommy blogger world after a French feminist comic familiar with Haicault published an illustration on the topic that went viral. The term essentially refers to the psychological weight of managing the many moving parts of the modern family. The mental load-bearer‚ usually the mother‚ keeps a running list in her mind of the whole family’s daily‚ weekly‚ and yearly schedules‚ taking into account all the competing priorities‚ changing needs‚ developmental milestones‚ and sensitive social and emotional considerations built into the fabric of a family’s shared life.
She is the CEO‚ COO‚ and CFO of the entire operation – but her status in public‚ and sometimes in private‚ is closer to that of a slave. Generally‚ those who use the term agree that women feel overburdened by this mental load‚ resentful of the lack of public respect‚ frustrated by the difficulty of explaining their overwhelmed state‚ upset by their husbands' apparent unwillingness to understand‚ empathize‚ or help‚ and ultimately bitter about the arrangement that placed the burden on their shoulders in the first place (marriage).
Like so many concepts condensed to meme form online‚ the term is being used as a cudgel in the ongoing gender wars. Citing the mental load‚ embittered influencers conclude that marriage and motherhood are a raw deal for women‚ without exception. Don’t get married‚ they say. Unless you’d like to lose yourself in the haze of being a brain-drained slave.
The typical reaction of trad e-people to the emergence of the “mental load” meme is to dismiss the concern (and the term) out of hand‚ minimizing the real work of motherhood and homemaking in order to strike down the whiny wives of TikTok. Shut up. Your job is easy. You have a dishwasher and a vacuum. You’re just lazy and spoiled. In the process‚ they signal a disdain for the very vocation they implore women to take up. But what would conservatives be doing if they weren’t shooting themselves in the foot?
Despite all the bluster‚ every corner of the Mexican standoff is missing the point. Something is certainly amiss in the world of women. Rather than confronting that problem with the objective of understanding and overcoming it‚ the left would rather whine‚ but the right would rather bury its collective head in the sand.
The way I see it‚ the emergence of the term is an opportunity to build a bridge between the sexes. It’s an opportunity for clear communication. It’s an opportunity for excellence.
Monique Haicault’s ideas remind me of Mary Harrington’s – basically: Family life corresponds to the material reality of the greater economy; thus intersexual tensions of the chronic‚ systemic type we’re seeing now can be understood as an expression of something much bigger than mere petty resentments. I wrote in my Claremont review of her book that acknowledging the bigger picture frees us from the temptation to blame one sex or another. Using this as a starting point‚ we can freely acknowledge that the mental load is a real thing. If the concept reflects reality‚ then it’s good that women have named it‚ even if the meme‚ as a flattened version of the truth‚ is being deployed by cynical people for sinister purposes.
Now‚ having acknowledged how women’s roles have changed in substance and status‚ what can we do to remedy our mental load? Lane Scott recently named the problem in the American Mind‚ acknowledging the anxiety that arises from unchangeable forces‚ but reframing the answer as a radical personal exercise in self-government. I have another piece forthcoming on the ten commandments of maternal self-government‚ but the gist is this: We must start with ourselves. The economic system is what it is; the substance of our modern lives is what it is. Until dramatic change arrives on the back of a world historical man‚ the challenge is to accept the reality and practice virtue within the confines of our lives. We must become excellent at personal leadership and management‚ now that we see that for better or worse‚ this is what it means to be a modern mother. Leadership begins with oneself.
Little forms of rebellion against the antihuman zeitgeist can be virtuous and just as mentally freeing‚ too. Excellence in motherhood is practical‚ and it is spiritual. While we manage and delegate and refine our schedules‚ we can simultaneously prioritize that which makes us human. This may rub some people the wrong way‚ but I schedule time for prayer. We could all build more hospitality into our calendars. We should make more with our hands. This Christmas‚ I’m crafting and cooking rather than outsourcing. The matrix is what it is; the little ways we sneak in our humanity are what sets us free.