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The Mental Load: Unpacking the Excess Baggage

The Mental Load column explores the paradoxical effects of Type A personality traits. The perfectionism, drive, and ambition that propel women lawyers up the career ladder also tend to contribute to chronic stress, burnout, anxiety, and attrition from the profession. I’m going to dive right in with this first post at what seems like the logical starting point – the actual mental load.

Why The Mental Load is Extra Intense for Successful Professional Women

The “mental load”, despite being a creature of recent cultural debate, is very real. Shouldering the lion’s share of a household’s innumerable responsibilities leaves many women feeling like they’re perpetually toting around an unwanted sack of rocks. I couldn’t agree more that American society simply hasn’t caught up with the times in terms of gender balance (both at home and at work), or that truly tackling the mental load requires a concerted effort to break through some really tough emotional hang-ups and communication barriers. If lightening the mental load were easy, it wouldn’t warrant the vast array of media coverage that only seems to keep snowballing (just like that never-ending to-do list cycling through your head!). 

But for women lawyers who log far more than 40 hours in a typical workweek, possess a detail-oriented and perfectionist mindset, and are accustomed to being high achievers in multiple endeavors, a sack of rocks often isn’t a fitting metaphor for the mental load. It’s more like a freight train propelling itself through your mind at a rapid and continuous pace, ready to derail at any moment. And when it comes to this self-inflicted intensification of the mental load, my belief is that the biggest relief originates not with the passing-of-the-torch that is so often recommended, but rather with critical mindset shifts which I've broken down into three steps below. 

Step One:  Obtain a Deeper Perspective on Your Mental Load

We have to start with some tough introspection. I’m admittedly a Type-A personality and a perfectionist. I grew up participating in elite competitive swimming with coaches who ingrained in my psyche to “do whatever it takes”, even if it means extreme self-sacrifice and things that would probably never pass muster in today’s youth sports world, like having a bucket sitting poolside so you could quickly puke from exertion and then move on with your workout (no break for rehydration or any sort of health check). I’m highly emotional. I'm unapologetically obsessed with attention to detail. And I fiercely value independence. All these things combine to create the perfect storm when it comes to magnifying the impact of the mental load.

So begin by placing the mental load in the context of your individual values, traits, and personal narrative. Be careful this doesn’t morph into an exercise in self-criticism; it’s more about understanding the factors that make the mental load weightier for you. You are who you are, and that is what has made you successful and unique. So even if it feels like you’re describing someone with a rare form of psychosis when you undertake this self-reflection, go deep and feel that vulnerability (and dare I say, try to sit with your imperfection). This step alone can be illuminating when it comes to assessing why and how you’re feeling the burden and objectively determining where you can alleviate some of the excess weight.

Step Two: Undertake Honest Evaluation of What You Really Want to Unload

Once you have a deeper perspective on your own relationship with the mental load, think about each task as it arises and be brutally honest about whether any given responsibility is truly one you wish you could offload.  You may come to the realization that you’re allowing societal chatter and your own emotional baggage to feed into an issue that at its core, isn’t actually the real problem. I have an inkling that I’m not the only lawyer mom who, when push comes to shove, doesn’t want to cede control of a pretty sizeable chunk of the mental load. Anecdotal evidence supports my hypothesis that for women lawyers, easing the load is more a discussion of maximizing efficiency and sharing tips on outsourcing than a seismic shift in the division of labor. We’re simply not wired to compromise our standards and autonomy in very many areas of our lives.

For example, I often catch myself feeling resentment over the fact that I change all the light bulbs in our household. As I climb ladders, keep bulbs stocked, and try to brush off the relentless critiques I receive from my daughter if I let a burned-out bulb remain untouched for more than a day, I sometimes wonder if this task should really be mine. After all, handiwork is the man’s domain, right? That thought spirals into “No, I am proud to be showing my children that women can do anything, and I want to do my part to break down the gender role stereotypes that persist in our society.” Do you see what I’ve done here? My internal voice jumped from a burned out light bulb to shouldering the burden of fixing what is wrong with society in a matter of seconds. Talk about a mental load!

So before I let my emotions and the exaggerated weight I’ve assigned to this task run rampant, I think about what my life would be like if my husband changed all the light bulbs. (I have to pause here to mention that my husband handles far more household and parenting responsibilities than most similarly situated men – I would never want this anecdote to be misconstrued.) It sounds ridiculous, but I’d be miserable.

My perfectionist, control-freak personality extends to the aesthetics of our home. Binge-watching HGTV and pretending to be Joanna Gaines as I splurge on remodeling and home decor projects is one of my few guilty pleasures (and probably half the reason I’ve stayed in the legal profession as long as I have – the funds have to come from somewhere!). Any professional decorator can tell you that the color and intensity of your lighting can dramatically impact the feel of a room. I know that if I passed off bulb maintenance to my husband, I’d be really upset when my carefully curated combination of the best LED bulbs in the requisite variety of color temperatures, wattages, and styles morphed into a house full of practical, low-cost fluorescent abominations from the grocery store. He’d be upset by my criticism of his efforts and the exasperated tone I’d inevitably adopt when trying to explain to him the definition of an Edison bulb, and it would be a lose-lose situation (which would only add to both our loads).

If upon reflection, you realize there are things you honestly wish you could pass the baton on, you don’t have to give up on trying to spread the burden. Google will yield you a plethora of articles giving advice on how to achieve a better division of the mental load. But reallocating responsibilities is easier said than done, and at least in my case, something I simply don’t usually have the time or excess emotional capacity to tackle headfirst on a regular basis. But more frequently, when I assess a task that is part of my mental load, I realize it’s something I care about and want to do. Nonetheless, there are critical shifts which will not require moving the load, but rather can lighten it (sometimes dramatically) by changing your habits and mindset.

Step Three: Streamline Your Processes and Your Emotions

So what can you do once you’ve admitted to yourself that a particular task is not one you’re really willing to give up or not an issue you’re ready to negotiate? First, check your emotions. The mental load is real on its own, but it is intensified by the emotions that accompany it: resentment, overwhelm, guilt, and fatigue. Becoming conscious of the negative emotions that accompany the mental load and replacing them with positive actions and thoughts can be a transformational practice.

TRANSFORM RESENTMENT INTO GRATITUDE

If we circle back to the light bulb matter, when I feel that familiar twinge of resentment, I try to replace it with thoughts of gratitude. I’m thankful that we’re fortunate enough to have been able to remodel our kitchen and that its numerous Pottery Barn light fixtures “spark joy”. I’m lucky that my own mom instilled in me the sense of empowerment to take on stereotypically male tasks and happy that I’m still young enough to scale a ladder without risking life and limb.

REPLACE OVERWHELM WITH EFFICIENT ACTION

On to the overwhelm, which is best addressed by optimizing your task management. When I find the elusive perfect bulb after hours of research and costly trial and error, I buy a large stash so I’ve always got some on hand (because inevitably, Amazon will no longer have the same brand I settled upon when I go to order more in six months). If we’re talking something more generic like paper towels (not that a generic brand would suffice, but at least the main players are always available), the Amazon subscription auto-ship option can be a go-to timesaver. The point is to find ways to streamline your project management and eliminate the added burdens that pile on top of the basic mental load for those of us who go the extra mile on crazy things like light bulbs.

TRUST YOUR INTUITION AND LET CONFIDENCE DOMINATE OVER GUILT AND DECISIONMAKING FATIGUE

When it comes to less mundane matters, I’ve found that allowing my intuition to guide my decisions and intentionally instilling a positive spin on my outcome has been life-changing.  For example, I recently went through the process of registering my daughter for summer day camp. The “old me” would have spent more hours than would even sound plausible for a working attorney to invest in researching every summer camp option in our area. (And let’s be real, I’d place under consideration even those camps that were too far away for a realistic daily commute and spend heaps of time conceiving how those options could be made feasible through complicated logistical leaps.) I’d make a chart outlining the pros and cons of each camp and comparing the costs. I’d agonize over what options were the best from multiple angles, and try to coordinate with the parents of my daughter’s BFFs so that she would be in camp with at least a couple of her good friends. Then I’d solicit input from my daughter, opening a bottomless can of worms.

After doing this countless times with similar decisions, I’ve come to the realization that my initial instinct is usually the ultimate (and right) conclusion. I’m not sure if I just feel the need to rationalize my decisions (how lawyerly of me, I know), or if I feel pressure to give my children only the very best (to my detriment and probably theirs as well), or if I find some kind of sick satisfaction in leaving no stone unturned no matter what the task at hand.

But this year, I purposefully steered clear of the summer camp vortex. My daughter will be attending a local park district camp down the street from our house. It’s convenient. We’ll have a consistent schedule - no more “we’re doing camp A for two weeks, then camp B for the next three weeks, then switching to a different experience to round out the summer”. The camp I chose is probably not the most mentally stimulating option, but my daughter has loved our park district’s programs in the past and I’m confident she will enjoy the experience. Instead of feeling guilty that some of her peers might be attending STEM camp at a prestigious university downtown while my daughter is spending half her day coloring unicorns, I’m giving myself credit for breaking the cycle of the hyper-achiever mentality by choosing an option that’s fun for my daughter above all other criteria.

Most importantly, it’s done, and I’m not going to second guess my decision. If my instinct was off and my daughter comes home crying after the first day and says she hates camp, I’m not going to fall off the wagon, furiously research alternative options, and jump through hoops to switch her to a different camp. Instead, I’ll use the emotional capacity I’ve reclaimed by lessening my mental load to guide her through the tough process of facing her fears and adapting to a new environment. You’ll be surprised how much the mental load is lightened with this type of intuitive and confident approach.

So pass the buck when it makes sense, works for you and your partner, and you’re truly willing to cede control. Streamline and automate whenever there’s a window to do so. Cut yourself some slack. Don’t beat yourself up over any perceived failure to “win” at non-competitive things like parenting. But most importantly, give yourself the gift of positivity. Calm the self-talk that’s intensifying the toll the mental load takes on your life, and instead follow your intuition. Find the silver lining and be confident that your decisions are sound and your efforts are valuable. Then go out into the world and let your crazy quirks shine like a high-efficiency, non-dimmable, 2700K, 18W piece of perfection!

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