Mental load as leadership and mindfulness practice

An amazing conversation on mental load has been unfolding in recent months. You may have seen this comic by Emma, read this, or this. These articles took the internet by storm. It gave women, who are traditionally expected to take care of the home, a language to talk about how men expect them to project manage everything. And it gave men, who aren't traditionally expected to take care of the home, a real understanding of what this "invisible" problem is.

Splitting mental load equally at home is something me and my partner have been working on too, and I believe we have improved the split over time. A key moment for me in moving us towards the solution was reframing the problem. There are two frameworks I found very helpful with this reframing: 1. the adaptive leadership framework, 2. mindfulness.

Mental load as an adaptive leadership challenge

Adaptive leadership, a framework defined by two HBS professors, Heifetz and Linsky, makes an important difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges.

Technical problems have clear solutions that someone can provide. They only require knowledge or expertise. An example of technical problems in your household could be a water leakage from the upstairs bathroom. Faced with this problem, you would need to contact your neighbors, file an insurance claim, assess the damage, and hire someone to fix the damage. If you’ve dealt with such leakage problems before, you’d go faster the second time around. But if not, the insurance company and the person you hire would be able to tell you everything that needs to be done in a 10-minute conversation, and you would follow the steps from there on.

Adaptive challenges don’t have clear or known solutions, and the problem itself may not be clear either. They require the organization to experiment with different approaches until they reach the right solution. The sustainability of the solution depends on people agreeing to change their mindsets, attitudes or cultures. An example of adaptive challenges in the household would be equally splitting mental load with your husband. It is difficult to define or measure mental load, it is at first unclear what the problem is, it is unclear what the solution is (how to split it equally), and this challenge requires that both you and your husband change your attitudes, mindsets, and actions. The sustainability of the solution depends on how much you internalize these changes.

The adaptive leadership framework says that people don’t resist change; they resist the loss that comes with change. What they’re losing might be an idea they firmly believe (“No, that’s not true, I help out equally around the house!”), time (that they now spend working or playing video games), money (that they wouldn’t make every hour of doing housework) or freedom (that you partly lose when you maintain a home daily).

A leader who leads a group of people through an adaptive challenge (which can be anyone in that organization, with or without any authority) helps people:

  1. adjust their unrealistic expectations of how easy the solution should be by underlining this is an adaptive challenge and not a technical solution,
  2. acknowledges the loss that all parties have to incur to reach the solution and promotes resourcefulness,
  3. brings patience, presence, trust, and artful communication, so that the solution can be reached without losing heart.

If you are a woman who owns 100% of the mental load at home, you probably have the adaptive challenge of splitting that load equally with your partner. You see the challenge, you want to find a solution, and you are probably leading yourself and your partner toward the solution.

I found treating mental load as a leadership challenge helpful because I realized that if I was a leader in any other setting (such as a company), I would not expect the people I am leading to adapt to the solution overnight. I wouldn’t nag, I wouldn’t get overly emotional, I wouldn’t give up. I would try different methods of communication. I would experiments, make discoveries and share learnings. I would encourage others to keep trying until the right solution is found. I would give them full ownership of parts (or all) of the challenge.

Leading your household to an equal split of mental load is no different.

How to lead through adaptive challenges

Here are some of the adaptive leadership guidelines that Heifetz and Linsky give that might help you in the specific context of leading your household to equal mental load:

#1 Don’t take it personally. In leadership roles, people are never reacting to you as a person. They are reacting to your role as a leader. If men were never expected to do mental and emotional labor, your partner may meet you with resentment or turn a deaf ear at first when you want to give parts of that role to him. Even if he loves you a crazy amount and wants the best for you, he will resent losing whatever it is he will be losing when taking on this new role. He will react to your leadership that wants to change things around, not to you personally. This is important to remember, because if you take his reactions personally, you may end up getting hurt.

#2 Get on the balcony. Imagine you are dancing on a very crowded dance floor. If you don’t get up on a balcony that overlooks the dance floor every now and then, you will not see anything other than your dance partner. You will miss on the other people on the dance floor, the music, the band playing the music, and your very own dancing skills. Only when you are on the balcony, you may be able to realize that the party is dead and decide to go home.

Now imagine your household as the dance floor, and mental load as the dance you’re dancing with your partner. If you get caught up in the dance and never get on the balcony, you will not be able to correctly assess the situation and determine the right response. The ideal scenario is that you go back and forth between the dance floor and the balcony so many times, that it almost starts feeling like you are on the dance floor and on the balcony at the same time.

When you are on the balcony overlooking everything, you can ask yourself some questions you couldn’t have asked on the dance floor: 1. What’s going on here? 2. What are the technical challenges vs. adaptive challenges? 3. Where is my partner at? 4. What is the song beneath the words? And these questions may significantly change how you lead you and your partner through splitting mental load.

What this personally means for me is that whenever I complain about carrying most of the mental load, I take into account our current circumstances. Both I and my partner are starting our own businesses at the moment. We live in and work from our small Parisian apartment, which makes the smallest mess look like the biggest deal. Remembering all this gives me more patience and helps me put the problem in perspective when discussing it with him.

#3 Act politically. What would a great political leader do? She would find allies, keep the conversation going through the toughest conversations, accept responsibility for her piece of the mess, acknowledge the loss everyone is enduring, and model the behavior.

What this means for me is that I often talk with other women who are trying to share mental load with their partners, get inspired by their solutions and vent my frustration away. I engage with my partner in this conversation over and over again while accepting my own shortcomings with humor and lightness. If there is something I want him to change, I make sure I am not doing the opposite myself, and I recognize he learns what I care about or what I need more so by watching me do it rather than listening to me talk about it.

#4 Orchestrate the conflict. Conflicts happen due to differences in core beliefs. Differences in core beliefs are great because they are the engine of human progress. Adaptive work requires we operate outside of our comfort zone, and also requires that we know when to raise the heat or cool it down in order to stay within a productive range of distress. It is also important to not do the adaptive work entirely ourselves -- when we get stuck we can give the work back and ask the other people in the group “How would you do it?”

From “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading” by Martin Linsky & Ronald Heifetz

For me, this means that I constantly reframe splitting mental load as an amazing problem to have. I am, just by making this an ongoing topic at home, contributing to gender equality, and for that I am proud! I also measure the heat in our conversations to know when I have been going on and on about it and I can just take a pause, or when there is not enough heat to bring about a change. I also remember to say “These are my needs, and these are yours, how do you suggest we go about it?”

Mental load as a mindfulness practice

Part of why I like the adaptive leadership framework is how it overlaps a lot with mindfulness. Not identifying with things, seeing the full picture are also teachings in mindfulness, but I find that mindfulness offers so much more. And I find the split of mental load at home a great context to practice mindfulness.

#1 Naming. Our minds have lots of habitual patterns. We may bring our attention to the present moment, but a habitual pattern will soon kick in. We will doze off, think, plan for the future, ruminate about the past, stress, analyze a situation or worry. A great tool in mindfulness practice is naming. Naming habitual patterns of the mind, or all the other emotions and sensations that are present, helps us acknowledge them and detach from them in a nonjudgemental way. When we name them they lose their grip on us, and we calmly observe that when we let them be, they eventually disappear or change into something else.

Whenever I feel frustrated about carrying mental load at home, I start naming whatever thought patterns or emotions are coming up. I recognized that, for example, when I have a view on how something should be done, and I see that my partner didn’t do it that way, my mind automatically starts thinking: “God, I can’t believe he didn’t put the food away in the fridge even though we spoke about it.” or “God, I can’t believe he’s not bothered with cleaning the apartment when it hasn’t been cleaned in four weeks.” Once I recognized this pattern, I named it the god-I-can’t-believe pattern.

If I couldn’t pause and name the pattern, that would mean I would probably say something not nice to my partner with reactivity. If I could pause and name it, I would start noticing how many times during the day my mind lands on this pattern. I could look at this pattern with curiosity and humor. I also forgot to put the food away. I also cannot be bothered with cleaning sometimes. So what was underneath this thought pattern?

What was underneath this pattern was an expectation for him to know what I need intuitively, without me having to tell him, or remembering to do something if we have talked about it once before (a rather steep learning curve). So I named that too: “Expecting, expecting.” This expectation on my side seemed rather unfair, and I judged myself for it. So I named that pattern too: “Judging, judging.”

I realized that then I went into negativity, thinking we will never be able to crack this mental load thing. So I named that too: “Negativity, negativity.” Then I found some humor in my internal melodrama. “Humor.” And I became overwhelmed with all the naming I had to do. “Overwhelmed.”

But eventually, underneath all the layers of patterns and emotions, I also found self-compassion. I knew my mind was not any different than other people’s minds. If I could pause and name whatever was coming up, I didn’t have to identify with any of it. Once the stream of patterns was calm, I could simply ask my partner whatever it is I needed him to remember to do next time.

#2 Creative blocks. Another great thing that came out of my mindfulness practice on this topic is understanding my creative blocks. If I manage to pause and not get caught by reactivity, once the mental chatter and emotional roller coaster calm down, I can ask myself “Is there something I need to be doing right now that I don’t want to do?”

The answer is often yes. doing housework, worrying and planning are creative blocks for me. They are the things I do when I don’t want to do my work. They are very rewarding in the short-term because they bring a sense of accomplishment or sympathy from others.

Doing housework is not a creative block for my partner, so I couldn’t expect him to do housework as many times as I do during the day. I resolved on letting him take care of our home in the way he does: in batches, and outside work hours.

#3 Relationships are the practice itself. We think practicing mindfulness is a matter of meditating silently. But relationships themselves are core to our practice. “We are wounded in relationship, and we need to heal in relationship,” says Tara Brach. Relationships are often the places where we have the most intense reactivity, as well as the deepest potential for realizations and liberation from our habitual patterns. This is why splitting mental load, as frustrating as it is, is an amazing place to practice mindfulness.

Taking a two minute hugging break, or hugging while having difficult conversations can help bring down the heat a lot. Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash.

One such moment for me was when one morning I walked into the bedroom and saw that my partner had not made the bed. I couldn’t stop my reactivity and I made a comment along the lines of “How hard is it to make the bed when you get up?”

He got very quiet. I immediately felt sorry for my snide remark and apologized. He hugged me, I hugged back, but he was still quiet. We sat in that sad quiet for a while. Then I asked him how he was feeling, and he said: “It’s okay that your words were not nice. It’s just that I can see how deeply sad you become in those moments when something is not how you want it to be. It feels like this little negative thing took over all the many good things we have in our life. And it is such a shame because we have so many great things.”

Now I was quiet, letting his words and the truth sink in. He continued: “And seeing how sad you can become from small things, I’m scared to speak my mind sometimes, or tell you how I feel.” I didn’t want him to ever not be able to tell me things and I reflected on his words for days. I could see my patterns so much better thanks to that moment in our relationship.

The solutions we are experimenting with

Looking at mental load through the lens of adaptive leadership and mindfulness has helped me reframe the problem, maintain a longer-term perspective, and have more patience at the moment when frustrations come up. With this attitude in place, we have read articles together and discussed them. We realized that principles rather than rules are more helpful for us and we agreed on some principles such as “leave a space cleaner than you found it”.

To divide mental load equally, we created two roles: janitor and cook. The janitor is responsible for weekly cleaning end to end. This means all tidying, cleaning and laundry. The cook is responsible for the kitchen end to end. This means grocery shopping, keeping stock of what's in the fridge, cooking, and cleaning up after meals. We rotate between these roles weekly. Owning the rules for a week lets us plan for the tasks and do the tasks our own way, without getting in each other's way.

We also recognize we are better at certain roles than others. He's a better cook and I'm a better cleaner. So he helps me onboard to being a cook, and I help him onboard to being the janitor. And if we go through busy days, we just do the roles together, leaning towards what feels easier to us in that moment. He may cook lunch, I may wash the dishes, he may fold the laundry, I may cook dinner etc. In other words, we're not super strict with the roles. We just use them as guidelines and for ownership.

I think we made huge progress on splitting mental load in the past two months. I’m grateful and excited to see how it will get better and better. If any of what I shared here resonates with you, or you have found other helpful frameworks or solutions, please leave a comment below! I’d love to hear from you.

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Cover photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.