What is the mental load?

Can a new AI service help mums organise their lives or does it beg the question: what is the so-called parental mental load?

person with anxiety disorder mental health illness, headache and migraine sitting on laptop computer desk


AI is everywhere these days it seems. So it comes as no surprise that it is being used to supposedly address the so-called ‘cognitive’ or ‘mental load’ of parenting. An article last week, entitled  Is AI the Answer to Moms’ Mental Overload?, highlighted a forthcoming subscription service called Milo which uses a mix of GPT-4 and human intervention to keep track of family schedules, grocery lists and other daily admin. The article suggested the service could be especially helpful to mothers because they tend to carry most of the  ‘mental load’ of organising, planning, and scheduling for their families.  The idea is that technology can automate some household tasks and could reduce the time spent negotiating over who does what and help women with their careers if it frees up mental space.

The mental load has become a trendy thing of late. That’s probably down to women highlighting it more. But the mental load is a lot more than planning and scheduling. It’s a step forward though. I remember having discussions a while back where people took the mental load to be equivalent to multi-tasking – putting the washing machine on while checking emails. These are all very practical-based tasks and, of course, AI can help. Indeed there are several scheduling apps that have been available for some years. I remember writing about them back in the day. I’ve never actually used them though. Maybe I should have, but my life doesn’t tend to run like an Excel spreadsheet. Every plan gets unmade and remade. You can have a plan of sorts, but you need a back-up plan and a back-up, back-up plan in my experience. Teenagers are a particular case in point. They don’t respond to planning well. Usually they don’t tell you what they are doing until the last possible moment before they do it – and then they go on airplane mode.

Is AI ready for that?

I have, for instance, tried on many occasions to find out my daughter’s work schedule at weekends so I can plan around pick-ups and drop-offs. She gets it around a week in advance, although this seems to vary.  Yet she never seems to know what it is. She says she will check when she has a moment. That moment rarely arrives, even if I ask her every single day. She argues that she has a lot on her plate – A Levels, friendship/relationship issues, band issues…There’s a lot going on. Maybe she needs an AI app?

And that’s just the one child. Even when they are younger there are scheduling barriers – sickness, school closures, forgetting to take PE kit in, gymnastic incidents and so forth.  Parenting is about flexibility at all times. Can AI cope with that?

The emotional load

And that’s just the practical stuff. If I think of the mental load or whatever it’s called, the practical stuff comes very low down. The main mental load centres around trying to keep everyone as happy as possible. It’s about being around for people when they are down, setting up things that might cheer them up, knowing how to deal with things like bullying, being on hand for friendship breakdowns, counselling them through exam stress and all the other stuff life throws at them. AI can’t do that stuff because it’s a human thing. It can maybe free you up to do more of the human stuff, but it’s a drop in the ocean really. The problem is that all that stuff is mostly invisible to anyone who doesn’t do it. It’s not that I’m complaining. I just find that the mental load discussion tends to ignore the major part of parenting – caring – and all the other stuff is kind of woven into that in a complex, knotty ball.

Note that I haven’t touched on the gender issue – the assumption that AI mental load relieving is about mums. We know that mums do most of this so I guess that is the market. But marketing it at mums just reinforces the stereotypes surely. Plus why is it called Milo? I can see that is a shortened version of my load, but the only Milo I know is the male character from the Tweenies. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but is the implication that only men can help women with the ‘mental load’ [whereas you need a woman – Alexa – to control the household environment]? My main argument, though, is that before we start the process of marketing it would be a good idea to make visible what the mental load actually is so that all the Milos of the world really get what is involved.

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