It’s not all on you: Shifting the mental load

Have you heard about the mental load?

You know, all the thinking and planning and worrying that comes with managing a home and caring for children. It’s why it’s easier to make dinner than it is to decide what to make for dinner and make sure you have all the ingredients on hand.

The mental load has become a hot topic since the release of a new pictorial essay from French cartoonist, Emma, called You Should’ve Asked. In it, the artist explains: “When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he’s viewing her as the manager of household chores. So, it’s up to her to know what needs to be done and when.”

And, it’s also up to her to tell her partner when she needs help.

The cartoon got me thinking about a conversation I had with Frank about a year ago. It was right before school was starting up again and I was trying to organize all that they needed for school – uniforms, supplies, shoes, and everything else. I was planning two separate birthday parties for my youngest daughter. It was also time for the girls’ annual check ups, eye appointments and dentist appointments. Plus, I was trying to find an after-school nanny since I couldn’t get my girls into the after-school program.

And, this was on top of my full-time work schedule and my regular duties at home.

While all that was going on, Frank was in the thick of a very intense and busy period at work. For a guy who easily glides through stress, things were starting to get to him. And, then one night, in his frustration he exclaimed: “You have no idea of all the things I have to think about!”

Those were fighting words and my reaction was neither kind nor compassionate.

In my rant, I listed all the things I had thought about just that day (or at least the ones I could remember). Completely frustrated, I texted a friend for moral support. Tactfully she typed back: “Please remember you are spoiled with Frank.”

It took me some time to appreciate the message, I admit. She wasn’t talking about any lavish gifts or unlimited affections Frank bestows on me. She was trying to remind me that I have a partner who willing shares the household and caregiving duties. And, with that he takes on a good portion of the mental load.

It’s nowhere near perfect and there are times like back to school, birthdays and holidays that I really feel the load, but it works well most of the time. How did we get here? Part of it is just our natures – I’ve always expected him to chip in and never had an issue making my wishes known. He, on the other hand, is a helpful guy who has no preconceived notions of what is woman’s work and what is the man’s domain. But, we’ve also put a lot of time into figuring out the strategies that work for us.

If you’re looking to shift some of your mental load to your partner, here are a few ways to get started:

1. Take stock

If you both don’t fully appreciate the scope of the work that goes into managing a home and family, you will be fighting a losing battle.

I read a book a little while ago by Tiffany Dufu called Drop the Ball. She goes on to describe how she and her husband made a spreadsheet of all the “life management” tasks that needed to be done – everything from washing the car to changing baby’s diapers, doing the dishes and more. They then walked through each item and either she took it on, her husband took it on or no one did and it was removed from the list. Just the act of listing out all the tasks may in itself help you and your partner realize the weight of your responsibilities. 

2. Give them control

Nobody likes a micromanager and they definitely don’t like a backseat driver. So, when your partner takes responsibility for something – be it with a spreadsheet or just a conversation – you need to completely let it go. That means you can’t sit on the sidelines trying to manage when the task gets done or how it’s done or the quality of the job. And, you definitely can’t criticize or belittle their efforts.

You truly have to accept it for what it is. And, if you can’t, take the job back and don’t complain.

3. Get them involved

Not all tasks can be fully divided between you and your partner. There’s going to be a bunch of stuff that can (and has to) be shared. The key will be making sure you let your partner step in even when you’re around. Because the more involved someone is in a task, the more they will care about it. Don’t believe me? Consider a project you were involved with at work or a charity you volunteered with – the more time you dedicated to it, the more important it became to you.

So get your partner involved. Sure at first he’ll be “helping you,” but over time he may become more invested in the task. For example, if your partner takes equal parts in changing diapers, he’ll know when the baby needs to be changed, he’ll also know when supplies like diapers and wipes are low and need to be purchased (or added to the shopping list).

4. Make them part of the solution

Just because you’re responsible for a given task, doesn’t mean you still can’t share the load when things get hectic. Here’s an example: I manage over caregiving. Last week my babysitter called in sick. My mother was having an operation (minor and she’s doing well now) and I very much needed and wanted to be with her when she got out. I could have spent time trying (and stressing out) to find a babysitter to come in. Instead, I let Frank know what was going on and asked him to figure it out.

So, how do you share the load at home? If you take on the bulk of the mental load, what are the things you struggle with the most? Let us know in the comments below.


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