If you are a mom, you are more than likely familiar with the idea of moms being the default parent and bearing the brunt of the “mental load.”
These concepts simultaneously make me feel seen and understood as a mom who is always stretched too thin and guilty that agreeing with these arguments seems like it’s negating all of the work my husband does for our family. My kids might see me as the default parent, but my husband is quick to jump in and take care of things, even when they’ve asked me. There are many things for which I carry the “mental load,” but there are just as many things my husband is responsible for remembering. Our bills would not get paid if he didn’t carry that mental load, and since he is responsible for getting the kids ready and off to school in the morning, I have to get him to go over the routine with me any time I have to take over the responsibility. We are a team when it comes to parenting and running the household, so I always feel a bit of shame when I read articles about the mental load of motherhood and find myself nodding in agreement.
Then, last week, I read an article by HuffPost that reframed this idea for me. The article, titled “There’s A Key Difference Between The Chores Men And Women Take On” explains that, “Research on the division of household labor has found that men are often in charge of tasks they can do on their own schedule, ‘while women pick up responsibilities that are difficult to put off or reschedule and inherently forfeit their right to choose when the tasks get done,’ author Eve Rodsky wrote in her 2019 book ‘Fair Play.’” The article goes on to explain, “For example, women in relationships with men tend to be the ones to prepare meals, wash the dishes, make school lunches and do daycare or school drop-offs and pickups — all time-sensitive, often inflexible tasks that punctuate their daily routines. Plus, these responsibilities also tend to be highly repetitive in nature…The men in these relationships, on the other hand, are often responsible for things like home and car repairs, lawn care, and one-and-done type tasks like putting together furniture or installing a new appliance.”
Suddenly, the reason why I felt I was still bearing the primary load of parenting, despite having an incredible partner in my husband, made sense. It wasn’t about how many responsibilities each one of us was taking on, it was about the lack of control I felt over when I had to take care of my responsibilities.
Ironically, a conversation I had with my husband just a few days later demonstrated this difference. Like most Saturday mornings, I was busy preparing for the upcoming week: I decide on meals for the week, I sort and start the laundry, I make a grocery list, and I place pick-up orders from Rouses and Target (thank God for pick up!), usually all before noon. This particular Saturday, I was tired from a stressful work week and feeling rushed because I had plans to take my daughter to a playdate in the afternoon. At some point, I let out a sigh, and my husband asked me what was wrong; I shared that I felt that I never had any time for myself and explained that even if I allowed myself to take the time, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it because a little voice in the back of my head would be reminding me of all the things that still had to be done. He responded that “there are other weekends,” implying that my to-do list could be put off.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t even the first person to tell me such that week, so his comment set me off. I reminded him that laundry could not be put off or there would be no clean clothes, including school uniforms, for the week, and that meal planning and grocery shopping could not be put off or we would not have food to get us through the week. Meal planning and grocery shopping also mean thinking about everyone’s upcoming needs for the week and doing a full mental inventory of the house for anything we might be out of because no one else ever puts anything on the grocery list. No matter how absolutely spent I am when I get home from work, dinner still has to be cooked and the kitchen still has to be cleaned up afterward. And I kept going. It’s not just that I take care of the responsibilities that can’t be put off; it’s also that so many of my chores can’t be taken care of without waiting on others in my household to do their chores, or without taking on those chores myself just to get them done, and too often I feel like I’m the only one who notices things need to be done in the first place. I can’t load the dishwasher with dirty dishes unless my daughter’s done her chore of unloading the clean dishes, and I usually have to remind her several times before it gets done. I can’t put new groceries away until old food has been cleaned out of the refrigerator and pantry, but I’m the only one who seems to think of that.
Each weekend, I take on the roles that make sure the house functions efficiently, and when I don’t get them done, the week becomes exponentially more challenging. I’d love to be able to just put these responsibilities off because I have other things I’d like to do, but then it would feel like my fault later in the week if there was nothing to cook for dinner or if my child didn’t have a clean uniform for school. These responsibilities by themselves can be exhausting, but no matter how tired or overwhelmed I am by other things, they still have to be done.
Fortunately, my husband got the message loud and clear. When I came home from my daughter’s playdate that afternoon, he’d just put the last load of laundry in the washing machine and all of the clean clothes were folded on our bed. And that night, he started working on dishes before I had even finished eating my dinner.
But the frustration I expressed in our conversation was never really about him doing or not doing enough. It wasn’t about asking him to help me out or to take on even more household chores. It was about the need for him, and others, to recognize exactly what the HuffPost article pointed out: that some responsibilities can’t be put off. Our time is so dictated by the needs of everyone else that sometimes the “daily grind” is the only thing we can prioritize, and when we express our exhaustion and overwhelm over these never-ending tasks, we are often shamed. We are told that those tasks “will still be” there when we say we can’t do something over the weekend because we have to take care of these necessary tasks, or we are told that we are failing to prioritize what is important when we say we can’t fit something into our schedule. When we are trying so hard to make sure our family’s needs are taken care of, we are simultaneously told we are not doing enough and that what we are doing is not important. The burn-out that comes from the “mental load” of motherhood is not just the result of the lack of control we have over these repetitive and time-sensitive tasks, it is the consequence of society’s expectation that these time-consuming responsibilities lack value when they are actually addressing our children’s most basic Maslowian needs.