Shifting The Weight Doesn’t Lighten The Load
If you’re a mom, you probably don’t have to scroll long through your social media news thread to come across an article or video about the mental load that moms carry, mom rage, or parental burnout. These articles, mostly preaching to the choir, make it clear that many of the struggles of motherhood stem not only from society’s extreme, unrealistic, and often contradictory expectations of mothers but also from the unrecognized efforts and unmet needs of mothers. In other words, moms are expected to be perfect, they are rarely appreciated for what they do, and they never get to be the ones who are taken care of; in fact, they are expected to figure out how to fit self-care in while doing everything else for everyone else.
Many of these same articles and videos call on spouses to step up, to stop asking for lists, and to simply pay more attention to what needs to be done, and, thankfully, more and more of these articles and videos are coming from husbands themselves, acknowledging what “partnership” means in marriage and encouraging other men to do more.
I am fortunate enough to be married to a man who has always acted as an equal partner, who listens to me when I ask for something, and who is in tune with my stress level and emotions. The last several months I have been overworked, overstimulated, and downright exhausted due to a perfect storm of work and personal obligations, and my husband has not only stepped up, but he has picked up my slack. They say in a marriage, it’s not always 50/50, sometimes it’s 80/20, and since August, my husband has been doing the 80 a whole lot more than I have. I was and have been so appreciative of what he has done, but one day, I realized that the burden he had taken on in an effort to reduce my stress, was quickly driving him to the burnout I was all too familiar with.
That evening, I arrived home late after picking up my oldest from an extra-curricular activity. My husband, who usually makes sure our youngest is showered and dinner is ready when we get home on those days, was stressed out in the kitchen. The timing of the different parts of the meal wasn’t coming together, and my youngest, who was bombarding my husband with 20 questions, had not yet showered because she had gone to a friend’s house after school. He was also in the midst of a major project at work and was already planning to get back to work once the kids went to bed.
While it was my husband who was experiencing this overwhelm, the recognition of what he was feeling was so strong that it almost felt like an out-of-body experience for me. I knew it wasn’t the individual tasks I was witnessing that were causing him the stress and aggravation; They were just stimuli that opened the floodgates of pent-up stress, frustration, and exhaustion. Because I recognized that “on the verge of losing it” tension, I also knew that jumping in and offering to take over was the wrong approach. Instead, I scuttled my youngest out of the kitchen and let my husband finish making dinner in peace. Then, after dinner, I let him go do whatever he needed to do and took over bedtime and kitchen cleanup.
Witnessing my husband in this intense state of overstimulation was such a strange feeling for me, because I was so painfully aware of what he was feeling, and yet I also understood that he was feeling this way because he had tried to lessen my burden. It reminded me of the time my daughter decided to throw a temper tantrum on a hike. She was too heavy to be carried, but in order to get back to the car, my husband and I had to take turns carrying her as she kicked and screamed. Whoever’s turn it was to carry her lagged behind everyone else as they kept trying to shift her weight to make it easier to carry her, and neither one of us was able to carry her for long. All the while, passing hikers stared at us as they gave us a wide berth, and we were just desperate to get to the car so we could stop carrying her.
Right now, life feels like that hike, but instead of a child, we’re trading off the weight of parenting and household responsibilities while each also carries a heavy backpack filled with work responsibilities – oh, and we’re hiking through mud. And while we are certainly blessed to have one another to share the burden with, we know that whoever is taking their turn will fall behind in other things, and whoever is getting a reprieve is only doing so long enough to catch their breath in other areas before shouldering the burden again. Neither one of us is carrying a heavier load or has an additional invisible load to consider, but despite sharing the burden, neither one of us can truly recover without overburdening the other for too long. And regardless of who is carrying the load, it is far too heavy for one person to bear for long. People can give unhelpful advice like “cherish every minute” and “don’t forget to take care of yourself,” but right now, we just want to get to the car so we can set things down. Unfortunately, we don’t even know how far away it is or where it’s parked.
When we finally do get to the car, I think we’ll use it to drop the kids off at my parents’ house for a week and go on a much-needed vacation, just the two of us, but for now, we just keep trudging through the mud, counting on one another to pull each other out of the muck.