Have you heard of ‘the mental load’ (also known as emotional labour)?
The term is bouncing about everywhere right now. Google it if you like, but this is my understanding of it:
The mental load is carried (predominantly) by women. It comprises the things that (they believe) are essential to the welfare of their relationship or family, for example meal planning, remembering relatives’ birthdays, or buying toothpaste before it runs out. The carrier of the mental load often feels overwhelmed or resentful because their partners don’t share it.
Now, I am all for the equitable distribution of work, including paid employment, childcare, chores, and general life admin. However, my sympathy for people who complain about their ‘mental load’ nose dives when I hear or read this:
‘My partner should know what to do without me having to ask them. Me having to ask adds to my mental load.’
In other words:
‘I expect my partner to mind-read or interpret my passive aggressive clues, while I continue to do everything myself because no one else’s efforts meet my standards.’
These are not the actions of an empowered person. These are the actions of a pouting child. And they feed offensive stereotypes. Specifically, the stereotype of the inept, man who doesn’t know how to dress or feed his children, while his wife snorts derisively, does it all herself, and then complains to her friends about her useless husband.
If you feel you are married to (or in a relationship with) a child who seems incapable of sharing your load, you have choices: You can have a conversation (with your partner) about it. If that does nothing, you can enlist the help of a psychologist. If that does nothing, you can separate and make better choices in your next partner.
Or you can do nothing and become the perfect role model of a resentful martyr for your children.
Some women believe that family life will collapse if they stop doing everything for everyone. I would suggest that these women are not differentiating their family’s rights from its privileges.
A family has a right to:
Clean water, food, love, fresh air, clothing (cleanish most days), accommodation that isn’t so unhygienic or messy it causes illness or injury, medical care, education, electricity, respect for its members, regular physical exercise and down time for each member, and clear, compassionate communication between its members.
A family’s privileges are different to its rights. If you choose to provide your family with privileges, it is just that – your choice. Family privileges include but are not limited to:
Having mustard in the pantry for a particular type of dinner; anything to do with kids’ birthday parties; expensive cars, clothes, technology, or holidays; paying for and ferrying kids around to extra-curricular activities; adding children or pets to your family; a spotless kitchen floor, folded laundry, a self-catered dinner party, meals planned more than twelve hours in advance; never going a day without toilet paper, tooth paste, or milk…
Dividing up life’s loads is complex today. And that is a good thing. I am profoundly grateful I don’t live in a ‘simpler time’ when the only path through my life would have been to clean my husband’s house, look after his children, and put on a full face of make up to present him with his pipe and slippers at the end of his long, hard day. I would have died of boredom, resentment, and by suicide.
But sometimes we don’t get a say in who shoulders which load when.
When our first baby was five days old, I got very sick and had to go into hospital My First Time. My husband was handed our baby daughter with instructions to pick up formula, bottles, and a steriliser on the way home. He did not question whether he could handle the load of looking after a newborn. He got on with it. I was in hospital for months. At that time in our lives the physical, mental, and emotional load for our new family was all on him.
In nearly nineteen years of marriage there have been times when I have worked full-time including on call work and my husband ran our household. At times he has worked during the week and I have worked most weekends. Right now, he works long hours full- time, I work from home, and we share housekeeping and childcare. The lines of who does what blur sometimes, but we don’t keep score. We try to move with what life throws at us. And when things get rough, we try to remember we are on the same team.
How you juggle your life (and it’s a juggle for most of us) is up to you, but this part is your full responsibility:
Finding the time and energy to discuss your load (mental or otherwise) with your partner if you feel it is unfairly distributed.
If you can’t be bothered to do that, if you would rather mop the floor, make a perfect birthday cake, or if you feel your partner should be able to read your mind, then you are not invested enough in your relationship to sustain it.