The most common conversation I have with my friends is about “the mental load” of mothering, by which I mean all of the stuff a parent has crammed in their mind. Things like booking dental appointments, making the meal plan and remembering to add QTips to the shopping list.
I think of the mental load as an invisible backpack that holds the details, dates, plans and needs of our family. It’s heavy. It’s exhausting. And because it’s invisible, it’s often ignored until something snaps and mama seriously loses her sh*t.
This is exactly what happened in my own family not that long ago.
I don’t remember if the last straw was my husband asking if we had run out of peanut butter or his surprise when I told him what day camp the kids were at that week. It might have been his thumbs casually resting in his belt loops while I unloaded the dishwasher. In any case, something inside me snapped. Hot resentment, growing steadily and quietly inside of me, exploded like an erupting volcano and my snarky words spewed out all over my husband.
“How should I know if we’re out of peanut butter? Do I look like an inventory list of our pantry?”
“If four months ago you had been the one to register them for 10 weeks of summer camps then you would know where the heck they were this week.”
“Can you take your damn hands out of your pockets and unload the dishwasher?!”
A short walk cooled me down, but I couldn’t stop wondering if I had remembered to defrost the chicken for dinner. That’s when it occurred to me that the reason I was angry was because I was anticipating dinner before I had even had lunch. I was one of two adults in my family and yet somehow I was the only person thinking about dinner.
Emboldened, I raced home and began compiling a detailed list of all of the jobs involved in keeping our family operational; buying birthday party gifts, buying new shoes, handing out allowances, registering for activities. By the time I was done, I had identified 18 different categories and over 90 specific jobs related to the running of our family.
Guess who was lugging most of them around in her invisible backpack? Me.
By this point, I was indignant. When and how was it decided that I would be the unpaid project manager of our lives? Was there a sign-up sheet that I had forgotten about? I certainly could not recall a conversation with my husband in which I volunteered to be the cook, the cleaning lady and the organizer of all things kid-related. So if it hadn’t been discussed and I hadn’t knowingly agreed to be all of the things, how did I find myself here: perpetually joyless, overwhelmed and full of resentment?
I wanted to blame my husband, but the truth is I don’t have a lazy husband. He works hard and is a wonderful father. He is always willing to do anything I ask but that was precisely the problem. I didn’t want to have to ask. If he had to ask how to help it implied two problematic truths: one, he didn’t know what comprised the list, and, two, that the list was mine.
Mine to make. Mine to remember. Mine to complete.
So that’s when I decided to take every one of those 90 jobs out of my backpack and make them visible.
My husband and I sat down with my master list in front of us, all 18 categories and 90 jobs. I explained that I was feeling overwhelmed and resentful and that moving forward, I wanted to feel more like a team in the running of our home. For dramatic effect, I went through each job that I was currently doing and highlighted it.
In my head, I had built this moment up to angelic proportions, complete with sunshine parting the clouds and organ music engulfing us as my husband turned to me with the glow of enlightenment and with corresponding disbelief of all I had endured and accomplished.
Instead, he quietly nodded as he looked over my list. He thanked me for my hard work and acknowledged that he could do more and was ready to redistribute the jobs more equitably. It was exactly what I wanted to hear.
But it was so anticlimactic.
We then had a helpful and humbling conversation. I admitted that I had taken on some of the jobs because I liked them. There were also a few that I wanted control over because I wasn’t willing to lower my standards. We added a few categories and corresponding jobs to the master list since there were the items my husband was quietly doing without my knowledge (winterizing the trailer, bike maintenance and cleaning the gutters).
We created a new list with a few more categories and jobs, each discussed and delegated in a way that we could both live with. We agreed that the kids were old enough to have their name next to a few of the jobs.
We now had not one backpack, but two, with fanny packs for the kids.
I don’t think there is anything genetic or innate about women taking on the mental load. I wasn’t born with a passion for laundry. I wonder if families with two moms, two dads, single and co-parents, or two non-binary parents have balanced backpacks? Maybe there are plenty of dads out there carrying the mental load as well.
What I do know is that if we want to raise children to choose healthy and balanced lives for themselves, then the best way to model that behavior is to share the load today.