If you were able to enjoy a more leisurely pace this summer, it’s probably becoming a distant memory now that September is here. If you have kids, you’ve taken care of back-to-school shopping. Now you’re filling the calendar with the kids’ school events and other activities while trying to keep the household running and juggling everyone’s packed schedules.
And you’re probably doing most of this on your own, right?
Researchers have long noted that women still spend more time on household chores and childcare than men do (although men are doing better than they did in the past). But there’s another aspect of inequality in domestic responsibilities that’s starting to come to the forefront. And that’s the idea of mental load.
What Is Mental Load?
Mental load encompasses all the planning, scheduling, strategizing and anticipating that go into managing your home and family. It’s all the information you routinely keep track of: your kids’ teachers, best friends and clothing sizes — and on and on. It’s the running list of errands or home projects you keep in your head.
Women carry a higher mental load than men do. Being the only person who knows what needs to be done is extra work for you — even if your husband happily helps with household tasks when you ask.
You might see a lot of yourself and your husband in “You Should’ve Asked,” a comic about the mental load by an artist known as Emma.
“When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he’s viewing her as the manager of household chores,” Emma writes. Being the household manager and organizer, she adds, is basically a full-time job.
Part of women’s mental load is also thinking more about the “big picture” than their male partners often do. Did you cringe at the scene in the comic where the woman asks her husband to take the baby’s bottle out of the dishwasher? He does — but leaves the rest of the clean dishes inside.
How to Share the Mental Load
Shouldering the majority of your household’s mental load over the long term is a recipe for resentment that will ultimately damage your marriage.
So how can you and your husband redistribute the mental load differently?
First, it’s always best to talk about the situation openly. He may notice that you’re stressed but not understand that this stress is related to your mental load — which means that he doesn’t know what needs to change. And if you’ve been dropping hints, it’s not a very effective way to communicate.
We all go into marriage with our own “scripts” about how things should be. Those scripts are shaped by the families we grew up with and by the culture as a whole. It’s easy to think that our script is the same as everyone else’s, but that isn’t the case. For example, your husband might assume that the way his parents’ marriage worked is just the way that all marriages work.
Remember, though, that inequities in how the two of you handle your family’s mental load could also stem from your script. As women, we grow up hearing lots of messages about how we should tirelessly devote ourselves to the needs of others.
Compare your scripts so that you can understand and empathize with where the other person is coming from. Once you’ve opened the conversation, the next step is working together to negotiate who is fully responsible for managing various tasks. Maybe that means he takes over planning meals and making the grocery list while you cook. Perhaps he takes the lead with your daughter’s gymnastics lessons while you manage her school activities. It doesn’t matter how you distribute the work. What’s important is that it feels fair to both of you.
If particular tasks need to be done by a certain time, identify the time frame so both of you have the same expectations. If one of you is better at a task, go ahead and play to your strengths and let that person be responsible for it. Same thing if you care more about a particular area — you should be the one in charge of it.
As more of the mental load shifts to your husband, you may find yourself having difficulty letting go. You will have to grapple with your own perfectionism or anxiety about not being in charge. If you find yourself micromanaging tasks that you both agreed he would manage, he’s likely to get upset with you.
You have to trust your husband and give him space to figure out his own system for managing his responsibilities. After all, he is an adult. He may not do things in the same way you do, or do them to your standards. But it’s healthier to redefine your definition of “good enough” than to continue to carry your whole family’s mental load.
Talking about mental load with your husband and working together on changes might not be easy. But it will improve your marriage and help you set a better example for your kids. If you’d like more practical advice on balancing marriage, family and career, you’ll enjoy my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
If housework is a sore spot in your marriage, you’re far from alone.
According to one poll, dividing up household chores was outranked only by fidelity and good sex on a list of issues associated with a successful marriage. How you and your husband share, or fail to share, housework can have a big effect on your marriage.
To be sure, men are picking up a greater share of chores than they did in the past, but studies show that women still do more housework than their husbands. And that’s true even when wives work as many hours outside the home as their husbands do — or even more.
Wives, as you’ve probably guessed, aren’t too thrilled about that. When household chores aren’t divided equitably, women are less happy in their marriages. (Husbands, though, aren’t affected the same way.)
But housework doesn’t have to be such a source of tension. Read on for some ideas to stop the squabbling — and make sure the dishwasher still gets loaded.
Why Isn’t He Taking Care of Tasks that Clearly Need Doing?
Picture this: You get home from work one evening a little later than your husband does. He’s relaxing and watching television — even though you see as soon as you arrive that the kids have left the living room a mess, a pile of mail on the counter needs sorting, and a basket of clothes is still not folded.
What do you think about your husband when you notice all of the tasks he hasn’t done?
Women often default to assuming the reason their husband is ignoring housework is because he’s lazy or uncaring. This is partly due to a mental bias all people have called the fundamental attribution error: When we’re explaining someone else’s actions, we automatically assume their behavior is caused by their internal qualities (like their personality or character), rather than circumstances. Think of the last time someone cut you off while you were driving. Did you assume they made a mistake, and forgive them? Or did you decide that they’re just a lousy human being, and curse at them? (Be honest!)
The problem is that when you believe the worst about a person, it’s easy for blame or resentment to follow. So, before you leap to a conclusion, consider other reasons why your husband hasn’t folded the laundry yet:
1. He can’t see it. If your husband doesn’t take care of chores on his own, but does them cheerfully when you ask, it’s possible he just doesn’t see the mess as clearly as you do. Research shows that people have different thresholds for noticing when something needs to be done around the house. If you’re the one who has a harder time tolerating clutter, you’ll also typically be the first to notice it and take care of it.
To make sure you don’t get stuck with all the housework just because you’re the more orderly one, resist the impulse to take on new chores, and let go of tasks you wouldn’t mind your husband handling. Trust that he’ll do a good job, even if results aren’t up to your standards at first. As they say, practice makes perfect!
2. He doesn’t know how. Some men have never had to the chance to learn domestic tasks like cooking or cleaning, but wouldn’t mind picking up these skills. If you’re a pro in these areas, you’ll have to be patient and resist the temptation to micromanage while your husband expands his capabilities. No need to check on his progress or inspect his work. Only give him help if he asks for it, remembering that struggle is a natural part of the process of learning something new.
3. He’s busy. Perhaps your husband has his hands full with other ways of contributing to your family like working overtime, doing repairs around the house, servicing the car, coaching Little League, and so on. He may even be planning to load the dishwasher, but has other priorities he needs to take care of first.
No, he didn’t fold the laundry, but he definitely does his part. You just have to make sure you notice, and give him credit for his contribution to the household.
4. He’s a traditional guy. Men’s and women’s roles have gone through some huge changes in the last few decades. If your husband holds more traditional views on roles in a marriage, he’s less likely to consider housework his job. He may not help you with tasks around the house, unless you ask him, because he sees this space as your “turf.”
There is nothing wrong with a more traditional division of responsibilities in your marriage, as long as both of you agree. But if this way of splitting up chores doesn’t work for you, the two of you should definitely come up with a different plan.
5. There is a deeper problem in your marriage. Sometimes unresolved emotional tension is the reason you are not working well as a team. If your husband is upset, he could be checked out from the relationship and feeling unmotivated to be a true partner. That explains why he’s just fine letting you carry the extra burden of housework.
Until the two of you address what’s really going on, your housework woes are likely to continue. You have to look beyond the surface and be honest about the emotional connection between you. If you don’t know how to do this on your own, consider seeking the help of a professional to get you unstuck.
So, these are a few possibilities why you’re not getting the help you need, but certainly not the only ones. Did your husband have a lousy day at the office? Is he feeling ill? Is he stressed out and needing a break? Who knows! Yes, it is possible he is being lazy or doesn’t care about you, but the point is that you should not assume this without checking out other possibilities first. Instead of reading his mind, open your own mind, and see what you can find out.
Stop Resenting, Start Asking
The most effective way to decrease resentment about housework is to let your husband know the problem (you feel overburdened), and ask directly for him to do specific tasks. Then give him a chance to step up. Be sure to notice and appreciate other ways he is already sharing household responsibilities.
I can hear what you’re saying: I shouldn’t have to ask! I already do so much. Why do I have to tell him what needs to be done? And why on earth would I thank him if he never thanks me for what I do!
I get the frustration that you’re feeling. But keep in mind that you are two unique people who came into the marriage with different life experiences, priorities, and skills. It’s unrealistic to expect you to coordinate your complicated lives without clear, direct and respectful communication.
This week, resolve to stop simmering with resentment and to start asking for what you need. If you keep that up, you may end up with a much lower stress level — and a cleaner house!