A while ago, a cartoon called “You Should Have Asked” went viral, illustrating what the artist called the “mental load”. Women often shoulder a lot, if not most, of the burden of domestic labour in their households. On top of this, we also often seem to bear the brunt of the mental load. But there’s a key to sharing the mental load with your partner – that is communication!
What is the mental load?
We have to keep track of what needs to be done at home. We plan, organise, arrange, book, remind… Wash, rinse and repeat.
The cartoon was a light bulb moment for me. It helped me put into words what bothered me in my own relationship. Even though my partner shares the domestic load at home and is a very involved parent, I have often felt frustrated by the fact that I have to keep track of everything. Certain things around the house need doing and he is better suited to them. He will do them, but I have to ask him, constantly.
I have even tried simply letting things slide and seeing what happens. I stopped cleaning the kitchen floor and didn’t ask anyone else to do it. This resulted in a floor that the health department would have recommended be cleansed with fire. When I finally couldn’t take it anymore, my husband noticed my angry mopping and said “Why didn’t you just get me to do it?” Why didn’t I? Because I shouldn’t have to!
Having to ask and follow up on tasks, in itself, is a huge burden. It’s tiring to have to keep track of all these things. I sat down with my husband and also my older children to discuss what the mental load is. It’s heavy, I told them. I have to be on top of everything that needs doing at home as well as everything that needs to be organised. From dental appointments to school commitments to bathroom cleaning. I have to either do it all or chase someone else to. I’m always reminding, prompting, asking and if I don’t, some things just don’t get done.
So, what’s the solution to sharing the mental load?
Talking about what needs to be done on any given day is a starting point. Some couples and families might find it helpful to list every single chore and task and divide up the labour that way. It’s important to note, though, that not only is labour being divided but so is the responsibility for the task. One partner shouldn’t have to constantly chase and remind the other of their responsibilities, though. If that happens, it’s not working. You’re back to square one.
Another way to reduce the mental load on one partner is to consciously shift the focus away from ourselves. Instead of resenting each other for what we do or don’t do, try to anticipate what your partner would want or need done. And they should do the same for you. It’s a method rooted in empathy and consideration.
If I know it will bother my partner to come home to overflowing rubbish bins, I make sure they’re emptied before he gets home. If he is home while I’m working, he tries to make sure that my work clothes are washed. Things like that.
Why not a bit of both?
It’s not necessarily a solution with a 100% success rate on its own, because you might not anticipate what your partner expects or needs. What helped us was combining the two methods. Having the conversation about the division of responsibilities and tasks as well as trying to anticipate each other’s needs.
Pro Tip: Use technology to help by getting a shared electronic calendar and keeping track of what needs doing and who is doing it. It’s a godsend to the organisationally challenged like me!
If you and your partner are willing to commit to this, there are two absolute necessities:
Flexibility and effective communication.
If you need a change, say so! It could be that you are sick of cooking, even though your partner does the clean up each night. Or maybe your partner is sick to death of dishes and would prefer to cook for a while. Afford each other flexibility and understanding when you need a break.
This method essentially encourages us to be more considerate towards our partners while they are endeavouring to be more considerate towards us. It’s about trying to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and acting on what might cause them stress of irritation before it actually does. It’s a work in progress, but so far, it’s working for us!
What does the Mental Load look like? Read Sara’s daily experience of the mental load here.