When we’re trying to divide up the mental load, one of the problems we run into is agreeing on what actually needs to be done.
Today I want to turn to deciding what actually needs to be done, what we can let go of, and how we decide on standards.
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One of the pushbacks in the comments last week about mental load was that often women are doing too much, and need to get more off of their plate.
Many people said a variation of the argument that women are perfectionists when it comes to housework, which causes two problems:
- Men can’t help even if they want to, because they’ll never do enough
- Women do things that don’t really need to be done
In the book Fair Play by Eve Rodsky, which I’ve been using at the basis for this series, Rodsky does tackle both of these issues, and I’d like to address them today, too!
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What If You’re Doing Stuff that Doesn’t Need to Be Done?
I started this series with the story of Sandra and Mark, and the misunderstanding over Sandra’s morning off. When Sandra came home after her Saturday morning to herself, she ended up having to catch up on a ton of things that had been left undone in her wake–homework not done; piano not practised; shirts not taken out of the dryer; a present not wrapped for the birthday party this afternoon.
Some people commented that Sandra was just doing too much. Why was she supervising homework? Why was the kid taking piano? Why did the birthday present need to be wrapped?
These are valid questions to ask. And one thing that Eve Rodsky says in Fair Play is that before you start dividing out ownership of tasks, you should purge any and all that you don’t want to do. Reduce as much as you can.
What if everything isn’t important? What if you let some of it . . . go? What if you choose with intention what you want to do in service of the home and your family based on what’s most valuable to you and your partner? Rather than doing more, or continuing to believe that you should do it all, save yourself from burnout.
Purge the endless kids’ birthday parties, the Christmas cards, the gifts for all the teachers if you decide to.
But you still have to decide what kind of life you want to live–what values you do have.
Living bare bones, with no extracurriculars at all, with no birthday parties, with no social events, with no church events, isn’t necessarily the kind of life we want to live.
Sure, maybe you get rid of Christmas cards. But if your family is very musical, and if your children are musical, and if you’d love for them to be able to play in a worship band for church one day (and they want that, too), then is taking piano so unreasonable? Is one extracurricular activity per child so unreasonable? For many of us (and especially for our kids) these “extras”, like getting together with friends or doing some family activities, are what make life fun. Sure, sitting in front of a Netflix screen all day is less work. Even staying at home and playing board games all the time is less work. But it’s important to talk as a family and decide: what kind of life do we want?
Denying kids all extracurricular activities, lessons, birthday parties, or outings because it adds to your mental load is a little much. I’d suggest, instead, finding ways to redistribute the mental load so that everyone can have the kind of life they want.
Now, I’ll be the first to say that many families are overscheduled, and I’ve written about that before:
But I think assuming that the reason a woman feels a lot of mental load is BECAUSE the family is too busy is an unfair assumption. It certainly could be the case, but it could also simply be that more of the mental load is on her shoulders (and on her brain).
How Do You Agree on Standards for Doing a Task?
Let’s look at the second half of the critique now: Is the reason that women feel such a high degree of stress from mental load simply because women are perfectionists? And what if the reason that men don’t do more is because they could never do it to her standards?
Rodsky deals with this big elephant in the room as well.
Any action taken by a citizen should reflect the shared values and traditions of that specific community.
I’ll call this the “Minimum Community Standard”–you look at what’s going on in your neighbourhood and in your circle, and you ask, “what would a reasonable person do?”
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For example, the minimum community standard in my neighbourhood for lawn maintenance would look something like this:
The lawn should not be overgrown, although it can be a little long. It can have a few dandelions or weeds, but it can’t be overrun with dandelions. It must not go totally brown in the middle of summer, and so a sprinkler should be used to keep the grass watered, but a few brown patches are okay. Annuals and flowers are nice, but aren’t necessary.
What’s important here is the word MINIMUM. You would not be shunned by neighbours for having a few dandelions and a long lawn. If the lawn became seriously long, or if the dandelions took over so they endangered everyone else’s lawn, you’d be in big trouble. And while most neighbours have some annuals and some perrennial plantings, it isn’t necessary. That’s still a choice. So we don’t have to do the maximum, or even the norm. But we do have to do at least the minimum that is acceptable.
What if you still can’t agree? Rodsky recommends you think of the big picture:
If you cannot come to an agreement over the Minimum Standard of Care (MSC), ask yourselves:
- Would a reasonable person (in this case, your partner, spouse, babysitter, caregivers, parents, and in-laws) under similar circumstances do as I’ve done?
- What is the community standard, and do we want to adopt this standard within our own home?
- What’s the harm for doing, or not doing, it this way? What is our “why”?
…Time is only one component of the fairness equation. Establishing a Minimum Standard of Care—where both partners align with a long-term goal like family safety—encourages a long-term commitment rather than long-term resentment.
Your “why” may be so that your kids learn the value of cleanliness; so that kids stay safe; so that you have an organized and less stressful home. Sometimes it could even just be so that your kids aren’t embarrassed!
And that’s a big point: Do no harm.
When you start talking about the harm that can come from not living up to the standard, some of this becomes more evident.
Let’s see how this plays out in other areas:
Should we wrap birthday presents?
So let’s return to Sandra and Mark. One of Sandra’s complaints was that the birthday present for the party Brian was attending that afternoon was sitting on the kitchen island, but no one had bothered to wrap it. Some in the comments said that wrapping a present wasn’t necessary.
The Minimum Community Standard Solution: In your community, if your child attends a birthday party, do the presents tend to be wrapped? Or would your child be one of the few (or only) child there with an unwrapped gift? In my community, all presents would be wrapped (or at least in gift bags or eco-friendly alternatives). To bring an unwrapped gift would embarrass the child, and thus cause harm. If, in your community, not wrapping is an aberration, then Sandra would have been overreacting and perfectionistic, but otherwise, her desire to wrap is warranted.
Should we iron shirts?
Sandra was upset that Mark didn’t grab the shirts out of the dryer, because now they’d need ironing. Some commenters said that ironing was ridiculous.
The Minimum Community Standard Solution: In your husband’s workplace, are ironed shirts necessary? Would an unironed shirt give a bad impression, and maybe prevent promotions, causing economic harm? Or is it not an issue? In your church or social circle, would unironed shirts be considered out of place? Or is it normal? If he’s a construction worker who goes to a laid back church, the ironing is likely over the top and unnecessary. If he works at a high powered accounting firm, the ironing would be a big deal.
How often should we clean the bathroom?
I received an email from a reader asking, “a wife might consider cleaning the bathroom a weekly job but the husband might consider it a monthly job. How do you decide?”
The Minimum Community Standard Solution: Here’s a quick way to sort that out. Google “chores lists” and see where the chore that you’re in conflict about tends to fit. Is it a weekly? A daily? A monthly? A yearly? Most chores lists separate chores like this, and you’ll find that whatever chore you’re looking for, you can find the general consensus online about how often it needs to be done. And the harm done if you don’t reach this standard? There’s the ick factor, but also the health factor.
How often should we change up the meal plan?
One of our commenters has been saying that a big source of the stress of her mental load is coming up with new meals.
The mental load for dinner has been just too much lately. All of those things go into the decision for dinner plus I have the added pressure not to repeat meals too often (and by too often not more than once every few months).
The Minimum Community Standards Solution: In this case, I would argue that a rotation of about 15-20 meals is certainly within the norm in North America. Especially if everyone in the household gets to pick a few meals they absolutely love, then coming up with a repertoire of, let’s say, 20 meals, would do you for three weeks of meals (with two days a week for leftovers or something else).
More Quick Solutions for Deciding Standards:
If someone insists on higher than the minimum community standards, they should own the task
If someone insists that the towels absolutely must be folded in half and then in thirds, or that fitted sheets must be folded in such a way that you can’t tell they’re fitted sheets, but must look like flat sheets, then that person should likely be responsible for the laundry. If someone absolutely insists on different meals every night, then that person should likely do the meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking.
You should not expect your spouse to perform to a standard that you are not willing to perform to.
In the comments last week, B said:
My ex, after a couple years of expecting me to do everything to his standards with 2 under 3, one day said, “I guess I just need to lower my standards and do it myself.” That told me a couple of things. 1. His standards were too high to judge his efforts, but not mine. 2. I wasn’t good enough.
If doing it yourself would require you to “lower your standards”, then your standards are likely too high.
Don’t be upset at your spouse for performing at the same level that you would
Here’s something else that we’ve heard: She’s been busy all day with the kids, running errands, getting things done, and she realizes too late she forgot to plan for dinner. So she sticks chicken fingers in the oven and they have that with fries, and that’s it. He gets grumpy because there’s not a real meal. The next day he has the kids all day, and forgets to plan dinner, so they order pizza. If the standard of care is that healthy meals are made and served when it’s your turn, then you should expect the same of yourself than you do of your spouse.
Just because someone says their spouse’s standards are too high does not mean they are.
Some people are demanding too much. But I wonder how much of the pushback we’ve had from sharing mental load is that many are happy with the way things are–with not having to pick up any slack or not having to “own” anything? I don’t think women being too perfectionist is as big or universal a problem as it seems to be talked about. Are women unreasonable if they ask the husband to cook dinner, but then they get upset if there are no vegetables in it, especially if children do need vegetables?
I think what we need is a bigger conversation about what minimum standards are, rather than assuming that the woman is being unreasonable. I think the way to do that is to talk about shared goals–health, family fun and togetherness, safety, education, etc. And then let’s see if we can figure this out together!
Posts Coming in the Mental Load Series:
- How Emotional Labor Series: How Mental Load Affects Marriage
- The Fair Play Solution: Conception, Planning, Execution
- The Emotional Labor Series: How Do We Decide Our Standards?
- The Emotional Labor Series: How to Eliminate Nagging for Good (June 15)
- The Emotional Labor Series: Why The Daily Grind Needs to Be Shared (June 22)
- The Emotional Labor Series: Why Everyone Needs Time to Themselves (June 29)
- The Emotional Labor Series: How to Let Go and Let Your Spouse Step Up
What do you think? Do you have trouble deciding your standards? Let’s talk in the comments!