When a husband has a great idea for a family outing, why does the wife often get defensive, upset, or touchy about it?
We’ve been talking about emotional labor and mental load all month in June, and many women have said that their husbands just don’t understand the problem when they try to explain it to them. Yesterday on the podcast, Rebecca and I talked about how sometimes women are accused of “man-bashing” if we point out that many women feel overwhelmed because their husbands don’t understand the idea of mental load.
Today I want to offer a real-life example of how the different spouses may view the issue of mental load, in the hopes that I can help you all have productive conversations with each other about this.
And remember–on Tuesday I’ll be sending out an email to everyone who is signed up to my list with ideas of how to have these conversations, so if you’re not signed up, do it now and join 42,000 other people!
Before I get to that, though, I just want to do a shout-out for my “Sheila’s Spotlight” affiliate item, Passion4Dancing. I know we’ve been having some heavy conversations this month about things that many people are resentful about. So if you want to get more romance back in your marriage, and just have fun (especially when we’re still trying to social distance), why not learn how to ballroom dance from home using the same videos that Keith and I use? We’ve learned the chacha, swing, and rhumba, and it’s super fun. Check it out!
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Now let’s move on to our story:
“Let’s go to the beach!”
It’s a lovely Friday afternoon, and the weather looks great for tomorrow. Donny knows the kids are sick of being stuck inside, and the beaches are beginning to open up again after COVID. So he says to Marcia, “Hey, honey, let’s take the kids to the beach tomorrow!”
Marcia puts a smile on her face, and says, “Sure, sounds great.” But she looks perplexed. And for the rest of the evening she’s pulling things out of drawers, rummaging in the fridge, and basically snapping at everybody. Donny goes and gets the bathing suits and towels and puts them into a backpack, and is bothered that Marcia is still running around after everything.
Donny says, “Hon, I just wanted to have fun with the family, and you’re turning this into a big production. Calm down. We’re going to have FUN! It doesn’t need to be a huge deal. Just relax with us. Come and watch a movie instead.”
Marcia says, “I’m not making it into a big production, Donny! But we can’t just “go to the beach.” It’s not that easy. If you want to go the beach, then why aren’t you helping?”
“I’d be glad to help! Just tell me what to do.” Donny says.
“That’s the problem! You make all these plans, and you never think about how it’s going to affect me, because you never consider how much work goes into this. You just sit back and let me figure it all out!” And she’s close to tears.
What happened to Marcia? Why is having fun with the kids such a big deal, Donny wonders? Why is his wife no fun anymore?
That’s a question that many men have: Why is my wife no fun anymore? She’s always making lists. She’s always worrying about stuff. She can’t just relax.
But let’s figure out what’s actually going on Marcia’s head:
What goes into “going to the beach”, for Marcia:
- She has to pack snacks and lunches for everybody to eat.
- She has to pack diapers and changes of clothes for the baby
- She has to find all the sand pails, shovels, and noodles. She thinks they’re in the bottom of the basement closet in a Rubbermaid container, but she’s not sure, and she has to move the Christmas decorations to find them.
- They have that water mattress thing in the garage that the kids love, but she’s worried it may have a hole in it. They also have a bunch of water rings. She wants to find the tape that can repair them in case they take them and then they don’t work.
- Janie, their middle child, burns easily and needs SPF 60 for her body and SPF 100 for her face. She also needs a rash shirt and pants. Marcia isn’t sure they have enough sunscreen, and she may have to run to the drugstore to get it.
- The baby will need to nap in the early afternoon, and will have to keep shaded. They have a little baby beach tent, but she lent it to her friend Emily two weeks ago. She has to phone Emily to see if she can pick it up.
- The picnic, water toys, and everything will take up a lot of space in the trunk, but right now, the trunk is filled with donations to the thrift store. Marcia has spent this week cleaning out the kids’ closets and weeding down their toys, figuring out which ones she wants to keep for the baby, and before they can fit everything in the trunk, they have to go drop off the donations. She’s trying to figure out if the place is open in the evening so she can go after dinner, or if someone really needs to go right now.
- They just had a new tree planted in the front yard a few days ago, and the nursery told them that every morning for the next two weeks the tree has to be watered. She’s wondering who is going to get up and do that tomorrow morning if they’re rushing off to the beach.
- Marcia’s period started today, which means tomorrow will be her heaviest day. She’s wondering if there are good bathrooms to change tampons in, and with COVID, she actually doesn’t want to use the bathrooms that much. She’s thinking about Lysol wipes, and wondering how many she has. She’s also wondering if she still has a bathing suit wrap she can wear so she doesn’t have to be so self-conscious.
- Her maternity bathing suit won’t fit anymore, but she’s worried about fitting into her pre-pregnancy bathing suits. Her bust has gotten a lot bigger with nursing the baby, and she’s worried too much may “hang out” and there may be a LOT of cleavage in her old bathing suits. Does she have to run out to get another one? And will breastfeeding work? She’s wondering if she can find the beach umbrella and tilt it properly, and she realizes she’ll definitely need to wear a wrap if she doesn’t make it to the store tonight.
- She would absolutely LOVE to read a book on the beach and just relax. She’s hoping she may have time. So she wants to pick out a novel for her kindle and take it with her.
When Donny announces he wants to “go to the beach”, then, these are all the things that start going through Marcia’s head.
It is a luxury to be able to just have fun.
Donny’s reaction is that Marcia is getting upset and worried and frazzled because she is making too big a production out of this.
However, if you look at that list, is there anything that shouldn’t be on there?
Yes, they could go to the beach without sand pails and shovels, but would the kids have as much fun? They could go without the baby tent, but then where would the baby nap? In Marcia’s arms? In the car seat? And what protects the baby from the sun and sand while napping? They could just empty the trunk of all the donations and leave it all in the front hall, and then fill up the trunk again when they get back from the beach, but that just doubles up on work.
They could just buy food at the beach, but that gets really expensive.
In order to “go to the beach”, Marcia has to think of all of these things. It’s not that Marcia doesn’t want to go to the beach–she does!
But Marcia would have a much easier time “going to the beach” if it were Donny’s job to think about all the toys and beach accessories they were going to need, locate them, and set them out, so that Marcia could just concentrate on the food and clothing.
Asking for a list, too, means that all of these details are in Marcia’s head. And she has to make sure she’s not forgetting anything.
And that’s what’s so important to understand:
What Marcia is upset about is not having to unload the trunk or go to the donation site; it’s not having to locate the pails and shovels; it’s not having to pack lunches and clothes and all of that.
It’s that she’s the one who has to think of all of these things and remember all of these things.
Not just that, but Marcia is often the one to bear the consequences if things go wrong.
If something is forgotten, everyone will ask Mom why it isn’t there. Even if Marcia makes a list, if she forgets something on it, then that, too, is her fault. Or if she doesn’t communicate properly to Donny what she needs, then it is her fault for writing it down wrong. By having to be the one to remember all of this, she bears the blame if the day goes badly.
And she also bears the brunt of the negative consequences. If they don’t have sunscreen and Janie gets burned, then Marcia will be the one who has to deal with a toddler who has a hard time sleeping for the next few nights because she’s sore.
If the baby doesn’t nap and his schedule is thrown off, then Marcia will be the one who is up in the middle of the night with him, and will have to deal with a very cranky baby for the next few days.
That is why Marcia can’t just “let this go” and “not make a big production” out of it. She is ALSO thinking of all the things that can go wrong if she doesn’t manage all of this right, and she wants to save herself (and her kids) stress and problems later.
Marcia wants to be a fun wife, too.
Marcia doesn’t want to act like a Tasmanian devil, running around with all of these details every time they want to go anywhere, “making a big production” out of it. Marcia wants to have fun, too. Marcia would love to just pick up and go to the beach! Marcia doesn’t want to be a spoilsport. But Marcia resents the fact that her husband blames her for being a party pooper and assumes that her motives are somehow bad, when really, she’s just trying to do this right, and he’s not bothering to even think about what work needs to be done. She knows that he is busy at work and stressed at work, and she’s glad that he wants to spend time with the family.
But why is it that every time he wants to spend time with the family to relax, it makes more work for her? It just doesn’t seem fair, even though she wants to have fun and spend time altogether, too.
Why Marcia’s work becomes invisible
Why is it that does Donny not recognize what needs to be done?
Because in the past, when they’ve gone to the beach, the kids have had fun. The picnic has been great. The pails and shovels have magically appeared. And because everything has gone off without a hitch in the past, Donny thinks “going to the beach is easy.” If he hasn’t carried the mental load of “going to the beach”, then he doesn’t realize how big a production this actually is.
And that’s the problem. When one spouse has carried most of the mental load of the household, the other spouse rarely realizes how big a load this is, because everything seems to “go off without a hitch”. If life is that easy, why is she always so stressed? But what may not be obvious is that life is only easy because she’s carrying the mental load of it. She’s making sure things don’t go wrong and things are prepared.
Could mental load be an issue in your marriage?
Maybe in your marriage, if he were to suggest going to the beach, he’d also go get shovels and pails and water rings and start packing lunches. This example may not resonate with you.
But it’s worth asking the question of each other: Do you feel overburdened by all the details of the household that you have to remember and keep track of? Do you feel mentally exhausted by the family life?
And if so, the answer isn’t always to just “say no” and “you’re doing too much.” The answer may be that she (or he) is simply doing what needs to be done, but she (or he) is carrying too much of it.
If you’re playing the role of Donny in your marriage, can you listen to what your spouse is telling you? Can you be open to more balance in your relationship, so that your spouse can feel supported, and feel as if they are not carrying the load of the household alone?
If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend the book Fair Play, and the Fair Play card system that goes along with it. It’s a great way to work through these issues so you each feel supported–and you each can have fun!
What do you think? Can you relate to Donny and Marcia’s story? How can we fix this situation? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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