Is it fair for husbands to just say, “Give me a list of what you want done and I’ll do it?”

It’s Keith here today; welcome back to Men’s Corner! It has been interesting to watch people wrestle with the concept of mental load over the month.  The fact that in the comments much of the discussion seems to always circle back to the concept of how many housework tasks each person is doing makes me wonder if we might still be a little fuzzy on what mental load means, though.  So here are some of my thoughts and experiences as they relate to the concept of mental load. Hopefully I won’t make it more confusing!

I think that managing mental load is something that Sheila and I tend to do fairly well.  To be honest, though, some of that may not always be for the best reasons. It could be said that she and I ascribe to the “if you want something done right…..” adage a little too much.  It is may also be possible that she and I have occasionally had the label “control freak” tossed in our direction.

Finally, it may have happened that over our years together there have been times where we would divide up household cleaning, then secretly go back and “fix” what the other did.  We can laugh about it, which has always been helpful, but eventually we have learned over time that for some things it is really important to one of us that they be “done right”. So given the kind of people we are, we naturally just took over those things and did them ourselves. And if you really want something done right, you need to take charge of the whole task – to see it as a “package deal”.

But I have a confession to make – and it’s a real shocker, too!

In the first few years of our marriage I did almost nothing to help with the day-to-day management of our household.

Practically everything – not just doing the tasks, but also the mental load of planning & supervising all household tasks was on Sheila.  Even the traditional “husband jobs” were off my plate.

Lawn care? Nope, we lived in a little apartment in downtown Toronto.

Household repairs? Nope, Sheila just called the landlord. 

Balancing the chequebook? Nope, Sheila did that as well.

You see, when Sheila and I first got married, I was in medical school.  Then we had our children while I was doing my residency in Pediatrics at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.  Now most of you probably know this, but the workload expectations for medical students and residents are somewhat higher than your typical jobs.  Thankfully, things have improved since I was in training, but “back in my day” it was not unheard of for me to physically be at the hospital for over 100 hours some weeks.  And when I was finally home, there was the constant need to study in preparation for qualifying exams (and to make sure you kept doing a good job with the patients you were caring for!).

Why Men Need to Help with Mental Load

Keith helping at the Rebecca’s third birthday party

Sheila & I were both realistic about our current situation and what my availability to the family truly was during that time.  And after discussing it, she & I both felt the main thing I needed to be doing when I was home was to be interacting with the children.  Of all the “tasks” in our household that was the priority.  So my life for most of those first seven years was basically work, studying & kids. End of story.

After Keith’s residency exams; Rebecca and “Mommy” decorated the apartment door when he arrived home.

I say this because several people have been arguing in the comments that we need to realize “husbands are stressed, too.”

And, yes, I certainly understand that based on my own life.

However, the response to some husband’s stress not to give all husbands everywhere a “free pass”.

A good man wouldn’t want that anyway! He wants to contribute and to be valued for his contribution (whatever proportion is in or out of the home.

Instead, a couple needs to have an open and honest discussions about what each is doing both inside and outside the home including the mental load associated with that work.  If one spouse has a job that is really emotionally draining then that definitely has to be factored into the equation. And of course we both need to be careful and remember that human beings tend to overvalue our own contributions and underestimate other people’s. If you don’t believe me, just imagine asking all the contributing partners in a business to estimate their percentage contribution to the company over the past year. I can guarantee you the number will add up to more than one hundred!  When having those discussions, therefore, we need to keep an open mind and a humble heart. And we need to recognize that if circumstances in life change, we need to reopen those discussions and recalibrate in a way that is fair to both of us.

But some discussions in the comments suggests to me that talking about mental load in general is still a foreign language to many readers.

For instance, some male commenters have offered “Just give me a list” as a solution. 

When I read that I think two things. First, they seem to honestly want to help.  Second, they have totally missed the concept of what mental load is all about.  So I started thinking of ways that I could illustrate the concept.  Then I recognized I have had my own lesson in what mental load looks like due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As I was writing this, I realized that I have had less time to follow the discussion on the blog this month than usual because I am busier – – but not in the traditional way we define “busy”.  Two things are true for my practice. First, the number of patient encounters I am having is stable or decreasing and second, my workload is massively increasing.  Covid-19 has made medicine a very different environment at present. Balancing the need to care for patients with the need to contain the spread of this virus generates a great deal of extra work. Whether it is going through my list of scheduled patients to decide who can be assessed by distance medicine options, trying to figure out what resources are still available in the community for families or reading up on the most recent guidelines for patient care to make sure I am doing everything right – it all takes a toll. If someone told me that the number of patients I have seen has dropped by 10% I wouldn’t be surprised. If they told me that meant I was 10% less busy I would tell them they are insane. I am much busier now than I used to be but the extra work is not clearly visible from outside. It is planning, adjusting, and organizing – all things that are difficult to quantify, but nonetheless very real.  When we ask for a list from our wives, all that organizational load involved with the task stays invisible – and firmly on her plate. She can find that frustrating.

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Time for another confession.  I didn’t always understand this concept and to be honest I was one of those “list guys”.

Interestingly, though, it was only for certain tasks and not others.  Once I finished training and got settled in to practice, I started to have more time. Obviously, I “upped my game” and started to share more in the managing of the household.  Although I am half a century old, I like to flatter myself that I am a fairly progressive guy. I like to think I am not wedded to outdated notions of “his jobs” and “her jobs”, but I must admit, the first things I took over during that time were the typical masculine jobs – looking after the property for our new home, taking over the finances, etc. 

Now the interesting thing is that when I took those things on, I took them completely without even thinking, including the mental load that went with those tasks.  I just said to Sheila one day, “Why don’t I take over paying the bills & doing the finances.” It was a fairly easy sell; Sheila instantly “gave” it to me and then stopped worrying about it completely. But that was no surprise to me, of course. When I had suggested it, that was what I had expected would happen.  It was my job now.  Similarly, I didn’t expect Sheila to do anything when it came to the property. When our first lawn mower stopped working, I didn’t ask Sheila about it; I figured it out on my own.

But when it came to things that were more traditionally considered “wife tasks” I must admit that I had a very different approach.

I was a “list guy” through and through. And in my experience it was a terrible place to be.  I can’t believe the fights we got into over laundry!  We ended up in a dynamic which frustrated both of us.  Sheila was still in charge of the organizational aspects so she felt like the task was really still hers. Similarly, I was doing all the execution so I felt like I was being a total hero but getting no credit. Then Sheila would have the nerve to criticize the way I had done the task when in my mind all I was trying to do was help her out! I was frustrated that things had to be done a certain way for what seemed to me to be no logical reason other than that was the way she wanted it. 

In reality it was because having never “owned” the task I had no idea what was involved. If I had, then I would have realized why things had to be done a certain way – or perhaps found a better way to do them based on actual experience rather than my convenience.  In any event, Sheila still felt exhausted and I felt micromanaged and more like an employee than a partner.

Then we decided that certain things would become “My tasks” from top to bottom and others I could give back to her completely.

Everyone was happier.  To me this is a much better solution than having a default setting of “give me a list”. I’d never want to go back to that!  Even when we do have lists these days, we try to do a joint list. For instance, rather than saying, “I’ll get the groceries. Can you give me a list?” I tend to say, “I’ve got time to do some grocery shopping. Can we make a list together of what we need?”  I no longer feel like an errand boy and my wife feels like she really has a partner.  It is such a little thing, but it matters so much to her. It is a way of telling her both our contributions are valued. And of course, that is how we all want to feel.

What do you think? Can we get past the “just give me a list” dynamic? Should we? Let’s talk in the comments!

Keith Gregoire

Keith Gregoire

Blog and Podcast Contributor, Co-Author with Sheila of two upcoming marriage books

Keith is the rock that supports Sheila, who runs this blog! Sheila and Keith married when Keith was attending Queen's University medical school in Kingston, Ontario. He later completed his residency in pediatrics at the Hospital for Sick Children, and has since directed the pediatric undergraduate program at Queen's University, and been Chief of Pediatrics at a community hospital in Belleville, Ontario. He and Sheila speak at marriage conferences around the world, and together they've also done medical missions in Kenya. Next up: They're authoring The Guy's Guide to Great Sex together! Plus, of course, he's an avid birdwatcher.

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