What happens when women carry the mental load for the whole family?
It can be exhausting!
Last June, my series on the blog was on mental load and emotional labor, and how draining it is for women to have to remember everything and keep all details straight, and how coming up with creative ways to divide mental load can enhance marriage.
The post with the most comments that month was on the “let’s go to the beach” saga, where I tried to give an example of what this may look like in a typical family with young kids. I talked about this again on Facebook recently, and, predictably, the comments blew up again!
I know so many of you are new at the blog since The Great Sex Rescue was published, and so I thought it may be a great time to revisit that post, and point again to some solutions. Plus there was an interesting discussion on Facebook I want to highlight.
Here, then, was the scenario I gave in last year’s post:
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?
I then went on to explain why she was so stressed–and why “just going to the beach” isn’t as easy as it sounds.
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.
And, in the comments, other people mentioned one last bit that I forgot to put in the list: What are we going to have for dinner when we get home after a long day out? And do we need to get something in the crockpot before we leave? Do we need to get something out of the freezer?
It’s easy to look at that list and think that Marcia is doing too much.
No, she may not need the water mattress.
And perhaps watering the tree seems silly. But watering the tree was meant to represent that there is always something else going on in the family–something that needs to be remembered, whether it’s a friend coming by to drop something off, or an errand you were supposed to run, or a repairman coming by. And someone has to remember those things. There’s always something that has to be taken care of if you decide to take off for a day unexpectedly, and she tends to be the one to remember.
When I shared this on Facebook, many men (and some women) suggested that the solution was simply for her to give him a list
The problem is that if she has to make a list, she still carries all of the mental load for this. The task of getting the pails and the shovels and the sunscreen together is not that difficult; it’s remembering that you need the pails and the shovels and the sunscreen, and remembering where it is.
As Keith wrote on the blog last June, he’s kissed “just give me a list” goodbye, and now we divide up areas of responsibility so that we each bear some mental load–and we each bear NO mental load for some things because the other carries it. It’s much less exhausting that way!
If you’re struggling with mental load, I highly recommend taking a look at the mental load and emotional labor series from last June. Some great podcasts are linked there that you can listen to with your spouse and figure this out!
Other people suggested that she just calm down and let him make mistakes, because then he will learn.
This sounds good in theory, but the probem is: Who bears the consequences if things go badly? Likely Marcia! If the kids have a terrible time and whine and cry and are hungry, then Marcia is going to have a terrible time, too. If the baby misses her nap and her schedule is thrown off, who is going to be up at night with her or missing those naps over the next few days? Marcia. If the kids get sunburned and don’t sleep well for the next little while, who is going to be dealing with cranky kids during the day? Likely Marcia.
So it’s fine to say, “let the chips fall and he’ll learn,” but she’s the one who likely will have to deal it. And most moms don’t want their kids to be sunburned or miss naps or be hungry or cranky, anyway.
One man complained that the reason men don’t help is that if they try to, the wife micromanages everything.
Here is an example of things that regularly happen in a marriage.
- The dishwasher. The husband loads the dishwasher. And the wife typically comes behind and reorganizes it.
- Folding laundry same thing.
- Making the bed
The list goes on. Men learn very early in marriage that there are jobs that are just not worth doing because we do it “wrong”.
If you have to have things done a certain way do it yourself. Or let your husband do it his way. Don’t micromanage.
I do admit that this plays a role in some marriages. But I also think that this is a very easy cop out that many spouses use to get out of having to help. They do something half-heartedly once, they’re told it’s not good enough, and then they say, “see, there’s no pleasing you!”
We dealt with this in the series last year, too, with the idea of minimum community standards.
One women, though, left a great comment on Facebook that inspired me to put this post up!
Do Women Micromanage? Or Is Something Else Going On?
*cracks knuckles* okay, let’s break this down, shall we?…
Firstly, you have equated (in other comments) the home as a woman’s place of work. So for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the situation is one in which the woman DOESN’T work outside the home. Ergo, her “workplace” would be the home.
In this instance, women are generally very good about asking for things to be done in such a manner that makes things more efficient, or more aesthetically pleasing. Would you appreciate someone else coming into your office and rearranging your family photos, artwork, or organizational system? Absolutely not because it’s your workspace, and you ALREADY went to the trouble to set it up in a way that is pleasing, calming and organized. So if the home is her workspace, she’s already set things up in a manner that makes things most efficient. I cannot think of one couple, in which this exact situation has occurred, in which the wife DID NOT EXPLAIN WHY she wants things done in a specific manner.
The dishwasher: perhaps one side does not clean as efficiently, so if she doesn’t want to run it twice, she has to put more dirty things in one place. Or maybe the dishes he placed on the bottom will melt due to the hearing element, or maybe it’s so disorganized that he turned one load of dishes into 2. So she changes it.
Folding laundry is important because how you fold clothes LITERALLY changes whether or not a the towels or clothes will fit appropriately in storage, and how many wrinkles will be in the clothes once they are pulled out to wear. So if he slaps the clothes or towels in a haphazard way, they might not fit, or cause extra ironing work. So she changes it. Packing is similar, although when packing for children, there’s additional items that an adult wouldn’t need. Like diapers, wipes, cream, extra clothes, pacifiers, calming toys, etc
When the hypothetical husband is not considerate enough to learn these simple things, his “help” only duplicates her work. And let’s just remind everyone that this isn’t just HER home, it’s HIS too. Would your coworker find it acceptable if they had to give you a new task (to cover for higher volumes of sales, or vacation, etc), showed you how they wanted it done, and you blatantly disregarded instructions to get the job done faster, and then your coworker had to redo the work anyway? Absolutely not!
No wife would be either. And yet, you treat her as if she’s nagging and nitpicking just…because she wants to be critical? I know there are the occasional perfectionists out there, but the largest portion of the bell curve is not represented by that assumption.
Let’s take cooking, shall we? Sure this SAH wife/mom will be more efficient in the kitchen, but a father should know the basics of his kid’s preferences, and be able to function in the kitchen enough to put together a simple meal for his family if required – AND clean up afterwords. Maybe you do, but many men WON’T.
Making the bed. If it’s a kid’s bed, did the mattress protector go on? Are the sheets on properly? Why can’t it be viewed as an act of love to set up ONE kid free zone where his wife can feel like she’s entering an adult, relaxing space? But he’s too lazy to make the bed properly? Or help change the sheets so they can both be comfortable and relaxed when they enter? (Now, realistically, I don’t actually make my bed that often. But this is a hypothetical.)
Refusing to learn to complete a household task in such a manner as to RELIEVE a spouse of extra work vs CREATING extra work is a sign of immaturity and pettiness that would be a terminating offense in any work/life area other than the home. And yet, many men treat these tasks with exactly that kind of dismissive attitude. Women have GOOD & VALID reasons for why they want things done a certain way, just like businesses do. Your comment treats them as if that’s not the case.
And the cherry on top? Many women work outside the home, and are still expected to “manage” the home (IE: MENTAL LABOR) as if they were Stay At Home. Men have not changed their expectations, refuse to acknowledge the reasons for organization, and then use that excuse to refuse to be responsible for their own homes and families. THAT is the largest representation of the mental labor bell curve.
Unfortunately, I think that commenter is on to something!
Now, i also believe that a lot of this “micromanaging” conflict would be dealt with more easily if each spouse simply “owned” different areas of the family responsibilities, as we talked about in the emotional labor series. But this is a dynamic that I’ve seen quite a bit!
I know so many of you can relate to the mental load burden, so I wanted to rerun this so we could talk about it again!
What do you think? Can you relate to the mental load of having to remember all the details? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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