Emotional labor, invisible labor, mental load – the terms might be new, but they are putting a name to something that is familiar to a lot of women. These concepts refer to all of the stuff that is constantly floating around in (usually) a mom’s head. Beyond concrete household tasks like preparing meals, doing the dishes, and bringing kids to activities, we carry the weight of everything from thinking ahead to the Tetris-like logistics of family schedules and planning and optimizing vacations and family time to tracking our children’s emotional development and shoe sizes.
(If you just read the above and haven’t yet heard these terms, here is an article on invisible labor, here’s a great cartoon that illustrates mental load, and I can recommend this excellent book on emotional labor.)
We have come to a point where it is much more common than it was a generation ago for male partners to do many more of the tasks involved in caretaking for their children and their homes, yet this imbalance in mental load still causes a lot of conflict and stress in relationships. Doing the dishes is great, but recognizing that they need to be done on your own and that more rinse aid needs to be added to the dishwasher and that you are almost out of hand dishwashing liquid so you add that to the shopping list and that the Tupperware cabinet is out of control so you are going to take a minute this weekend to match up the tops and bottoms is even better – get it?
Now I’m going to put on my therapist’s hat and point out that once we have identified the problem, we need to get to work on the solution. Based on my work with mothers and couples and the hundreds of families I have come to know through my groups, it’s a common theme that men want to be good partners. They want to be good parenting partners, and they want their partner to be happy and as stress-free as possible.
In this spirit, here are three things that you – my dudes, the fathers to our children, the loves of our lives – can do to help address this imbalance:
- Respect mental load tasks as important for your family. Acknowledge this work that your partner does. Not just in a card on Mother’s Day, but on a regular basis. Recognize that the brain space and time she gives over to encouraging your kids’ social relationships, planning out how and when to toilet train your toddler, choosing summer camps, selecting gifts for them for birthdays and holidays, and keeping everyone appropriately fed is important and necessary work. One of the common frustrations I hear from women is that their partners dismiss a lot of these things as optional, as though women just make up things to stress over. This is both unhelpful and untrue. Do you want your kids to have chances to make friends and grow their relationships? Then you most likely need to give weekend time over to going to some kid birthday parties, and someone needs to make time to get a present to bring. Do you want to be able to still go to work all summer? Then your kid needs to have plans to be somewhere safe and age-appropriate during that time that is also not a million dollars and doesn’t end at 3pm each day. Think about the big-picture goals you have for family life and your children’s development, and realize and appreciate that there is a lot of work and planning that goes into making those things a reality.
- Include mental load tasks when you are trying to give us “time off.” Most guys I know are happy to encourage their partners to make time to go out with friends, pursue a hobby, or take on a passion project like volunteering or something else outside of other work. The problem is, making the space for your partner to do these things also includes taking on some of the mental load tasks involved, otherwise, you have just made more work for her. “Time off” doesn’t just mean keeping the kids alive in our absence while everything else is put on pause. Take on the other things your partner would have usually done during that time – clean up, check homework, fold laundry, notice and address things like a child’s fingernails that need to be cut or the fact that your second grader needs to bring in a shoe box tomorrow. (Feel free to keep doing these things even when your partner is home, too.) If your partner has something important happening in her professional or personal life, take the initiative to talk about redistributing bigger tasks – can you take on coordinating childcare, paying the bills, or dealing with the logistics of upcoming family visitors? You don’t need to wait to be asked for help, this is your life and family too.
- Be a full parenting partner by having an informed opinion and participating in making plans about important issues. Here’s the thing, guys: you became a parent at the same time your partner did. Moms didn’t go through extensive and specialized training on baby sleep, choosing a preschool, when a child should get speech therapy, how to deal with signing up for swim lessons, or how many Legos is too many Legos. Moms also don’t have a special innate knowledge of these things just by virtue of being moms. Guess what? We spend a ton of our brain space and time on this stuff too, by reading up on things from respected sources and talking with other parents we trust. And we don’t want to have to make all of these big decisions on our own. Raising healthy and happy children and having a well-functioning household that works for your family’s needs is something that deserves your energy and time. It’s a good thing to put thought and care into researching these decisions and solving problems together as a team with your partner.
As the wise Oprah Winfrey once said, “know better, do better.” It’s worth it to challenge ourselves to have these hard conversations and go through the growing pains of redistributing some of this labor. As a bonus, we will model for our kids an even more equitable sharing of the load at home, allowing the next generation to go into partnership and parenthood equipped with the tools they will need to be successful at both.