a christian perspective on the world today

The Mum Load

Need to buy new school socks.
When do I have to cancel our car insurance by?
Make a booking for the after-school activity this week.
Are there enough vegetables for dinner tonight?
Remember to pack library bag on Tuesday night.
Check public access times for the ice-skating rink this weekend.

These were just some of the random thoughts running through my head this morning as I stepped into my office, ready to start a new work week.

As I looked at my work to-do list and calendar and as my work email inbox opened, the thoughts in my head got more cluttered as my work and personal life collided. So, just an ordinary week, really.

The term “mental load” became hugely popular in 2017 when French comic artist Emma illustrated about it on her website. Yes, it is a feminist term but before you roll your eyes, thinking, Oh great, another woke article by a woke woman angry at the patriarchy, please hear me out.

I am a feminist, but perhaps not in the way you think. I don’t believe men and women are the same, even though I believe they should be treated with equal respect. I don’t believe we need to put men down or that women should be the only ones in charge.

I love men and I believe they have much to contribute to the world. I am married to a strong, kind and loving man, and together we are raising a seven-year-old who we hope will grow up to be a strong, kind and loving man.

This is not a male-bashing article. What I hope it will do is create more understanding, patience and cooperation between the genders. This is not about laying blame. This is simply recognising we are all different and finding ways we can support each other in our differences.

Defining the mental load
Back to the mental load. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a concept that can be as difficult to grasp as it is to explain. From personal experience, those who understand what the mental load is are often the same people who are already carrying it. Those who don’t have mental loads can struggle to even accept that it is a thing.

In her comic, Emma explains, “The mental load means always having to remember. It’s permanent and exhausting work. And it’s invisible.” Or as Eve Rodsky, an organisational manager and author of the book Fair Play, tells CNN, it’s “the behind-the-scenes stuff that keeps a home and family running smoothly, although it’s hardly noticed and is rarely valued”.

The problem, many proponents of the mental load say, is that while people around the person with the mental load may offer to help, the onus is still on that person to designate jobs and keep track of everything. And it is that act of keeping track of everything that can become all-consuming.

Zachary Watson, a father and content creator from Massachusetts, puts it this way: “If your partner is often the one keeping track of all the things that need to get done, why can’t they get you more involved by just making a list? Now you’ve created another task for your partner to remember to do—and not one that often makes them feel like you two are a team.”

It’s why CEOs of major corporations get paid the big bucks. It’s up to them to keep track of everything and ensure everything runs smoothly. They may not be writing lists for everybody, but just like a woman of a household, they are the ones who are in charge overall. So, women are like CEOs, except they don’t get paid and they already have another full-time job they need to show up for.

The reason why the mental load has been deemed a feminist term is because research, studies and statistics have shown women generally bear a bigger mental load.

“On average, females spent 4 hours and 31 minutes a day doing unpaid work activities. Males spent over an hour less on these activities. . . . Less than half of males (42 per cent) spent time on housework, compared to 70 per cent of females,” said Lisa Scanlon, director of Social Surveys and Statistic from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

Comic by Emma Clit, French comic artist.

When mental load has a baby
In a typical heterosexual relationship, the woman is often the one keeping track of bills that need to be paid, birthday calls that need to be made, groceries that need to be bought, laundry that needs to be washed, holidays that need to be planned, service providers that need to be changed, and more. On top of performing her duties as a full-time paid employee.

Then, when a woman becomes a mum, she doesn’t just physically have a baby, it’s as if her mental load has one as well. At least, that’s how I felt.

Over the past few years, it’s started to dawn on me that while trying to manage my household and work 38 hours a week in an office, I’ve also managed to become a full-time (unpaid) personal assistant to my son.

When I think about my son, my heart is filled with so much love it may just explode. Similarly, when I think about all the logistics, administration and duties in my life—our lives—my head is filled with so much “aaargh!” it may just explode as well.

While I try to provide my son a certain level of independence and encourage in him a certain level of responsibility, the reality is that much of the organisation of his life still falls on an adult. He is seven years old, after all. He’s old enough to be responsible for his own homework, but still too young to make phone bookings for after-school activities or purchase school socks online (I’m not handing him my credit card details).

“Mothers spent an average of 3 hours and 34 minutes participating in childcare activities a day, while fathers spent 2 hours and 19 minutes,” Scanlon said in the same ABS report.

Taking ownership
About a year-and-a-half ago, I had what can only be described as a breakdown. I wasn’t completely incapacitated—but I came close. I was gradually losing drive to do anything and failed to keep track of most things that needed to be done at home. One evening, my husband and son came home after school to find it in complete darkness and me on the bedroom floor sobbing uncontrollably. It was the kind of loud, gasp-for-air kind of ugly cry.

I had been in tears for an hour before they came home and I continued for probably another hour after they found me. I fell asleep eventually and didn’t see either of them until the next day.

I had reached tipping point but at that time, I didn’t recognise it and I certainly never saw it coming. The mental mum-load wasn’t the only thing that was happening in my life at that time, but it definitely played a part in my collapse.

I mention what happened not because I’m trying to highlight the sacrifice mums are making and the suffering they’re undergoing. I talk about my breakdown in the hopes that any woman reading this won’t have to go down the path that I did.

While proponents of the mental load often lay blame on male partners for not understanding or taking on their share of the mental load, I do wonder if part of the problem lies within ourselves. On my part at least, I now recognise I was taking on too much—voluntarily.

When I retreated from the world and all responsibilities less than two years ago, my family didn’t stop functioning. Healthy dinners appeared every evening. Groceries were bought. Lunchboxes and library bags were packed. Laundry was done. Turns out it wasn’t because my husband was incapable of doing household life admin, I simply hadn’t given him the opportunity to.

My husband and I had a good talk when I started making tentative steps to emerge out of my shell after my “episode”. It was a conversation that needed to happen a long time ago, and one I feel all couples need to have, hopefully without a mental breakdown as a precursor.

We talked about the stresses I had in my life. I told him about the mental load I felt I was carrying. He listened. He asked questions. And he reminded me how he wanted to be an equal partner and that I didn’t need to feel like I had to do everything.

“Taking ownership of a task from start to finish is often more helpful than doing a part of every task,” Rodsky told CNN. “Owning includes not just responding to ‘how can I help?’ but also the cognitive and emotional labour that each task requires—the forethought, the planning, the remembering when, where and how to get the job done—and without excessive oversight or input from the other partner.”

My husband needed to see and understand all the things I did to ensure the household ran smoothly. At the same time, I needed to trust my husband was capable of doing those things, even if it may not happen when I would like it to. Just as making sure the car has enough fuel or when it gets serviced has never been on my mental load, there are other things I can easily relinquish too.

“System implementation takes some time, so don’t expect your partner to start owning your share of the workload overnight,” Rodsky pointed out. “Start by renegotiating one household or childcare task. Just one can totally change the game.”

These days, I’ve learned to take things a little slower. On my husband’s part, he’s learned to take things a little faster. Everything else . . . if it doesn’t get done, either somebody will miss it enough to do it, or it can’t be important enough that it needed to be done.

Melody Tan is a freelance writer, content creator and editor. She is currently the project leader of Mums At The Table, a multimedia initiative aimed at supporting mums in their parenting journey, through education and community. She and her husband live in Sydney, Australia, with their seven-year-old son.

To connect with Melody or find a community group for mums, head to mumsatthetable.com

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