I didn’t know there was a term for this or even how to define the feeling. When my husband and I started living together, I had expected to equally share the household work. Early on, it was clear, we had different definitions of clean. We had different thresholds of what was acceptable. I didn’t like the laundry basket overflowing. He hated when I brought dirty lunch containers from work. (In my defense, I always got too busy to wash them and didn’t like doing so in the shared work sink that no one ever cleaned.) So when he started grad school, doing his MBA part-time, I figured I would have to pick up the slack a bit. He was working full-time and going to school a few days a week, plus projects and meetings. Over time though, after he finished his MBA, most of the household labor still fell on me. What nagged me even more was the fact that many of things that I thought needed to be done never occurred for him to do. My husband is wonderful in so many ways, but this was one area that left me feeling tired and burned out.
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In the book, Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women and The Way Forward, Gemma Hartley talks about Emotional Labor and Mental Load. Here are the two definitions:
EMOTIONAL LABOR - unpaid, invisible work women do to keep everyone around them comfortable and happy.
MENTAL LOAD - the cognitive burden of having to keep track of what needs to be done around the house, which is a cost in addition to actually getting it done.
Hartley lists the many responsibilities women have to bear. Here’s a list. I’m sure there’s more.
Finder of lost things
Faker of orgasms to keep partner happy
Knower of all things (last place those shorts were seen)
Inventory manager (who notices toilet paper is running low)
Financial manager (budget queens)
I wasn’t really sure what to make of what I was feeling and why it felt like everything landed on me to do. As a former corporate project manager, it was my job to keep things organized and moving. Was I organized by nature? Was it just innate in me to want to keep things in order? I don’t know. The thing too though was I just wasn’t keeping things tidy at home, I also took on by myself some of these responsibilities at work. I made sure coworkers birthdays were celebrated. I mentored, planned and did many things to keep the work environment a happy place. In all, it was a lot to think about.
Standard of Living
When I was growing up, my sister and I had three main responsibilities on Saturdays: do laundry, clean the bathroom and dust the house. There was no refuting these chores. It was something that my parents taught us to do and expected us to do without asking. I’m not sure if this would have been any different had we had a brother. I don’t think my parents would have treated girls and boys any differently, but I know in my cultures and many families, housework falls primarily on the women. Girls are taught early on how to clean. Many times they are taught (perhaps, not directly) that a clean home is a sign of personal success.
When I was telling people that I was expecting a girl for our first child, the first reaction a lot of women told me was “Great! She can help you at home.” I didn’t think too much about this, but over time, started to understand why they said that, but I also questioned why it was said. Why weren’t boys as capable of helping at home? Why do men seemingly have a lower standard when it comes to housework and a clean home. I believe a lot of this comes down to societal and cultural influence where boys may be favored or catered to.
Delegating and the Path Forward
I’m not quite sure what the path forward is. Hartley mentions having a conversation about it with her husband and being more open and direct when she needs help. She has been more descriptive so that her husband understands what needs to be done and why. My husband and I have had these conversations a few times and some days it improves, other days, it’s still the same, but I have found a few things that have helped.
How Minimalism Has Helped
One of the biggest things that has help me come to terms with all of the mental load that I carry is the practice of minimalism. For me, a lot of the tenets of Minimalism is refuting many of the societal norms that have been ingrained in our lives. My mantra some days is to make a decision that removes a thousand decisions after that. This has been crucial to ensure my sanity, but to also reduce the mental load I personally have to carry.
I say “NO” to a lot of things. This is not to say I wouldn’t enjoy other people’s company or I wouldn’t enjoy an event, but we know for a fact that saying “YES” to something also means saying “YES” to a million other things. For example, getting invited to a birthday party seems grand, but when you break it down, someone has to think about a possible gift, someone has to keep it in the calendar and remember it’s there to prevent a schedule conflict and lastly if you are already booked with other activities, someone has to coordinate to make sure you arrive and leave on time. Saying NO isn’t a bad thing and can be the best thing for your sanity.
I have reduced the amount of things around me. Of course, if you look at our place, it doesn’t seem like much but even the simple fact of unsubscribing to marketing emails and decluttering every few months means we don’t get tempted to buy things just because it’s on sale and we don’t hold on to items just for the sake of having it. If we no longer find value in them, we find a new home for it. This is easier said, then done, but very helpful overall. I like doing the #minsgame where you remove a number of items corresponding to the day of the month. This has allowed us to really be conscious of the stuff in our home. There is this great irony about choice. Apparently, research has shown that having too many choices can actually stifle growth and creativity as it locks down the brain. You can read more about the Paradox of Choice here and how I’ve applied #project333 to my own closet.
Understand How Your Significant Other Processes Information
This may sound strange but knowing and understanding how your partner processes and responds to your needs is important in communicating what needs to be done. For example, upon careful observation, I have determined that my husband is a Questioner. I am an Obliger. These are based on Gretchen Rubin’s book: The Four Tendencies. Here are the definitions of the Questioner and the Obliger.
Questioner - Resists Outer Expectations, Meets Inner Expectations. “I do what I think is best according to my judgement. If it doesn’t make sense, I won’t do it. As a Questioner, you are likely to ask a bunch of questions before doing anything. It has to make sense and fit inline with your thoughts and processes. For Questioners, you must have a clear answer as to why it’s important to do something.
Obliger - Meets Outer Expectations, Resists Inner Expectations. “I do what I have to do, but often let myself down.” As an Obliger, you are more likely to do something if others are counting on you, but will fail to complete goals you’ve set for yourself. Most people are Obligers. Obligers fare well when a boss, coach, friend or team is counting on them.
As you can see, the Questioner will be quick to ask a bunch of questions before doing anything and this is definitely my husband. It’s just innate in him to do so. So even before he gets his list of questions, I provide him reasons why we need to do it. It’s a bit more work sometimes, but saves us from a conflict later when the task in question wasn’t done. It’s not perfect, but it has been very helpful.
Do you feel the strain of emotional and mental labor sometimes? How are you addressing? What kind of help do you ask of your partner?