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Mental Load and Marriage: Is Balancing the Thought-Burden Possible?

What’s he thinking about? Pixabay image

What’s on the to-do list in your mind? Not the one you’ve written down already and have been checking things off of this week. I’m talking about the mental one that you haven’t yet gotten around to writing. Does it include birthday gifts? Gutter cleaning?

Adding to your mental load

Someone needs new pants

The fact that your eldest child’s pants are about three inches too short now? Weeding? Summer camp sign-ups? Thinking about it? Great. Now, what’s on your partner’s mental list at this exact same time? Is it the same or similar to yours? No?

It’s more than likely that you have a different mental load when it comes to managing your household than your partner and more and more women are wondering why this disproportionate load seems to burden moms more than dads, and just what we’re supposed to do about it.    

To be clear, this feels like it falls into the category of first-world problems. Also, this obviously is an issue that really only comes up for folks parenting with a partner. Single moms are carrying double the parenting load, physically and mentally, and I have nothing but respect for that. But when this cartoon highlighting the work moms are more likely to do than dads came up in my FB feed this week (if you only follow one link in this post- choose this one!) I got to thinking about mental load in my own marriage and that of the parents I see around me.

Juggling career and home is something all parents are doing equally; I see plenty of moms and dads figuring out who’s doing what every day in terms of taking care of work, the kids, and picking up the toilet paper. But are moms really doing more of the mental work to make it all happen? And can the burden women carry of mentally “noticing” everything that needs to be done actually be shared more equitably?

For any number of reasons (feel free to weigh in on what you remember from your sociology class below!) I still think more about our home and our kids than my husband does (that’s think, not work). Can I say this definitively? No, but I feel pretty confident that my husband has not noticed that our daughter, Nell’s grown two inches since the fall and that he has ZERO plans for addressing the fact that she needs new pants anytime in the future. Add this thought to the 1000 others I have in an hour at home with the girls and, in all honestly, it’s no wonder I become frazzled and short-tempered by the end of the week.

I so wish I had an easy answer for this. It’s hard to balance the work of careers and home mentally and physically, and I’m not sure we’re getting any closer to helping families today as a society. Until someone does give me a magic wand though, I have figured out a few strategies that I think are helping to minimize my own mental load. These obviously won’t work for everyone or every family, but maybe there’s something in the mix that will ease your mental load just a bit more.

Notice the Work Your Partner Is Doing

It’s harder than you think to notice the work another person is doing. You have to get out of your own head some to see everything that your partner really is doing in the house. When I was working nine hours a day with a two-hour commute, I quite literally couldn’t see the work my husband was doing. One cranky Friday night, he had to point out the amount of time he spent getting the kids to and from school. In turn, I pointed out the time I was spending planning our daughter, Libby’s birthday party, and we both benefited from getting out of our own heads to consider the workload the other was carrying.

That’s just physical work though. How does this relate to mental load? If it’s clear to me just what physical tasks my husband is doing consistently from week to week, I’m less likely to grow resentful of all the work I’m doing physically and in my mind. I also bullet journal like a lot of moms to help me channel some of the anxieties of my brain onto the page.

Act Like a Dad

While noticing the work he does, one thing also stood out to me about my husband: he doesn’t seem to get as stressed out about everything as I do. Temperamentally, I’m not sure he actually is less high-strung than I am. (You should have seen his reaction to knocking a plant off the windowsill last week.) In practice though, he does seem less stressed out by managing everything we have to in our home life than I am. How?! What’s his secret? After careful observation through ten years of parenting, I think I’ve figured it out: he doesn’t multi-task.

On a typical evening, you’ll catch me getting supper on the table while starting laundry, while answering a work email, while reading aloud with Libby, while nudging Nell to practice piano, while emptying the dishwasher, and while prepping lunches. On my best days, I feel like this mom in a parody video knowledgeably discussing world events on the BBC, while entertaining her kids, while making dinner, while ironing a shirt, while defusing a bomb. On my worst days, I screw up dinner, leave the laundry stinking in the washing machine, break a dish, and watch helplessly as one child is reduced to tears.

This is bonkers.

My husband will take care of dinner, the dishes, the kids, and the laundry on many an evening. Just not at the same time. By virtue of his focus, his mental load is less than mine. I don’t know why I load up. There is no competition for operating this way. No one is going to name me the champion of multitasking. And so, one way I’m trying to minimize my own mental burden is to act more like a dad and do one thing, to completion, at a time.

Stop Checking Your Phone When You’re Away from Home

A couple of years ago, I went away with some girlfriends for a weekend. We laughed a lot, explored a new city, ate great food, and caught up on each other’s lives. I had a complete break from my family and household concerns. My girlfriends, on the other hand, spent a portion of each day on the phone with their kids and family. Someone couldn’t find their soccer socks, they called mom. Someone needed a friend’s phone number, they called mom. Someone wanted to make plans for the following week, they called mom. My friends called home too at least once a day just to check on their husbands and kids.

Now, I’m as much a fan as the next mom of knowing if someone arrived safely, but this constant back and forth meant my friends were never truly away from home. It’s nice to feel needed, but isn’t nicer to really take a break from home whenever you can? My friends’ partners never had to take on the full burden of running their households because my girlfriends were only just a phone call away. Which leads me to what has made the biggest difference in my mental load…

Partner with Your Partner

News flash: The division of mental labor will not magically divide itself up perfectly. You have to work at it.

I honestly have had to learn to let my husband manage some things. In January, I had the following revelation: Our daughters want to play soccer, someone has to make that happen. That someone doesn’t have to be me.

Whose got it worse?

My Mental Load vs My Husband’s

So, I said to my husband, “You’re in charge of soccer.” For several years prior, we’d been trading the soccer duties back and forth throughout the season. There was no good reason for this, I’d simply chosen to take the lead and then asked him for help when I needed it. Ultimately, though this meant I was in charge of soccer along with 100 other things I’d also chosen to take the lead on because, to be honest, I just thought I could manage better. I’d set myself up for more mental load than was necessary. But this year, in addition to other work he does, my husband is in charge of soccer. He worried about signing them up for it on time, he entered their practice and game schedule into the calendar, he’s getting them to and from practice (most days), and he’ll figure out what to take to the team picnic. All I’ve had to do this year is the occasional practice carpool.

Not convinced this helps? Today, Libby asked me what park her practice was being held in. My response? “Ask your father.” Then I went about my day. Easy peasy.

I did not have the same success story when I put him in charge of this year’s Christmas cards.

The Mental Load of Remembering things

The Unsent Christmas Cards

It’s May, and do you know where our Christmas cards are? In a box on a shelf in our living room. My husband did not send the Christmas cards this year, but the world did not end. Instead, it’s ridiculous, and I will probably never let him live this down. What it’s not is a mental burden for me.

Like I said, I don’t have it all figured out. A hundred times a week I still snarl to myself, “Why am I the only one who ever picks up things in this house?!” And I will probably always be the one to remember birthdays and that children have outgrown their sneakers. I’m learning though that I have some control over the mental burden in our household.

I offer here the mantras I recite to myself to help me balance my mental load:

  • Someone will have to take the lead on things; that someone does not have to be me.
  • He will do things differently than me. That’s fine.
  • The laundry will get done when someone decides they want to have clean clothes.
  • I know where the secret stash of chocolate is.

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6 Responses to Mental Load and Marriage: Is Balancing the Thought-Burden Possible?

  1. Mel June 7, 2017 at 4:57 pm #

    Very thoughtfully written. It rings true for me, and I like the idea of TRYING not to multi-task!

  2. Mary Beth
    Mary Beth June 7, 2017 at 4:59 pm #

    It’s good for us to aspire to at least, right?! Thanks for reading, Mel!

  3. Maricela June 7, 2017 at 10:08 pm #

    Excellent article. I’m trying to stop multitasking as well. You’ve shared some helpful tips on other things I can do. Thanks!

  4. Mary Beth
    Mary Beth June 7, 2017 at 10:47 pm #

    I’m glad it was helpful, Maricela! I’m also happy to share my chocolate stash with you whenever the mental load gets too high. 😉

  5. Karen June 9, 2017 at 10:52 pm #

    Great advice! So many of your experiences ring true for my marriage. I will keep your wisdom in mind going forward.

  6. Mary Beth
    Mary Beth June 10, 2017 at 7:36 am #

    I’m glad it was helpful, Karen. Thanks for reading!

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