We need to talk about the mental load

Recently I got together with my best friends for a weekend. We hadn’t seen each other in a while so naturally we spent the first ten minutes hugging and complimenting each other’s outfits. There were a million important things to catch up on, from career updates to new hairstyles. Yet the very first thing we talked about when we sat down was the mental load.

Even if you’ve never heard this term, you know what it is. It’s the accumulation of all the small details you manage in your head that keep your family’s life running smoothly. It’s remembering who needs to be where and when, and then making sure it happens. It’s ensuring that everyone is appropriately attired for Tacky Sock Day and Wacky Hair Day, and every other fake holiday invented to push moms over the edge because we don’t already have enough to manage. It’s Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Elf on the F*cking Shelf all rolled into one. It’s your role as puppet master behind the scenes choreographing life.

Let’s also be clear on what the mental load is NOT. It’s not buying milk because it’s on the grocery list. It’s not taking your kid to the pediatrician because someone put it on your calendar and reminded you about it the night before. To be sure, those are great and helpful things. The mental load, though, is not about buying milk, it’s about remembering that SOMEONE needs to buy milk.

When I tried to explain this to my husband his response was, “Ok, so it’s putting milk on the grocery list when we run out.”  Dear, sweet man. No. It’s pouring milk into your coffee on Tuesday morning, then doing a quick mental calculation of how much milk your family will drink between now and Saturday when you usually grocery shop, realizing you won’t have enough, and sending your husband an SOS text to pick some up the way home from work. All while you have a child attached to your leg or a conference call plugged into your ear. In this scenario, though, you are not the hero. The hero is your husband who walks through the door with the milk.

Now, my husband happens to be amazing. I’m married to one of the good ones, as are most of my friends. We often talk about how great our husbands are. They load the dishwasher, divide and conquer at bedtime, and show up for parent-teacher conferences with good questions and well-researched opinions on open classrooms and gifted and talented programs.  All (usually) without being asked. They see that something needs to be done and they do it. And yet…

There is so much they don’t see. Despite all their support, we are still the ones designing elaborate systems to deal with the metal load of planning, organizing, and delegating the care and feeding of family life. For me this includes lists, calendars, and sticky notes, all of which I share with my husband because (as he frequently reminds me) he can’t read my mind. The thing is, though, I don’t want him to be able to read my mind. I want him to HAVE my mind. I want him to have a little gauge in his brain that tells him when our toilet paper supply is running low. I want him to wake up in the middle of the night and remember that we need a babysitter for Saturday night and that we need to register for swim lessons on Tuesday at ten a.m. sharp or we won’t get a spot.

Often as moms we hear the criticism that we should just “relax”. That if we’d just stop trying to control everything, it would all work out. It would, for a while. If we left for a week everything would be fine. More pizza would be eaten and fewer baths would be taken, but everyone would get by. My theory, though, is that after about a week is when the wheels start to come off. This is when our carefully laid foundation of planning and organization starts to show fault lines. While our partners may temporarily assume the mental load, eventually we come home and they get to pass it back to us and reclaim the energy it took them figure out what’s for dinner or whether the baby has clean pajamas.

I recognize that at this point in life I can’t change my husband. Plus, I don’t want to. I love him and I value all the things he does as a dad and co-parent. He is happy to pick up from daycare, shop for groceries, and fold laundry. So, I make sure he does. It’s not perfect, but I try to stay conscious of not assuming the role of both planner and doer. He’s never going to be the one to put all the birthday parties on the calendar and plan our weekend schedule around them. So yes, I may have to provide detailed directions, but he will absolutely carry them out. I’m also slowly trying to do less choreographing and share more of the load. He’s willing to take it, and in that sense I’m lucky. Whether he’ll be able to, only time will tell.

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