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Hey, I have pre-ordered Avery’s lunch and recess from the canteen on Friday, but he’ll still need something for fruit break … Can you please organise? If he’s with you on Thursday and it’s easier for me to order his lunch for then too, let me know and I can do it tonight as well.
Claudine’s sister-in-law Edwina was one day away from HAVING A BABY when she sent that text. Between marking essays, washing clothes for a newborn and calling the hospital for an update on her induction, she was organising lunch for her kid. A lunch three days away!
Edwina, by the way, is not single. She’s married to a man, a good man, the father of her children – and like many dads, he’s considerate, competent and kind. But it’s not his brain fizzing with lists and tasks while his wife prepares to deliver their baby.
You want to see what the mental load looks like? That’s it. An endless mental list that you need to keep track of. ALONE. Even when you’re about to push a human out of your vagina.
The mental load is INVISIBLE (no-one knows you’re doing it) and ENDURING (it never, ever ends) and it has NO BOUNDARIES (you often do it while doing something else).
No-one thanks you for it. No-one even acknowledges you do it. But worst of all? No-one pays you for it.
Ladies, we need to talk about our MENTAL LOAD.
“How can I trust my husband with things as important as our will, if I can’t even trust him to bring home the right type of mustard?”
While we were making the very first episodes of Ladies, We Need To Talk back in 2017, a cartoon was going viral. It showed the French artist Emma visiting a friend’s home for a meal. The friend is cooking dinner, feeding her two small children, trying to make conversation … while her male partner sits down and chats to the artist over a drink.
When a pot overflows, Emma’s exhausted friend loses it. The hapless partner is confused. ‘You should’ve asked! I would’ve helped!’ he cries.
What made so many of us hit ‘like/share’ was that Emma had given shape, and a name, to the list-making, box-ticking and task-delegating that occupies so much of our headspace. Emma had created a scene that those of us living in heterosexual relationships know well.
Emma had drawn the mental load.
Mental load: The invisible, intangible work you do inside your head to keep your household running and the people you love alive, fed, clean, healthy, happy and safe.
Any of the following sound familiar?
It’s well documented that when men and women live together, women do the bulk of the domestic labour – and this did not change in the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, when most of us were at home all of the time. In fact, a bunch of research has found it made the situation worse.
Carrying the mental load is not just about doing all of the actual work. It’s about being the person who is responsible for making sure things happen. And they’re often little things – like lunches. Not a big deal, but if it’s forgotten? Someone little literally goes hungry!
In the domestic space, the mental load is a burden unevenly skewed towards women. WE RUN THE HOUSE! We’re also the head of tending relationships. Fridge-stocker and logistics lead. CEO of keeping everyone healthy. Chief ‘find my socks’ officer.
This is not a fleeting part of a work week – it’s every. Single. Day.
Then there’s the extra seasonal load that we pick up with birthdays, anniversaries, family reunions and … Christmas.
In Yumi’s family, the women get to work planning Christmas in October. They organise gifts. They know everyone’s favourite foods and allergies. They know freezer space and oven dimensions. They have contingencies arranged for unexpected guests, bad weather, an emergency hip replacement.
On December 25, the men show up holding a bottle. (And let’s be real, they probably didn’t even buy the bottle.) They then sit around eating and drinking, maybe play a bit of cricket with the kids, maybe ineffectively prod at a sausage with some tongs, while the women of all generations prep and serve and clean and spread cheer AT A SPRINT. Merry fucking Christmas.
After the mental load episode of Ladies, We Need To Talk went to air, we heard from many women who were first learning about the mental load from the podcast. We heard from older women and younger women. We heard from women who had tiny babies and others with adult children. There were women in happy relationships and single mums.
They were all relieved to know they weren’t the only ones going to bed at night with their brains fizzing. What they all had in common was the same sense of outrage that makes us want to burn shit to the ground.
The mental load is something that can affect all women – regardless of the load they might already be carrying in their lives and careers, and the structures they might have in place to try to keep things even at home.
The thing about the mental load is that it’s pretty much invisible until you know what to look for.
Harvard University sociologist Allison Daminger found that the mental load can be broken down into four parts. Let’s use our earlier canteen/getting- ready-to-have-a-baby scenario with Edwina as an example.
Overwhelmingly, the anticipation and monitoring parts fall to women, and men step up for the decision-making.
Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Melbourne Leah Ruppanner spends her time researching and writing about gender inequality, including domestic labour and the mental load. She points out that ‘ALL people have a mental load – men AND women. Some portion of your mental load may go to thinking about your career. Some portion of it may go to thinking about your family. Some portion of it may go to thinking about your personal life.’
The difference is what men and women are thinking about.
‘Men are spending a lot more of their mental load thinking, “How do I advance my career?” They’re using their brain power thinking about the day- to-day challenges of work. Women might be thinking about work and career advancement, but they’re also thinking, “Who’s going to pick up the child from day care?” or “What are we doing for school holidays?” or “Who’s doing the housework?”’
“I kept thinking, maybe if I could make VISIBLE all the invisible things I was doing for my home and family for my husband, Seth, maybe then he would value what I did.”
One of these will lead to better financial security and personal growth, and the other …? Not so much! No wonder women face greater financial instability as they get older.
Dr Ruppanner also points out that there is a difference in how we divide up domestic labour and the mental load that comes with those tasks. ‘Routine tasks tend to be done by women. These are things that require immediate attention – cooking, changing nappies, cleaning, doing the laundry. These jobs need to be done regularly … usually multiple times a day.
‘Men tend to do non-routine or episodic chores – taking out the rubbish, changing a lightbulb, mowing the lawn.’
And while those jobs have the image of being technical or ‘manly’ – the truth is they take a lot LESS cumulative time than those multiple-times-a-day jobs that women get. Taking out the bins? Probably less than three minutes every week. Cooking dinner? Around an hour PER DAY.
It’s pretty clear what we lose when our brain space and energy are sucked up by the mental load:
Anyone who’s ever seen a therapist will know that once you name something, it becomes easier to see, easier to air out, easier to SOLVE.
Here, we’ve called this idea the mental load, but it’s also known as the ‘second shift’ and ‘invisible work’. Eve Rodsky – author, Harvard-trained lawyer, mother of three and daughter of a single parent – likes ‘invisible work’ because a modicum of solution is offered in the name.
‘I kept thinking, maybe if I could make VISIBLE all the invisible things I was doing for my home and family for my husband, Seth, maybe then he would value what I did,’ says Rodsky. ‘What I realised was that a lot of this is invisible work that’s happening behind the scenes, which our partners don’t know about.’
Rodsky says that in her hundreds of interviews with men, ‘the number one thing men told me they didn’t like about home life was “nagging”. It was feeling like they couldn’t do anything right.’ And she attributes this to what she calls ‘RAT’: the Random Assignment of a Task.
Explicitly naming ALL the domestic work that women are burdened with means it can no longer be treated as invisible and may even be – *gasp!* – fairly distributed!
Eve Rodsky created a game called Fair Play that divides household work, visible and invisible, into a shareable, tangible deck of cards. There are 100 of them! But Rodsky warns: ‘If you treat it like a list, like “you take dishes and I’ll take garbage”, it will never work. Consciousness raising without a solution is more harmful than not being conscious at all.’
Rodsky’s solution lies in a framework she’s called CPE: conception, planning, execution. To understand it, let’s turn our thoughts to … mustard.
Rodsky’s research has found that execution is where men step in. They don’t do the first two tasks, but are asked to complete the third. They’re sent to the shops to buy the mustard and that’s a big problem because they bring home spicy Dijon when you wanted yellow mustard.
Then you have men everywhere saying things like, ‘I can’t even bring home the right type of mustard! My wife’s yelling at me over mustard, so I’m not going back to the store for her!’
And women are saying, ‘How can I trust my husband with things as important as our will, if I can’t even trust him to bring home the right type of mustard?’
But when somebody owns the full mustard situation, from conception to planning to execution, when someone OWNS THE GROCERY CARD, then they know what type of mustard to get – because they have a context.
Apply CPE to any task. If one person is in charge of all three – conception, planning and execution – that’s ownership! Ding ding! If not, have a conversation about it and make sure someone owns the card.
Reminder: There are 100 cards in Rodsky’s Fair Play deck! That’s a lot of conversations to have – including about tasks that you maybe haven’t even thought of. The payoff will be worth it.
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