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Why we need to address the 'mental load' for moms

Posted July 27

Mothers everywhere are nodding their heads in agreement with a cartoon that’s taken the internet by storm. The sketches explain the phenomenon of the “mental load,” which is a term most women have experienced but maybe didn’t have a name for — until now.

The cartoon “You should’ve asked,” by French cartoonist Emma, shows a mother doing everything for her family until eventually she asks her husband to help. He replies, “You didn’t ask.” Those simple words send the message the woman is not only responsible for doing most of the tasks, but also for planning and directing them. This invisible “mental load” means women end up doing way more than their fair share of household duties.

I identified immediately with the cartoon. My husband and I don’t fight often, but when we do, you can bet it’s about equity. Who is doing more? Who woke up more often with the baby? Who is contributing the most and who is slacking off?

So the idea of the mental load intrigued me. Could this be the unnamed inequality I feel but can’t explain? When my husband has the kids, for example, his job is simple: Keep them alive.

But when I have the kids (which is most of the time), the job includes not just survival, but coordinating lessons and activities, stretching budgets, fostering friendships, nurturing self-esteem, establishing long-term goals, promoting healthy eating, organizing bedrooms, teaching life-skills like shoe tying, shopping for school supplies and encouraging a sense of civil engagement and female empowerment.

To name a few.

So I sat my husband down, showed him the cartoons and told him how I feel. “I have to think about all these things, all the time,” I told my husband. “So it’s like I have all the burden and you just waltz in and do the menial tasks I tell you to do. But I have all the stress.”

I truly believed this would be some eye-opening moment for us. He would see the light and realize how wonderful I am and maybe fall to his knees in apology and worship. (As every husband should at least quarterly.)

Instead, he said: “Yes. I know. But you also don’t see the mental load I carry.” He then proceeded to tell me about what he was dealing with at work just this week as the principal of an elementary school. Hiring good teachers from a shrinking pool. Working with a struggling teacher. Meeting with parents of an abused child. Figuring out how to fit arts into a tight budget.

I was stunned. I had been so focused on the mental load I was bearing at home, I didn’t stop to think about the one he was carrying while providing for our family.

Then he proceeded to tell me that he’d love to help more but when he doesn’t do things exactly the way I would have, I get upset. He got tired of feeling like a failure.

Again, how did I miss this?

So we kept talking. We talked about each of our unspoken burdens we carry. We discussed our frustration with the roles we’ve slipped into through the years. I admitted I am too critical and want things done a certain way. As we talked, I realized squabbling over dishes and diapers wasn’t even scratching the surface of the deeper issue: We both need to feel appreciated for our contributions at home and work.

Even though my conversation didn’t go as planned, I’m so glad we took the chance to have it. If you do use this cartoon as a conversation-starter, here’s my advice:

1. Be open to a conversation, not a venting session. Hear your spouse’s side to things, and let him or her share the mental load they have been carrying.

2. Identify any imbalances. There may be inequality in your relationship. Try to pinpoint specific areas where one person could use some relief.

3. Don’t just assign tasks as if one person is the employee and the other is the CEO. Divide duties by whole areas of life. For example, don’t just say, “You take the kids to soccer.” Let the other parent be in charge of soccer — buying the cleats, keeping track of the schedule, signing up for snack day, making sure the kid is up and dressed for games and practices. Let them take on both the task and the mental load.

4. Now here’s the trickiest part: Butt out. Once you give the other parent the responsibility for something, don’t micromanage. Let him or her take care of it even if they may not handle it exactly the way you would. My kids often go to soccer with Medusa hair and shockingly mismatched clothes, but that’s OK. It is off my mental load list, so it’s not mine to worry about anymore.

I’m glad this cartoon spurred our conversation, because like all good conversations should, it changed me. I realized our relationship is not lacking equity, it’s lacking compassion and an understanding that we both need to be appreciated for the unseen burdens we carry for our family.

Erin Stewart is a regular blogger for Deseret News. From stretch marks to the latest news for moms, she discusses it all while her daughters dive-bomb off the couch behind her and her newborn son wins hearts with his dimples.

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