Men, Women, and the Mental Load of running a house together
A Tale of Two Coffees☕
Once upon a time, my husband got up to make himself a cup of coffee.
He asked me if I wanted one too. I said yes. Five minutes later, he came back in with two steaming mugs of coffee. He made mine just the way I like it too. Which is appreciable because making his coffee is basically throwing hot water and instant coffee together in a cup, while concocting my coffee is a lab experiment worthy of being on the board exams.
I know, right? Lucky me!
Once upon another time, I got up to make myself a cup of coffee. (Husband was not at home, so please don’t deduct marks for selfishness.)
But first, I noticed my laptop was discharging. So I went to the other room to fetch the charger.
From the window of this room, I saw that the sky was overcast. So I went to the balcony to move the laundry inside before it started raining.
On the balcony, our old dish antenna was still hanging in place, even though we had discontinued our DTH connection many months back. It was turning into a nice museum of pigeon droppings, so I made a mental note to get it uninstalled over the weekend.
And that reminded me - I needed to get our deposit back from the DTH service provider. I had written to them about it but never heard back. Wonder what was happening there.
Hang on - the coffee!
I made my way to the refrigerator to get the milk (resolutely ignoring the All Out plugged in the bedroom wall with the nearly empty refill, even though it reminded me that we were almost out of refills too).
I opened the refrigerator and noticed we had too many packs of milk. So I closed the refrigerator and opened the grocery app on my phone to delete the milk order for the next two days.
And while I was on the app, I remembered that we were about to run out of diapers. So I added those too.
I guess we all know what comes next - I looked up the All Out refills too.
I saw a discount on Good Night refills - switched to those.
I have never liked the amount of plastic waste these refills generate. Thought I will search on Google for greener mosquito repellant alternatives, while I have a moment.
I could go on. But you get the drift.
Standing there next to the refrigerator, I did - or set reminders to do - about two dozen more tasks on my phone. If my brain were an internet browser, it would have 247 tabs open on it at any given time.
And then the baby woke up, so I reported back for duty.
The coffee never got made or had.
I know, right? Lucky me!
Mental Load is the invisible labour involved in managing a household and keeping a family fed, functional, and free of bird faeces.
Performing none of these tasks requires an organ specific to the female anatomy. Yet, 99.99% of households run because the woman of the house shoulders this load.
Male readers, if you are thinking that you are in the 0.01% here, please check with the wife first. I don't want her to have to add painkillers to the grocery-list because you patted yourself on the back too hard.
The more evolved species of men
Komal is very proud of her husband, Nimit.
“My partner is among the more evolved of the species of men. He encourages me to take up work assignments in foreign countries, to take holidays with my friends. He is happy to do the dishes and put out the clothes.”
And yet, she says, the concept of Mental Load is alien to him.
“Ensuring the kitchen and the fridge are stocked, the laundry is done, the bills are paid, the insurance premium is paid on time - the sheer mental fatigue that results from keeping track of everything is debilitating. I've tried explaining it to him several times over but he just doesn’t get it.”
Nimit thinks the solution to her mental load is to hire help for it. Komal disagrees.
“We are privileged to be able to have hired help take care of most day to day chores. But hired help cannot run the house - because they can't think on our behalf! Adulting is as much about keeping track of things to be done, as it is about doing those things.”
Komal and Nimit have been married for eight years now, and she has tried to have this conversation with him several times in this period.
“He either doesn't understand or prefers not to understand the concept of Mental Load. After multiple conversations over all these years - splitting chores, responsibilities, areas of work ('You look after the bills, I'll look after the kitchen operation'), I'm yet to find a way of getting him to participate.”
As much as she loves Nimit, Komal wishes he were a bit more evolved on this front.
“If I had one wish from him, it would be more mental participation at home. That's the support that matters the most!”
The Manager and the Deputy
Shilpi and her husband, Gautam, both work in the financial sector. Shilpi works entirely from home, while Gautam goes to his workplace 3-5 days a week.
“At home, I am on duty all the time - managing my job, our two-year-old daughter, the nanny, the domestic help, the house. When my husband is home, he lounges in front of the TV claiming he has had a tough week at work. He has no idea what kind of week after week I have at home - running the kitchen, planning and ordering everything that is needed for the baby, managing everything for the house.”
Lately, Shilpi's health has started suffering under all the stress. Gautam offers to help but still expects her to tell him what needs to be done.
“All of this has taken a huge toll on me. The immense mental load I carry has resulted in both mental and physical issues. When things become unbearable and I reach my breaking point, he offers to help. If I tell him to handle grocery shopping, he goes to the market and then calls me a hundred times to ask questions about what all needs to be bought. It does not occur to him to prepare a shopping list beforehand or to plan in advance for the stuff we are about to run out of.”
Shilpi voices what many women say - that their husband needs to be a co-Manager of the house, instead of a Deputy to them.
“He manages finances worth crores of rupees at work but, I am supposed to believe that he has no concept of how the kitchen at home is kept stocked. We go round and round arguing about it so much that, at the end of the day, it just feels easier to do it myself than rely on him.”
“The kids are hungry, the kids need to poop”
Jyoti's husband is much more detail-oriented and meticulous than her, in general. Yet, when it comes to the mental load of household responsibilities, she is left with the lioness's share of it.
“Each time we argue about how much I have to take on, he says 'You would just not like what I do. You have higher standards.' I get very annoyed with this standard response. My brother, who is single, shoulders the mental and physical load of running his house perfectly well. So it is not that men are fundamentally incapable of doing this work. But something seems to change in them when they get married.”
Jyoti has a theory for why this is.
“I thought about this a lot. I think that our traditional family structures are to blame. There is tremendous pressure on the wife to make her mark in her 'new family', because she becomes a part of his family, rather than an equal merger of two families. She is expected to be the 'homemaker' - even when she has a full time job and earns as much or even more than the man.”
“I am always told by my in-laws, 'The kids are hungry, the kids need to poop.' Why isn't this ever addressed to the man of the house? They seem to feel like marriage marks the end of men's household responsibility because the woman is now in-charge. This is a deal breaker.”
Why I will take Leena's real identity to my grave
'You would just not like what I do. You have higher standards.'
It is the universal back-handed compliment women receive when they confront their partners about mental load.
Leena is not buying it.
“This 'higher standards' argument makes no sense because, at work, men maintain high standards without any trouble. But somehow, the span of their perfectionism does not extend to their own home where they coolly let the wife pick up their slack.”
Leena's husband, much like Komal's, thinks that hired help is the Holy Grail of household management.
“He wants to be able to play with the kids when he likes, but doesn't want to be bothered with regular responsibility for them. He says we should hire help for that. My view is that there are enough issues when it comes to kids that need the personal attention of the parents. Overseeing their nutrition, hygiene, personality development, encouraging and nurturing hobbies, ensuring they make good friends, and spend time in good company - all of this takes immense amount of energy and planning. Parenting cannot be outsourced to hired help.”
Leena tried sharing articles about Mental Load with her husband to make him realize the tremendous pressure she was under. But he was either unable or unwilling to understand.
“Finally, I came up with an idea. My husband is very particular about eating healthy. So I asked him to take over that same for the kids as well. He probably doesn’t think about it but this includes diet planning for the kids, ensuring that the kitchen is well-stocked, drawing up and sharing a healthy menu with the cook, giving her cooking instructions, etc. A few days of doing all this made him realize the sheer amount of effort that goes into the ‘simple’ task of putting food on the table - even when you have hired help.”
There are still quite a few lapses because Leena's husband often travels out of town for work, and simply switches off his brain towards the house when he is not in it.
“I pick up the slack as usual. But I am happy that we are at least making some headway here.”
Leena specifically requested me to change her name for this piece lest her husband reads it. She doesn’t want him to realize the stealth programming she is doing on him - to make him do a / job any grownup should be able to do.
Husband programming - a mental load of its own kind.
The Ghost of Mental Load
Dr. Kavita is a surgeon who works long hours, especially since she rejoined work after her maternity leave in the middle of the global pandemic. Her work hours meant that her husband had to take over the day-to-day running of the household.
Yes, this is one of the 0.01% of cases. And yet, the ghost of the mental load continues to haunt the woman.
“For me biggest challenge is that the people around me expect me to carry the load. They keep directing all their Mental Load questions to me. And that erodes my free time and energy. For example, my mom - who manages our daughter sometimes - keeps asking me about her menu for the day and other questions about her daily routine. I keep telling her to take it up with my husband but she simply cannot digest a man playing this role. Groceries, cooking, online shopping are managed by my husband but everyone in the family keeps messaging me about it.”
It is not just messages. Whenever the grandparents are visiting, they convey their silent judgment on Dr. Kavita not wanting to spend every free moment she has looking after the child or the house.
“When I come home after a long shift of standing on my feet and operating, I need some time to recharge. But both our parents expect me to tend to my daughter as soon as I get home, even when my husband is on the job. To be honest, even now I am not truly mentally free. Even if I let my husband take the lead on planning things, my brain is still occupied by worrying about it. And the second I forget, the whole world is there to remind me of it.”
Most men walk around free of this mental load entirely, and yet, I have never seen a man be reminded when the kitchen ran out of rice.
If you are looking for a resource to start a conversation about this with your spouse, the best I have seen so far is this comic by the French artist, Emma. (Unless you think this newsletter does the job, in which case, share away. I am more than happy to bear the blame of inciting household revolution!)
Bonus Tip ❤️
Men. Psst. Can I tell you a secret? If you think that the romance in your life has dwindled after a few years of marriage, it might be because your wife is now basically a grocery-list trapped in the body of a woman. Try taking some of the mental load off her brain and behold as she begins to turn human again.
On the personal front, Husband installed the grocery app on his phone last week.
This might be the coffee talking, but I have never been more attracted to the man.
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This is such an important conversation to be had with one’s partner! And I completely agree that our patriarchal society is to blame for how men think about household chores and responsibilities. Even the most progressive men never take charge like their female partners do. It’s especially hard when one lives abroad since nothing really can be outsourced, too expensive. So one ends up cooking and cleaning on top of everything else. Sigh!
Something that needs to be said..and then repeated on loop until everyone on the planet gets it. There is a fair amount of work around the house, even with hired help and grown up kids that should be balanced.