The alarm went off at 6:15 a.m. and as the sun crept in through the windows, her day was just beginning.
Within 30 minutes, the three children were out of bed, dressed and standing by the door with backpacks slung. As she made her way to the kitchen, her mind rushed to an imaginary checklist: “Are they dressed?” have they eaten? Do they have everything they need? Okay, let’s go, we’re late.
The next half hour was spent getting them to school, while passing slow drivers and big trucks. During the commute, she answered no less than three work calls as she mulled over meals for the week and the next trip to the grocery store. There was still laundry to do, appointments to make and dishes left in the sink. It was just the first week of school.
If you are a reader, you understand. A 2019 study found that 65% of mothers in the United States are employed, and three-quarters of them also manage the household. In short, the study found that women do the majority of cognitive work or “worry work” in the household. This is what my wife calls “the mental load”.
To be clear, women have always done most of the household chores, but it’s a little different. It has more to do with invisible work. The American Sociological Review describes it as “the responsibility to anticipate needs, identify options to meet them, make decisions and monitor progress. This is very different from household chores.
“When are the next children’s exams? Do we have enough bread? When is my next car service? It’s like a checklist of things that need to be done now or very soon. It’s mental gymnastics on top of all the work she’s already doing.
Quarantines were recently added to the equation. During the first few weeks of school, some moms (and dads) were forced to stay home with their children because a family member had been exposed to COVID-19. I don’t mind telling you, my family was one of them. And during that time, we struggled with our kids to miss more school days than they had attended, as well as staying on top of their homework. And the stress of worrying about the health and safety of children on top of everything else.
I see myself as a role model husband and dad, and a lot of times I see what’s going on and come up with things like “What can I do to help?” And “You should have asked!” And I was also guilty of saying things like, “Don’t let yourself be stressed out, you’ll be fine.”
Unbeknownst to me, none of this is helpful. Of course, it’s good to know that your partner acknowledges that you have your hands full, but that doesn’t absolve them of responsibility, either. A study I looked at found that nine in ten mothers report feeling responsible for all of the family’s schedules and barely have time to take care of themselves. Almost 75% of mothers think it’s their job to stay on top of their children’s affairs, and half of them said they face burnout.
So how do husbands and fathers help reduce the mental load? Start with “thank you”. When she hears these words she knows you understand them and she knows you appreciate everything she does. That alone will do wonders. Observation and communication are essential. If you notice its weight, jump in it wherever you can. Washing the dishes, doing the laundry, doing any of the things you know she takes care of. Offer to take the children out so that she can spend some time alone. Prepare dinner (or order). Let her know that you are aware of the burden she is carrying.
The whole family should be open to constructive comments and criticism, especially when it comes from them. Listen to her and understand that sometimes that’s all she needs – someone to realize that she’s going crazy even though she looks like she’s in control.
The mental load is very real, especially in these crazy times. Some women take it well; sometimes they don’t even show the stress, but it’s there. Remember, she’s the glue that holds the family fabric together, so guys do your part and then do a little bit more. She will be happier and so will we because of it.
James Bass is the Executive Director of the Givens Performing Arts Center at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.