Here’s a perfect example of the mental load I constantly carry:
I went out of town for a work retreat this past weekend, so I was gone for two and a half days. We always have a ton going on with our three girls so this is a pretty typical weekend schedule for us. And yet it’s ridiculously full of places to be, things to bring and people to coordinate with.
My husband is perfectly capable of handling the kids and their activities while I’m gone. He has all of this on his calendar just like I do. What he doesn’t have when I’m gone is what’s in my head, and that’s why after 15 years of parenting together I leave him with an annotated schedule.
He doesn’t know that the 6-year-old’s soccer jersey has just been washed and is still in the dryer. He’s not thinking about who to coordinate with to get a ride for the middle-schooler, and if family A can’t help, then try family B. He’s not wondering how the 15-year-old will get back home from her volleyball team party or that she needs to bring brownies or that we need to give the host $20 for the pizza and coach’s gift.
This is not because he’s incapable or unconcerned. It’s because these are the workings of our life that live, breathe, and swirl around in my head, not his. When I ask him to help, he does — maybe not on my timeline or the way I would do it, but he does do it. He’s helpful when asked, but he’s also got his own mental list that isn’t about our domestic life.
Then there’s a certain amount of emotional angst that goes into the asking because sometimes it feels more urgent to me or like I’m nagging or I wonder why I have to ask — doesn’t he just know what needs doing? These are ongoing points of tension and negotiation. They are also intense points of discussion between us, and lately, all over the internet.
And if I hadn’t left him the schedule? Most of the weekend would probably happen as planned and some of it wouldn’t. It definitely would have been more stressful than it has to be for both him and the kids.
Even more true is, if I didn’t leave him these details, I, too, would be stressed. I’d be worried about all the information he doesn’t have and worried about the kids being anxious about the location of soccer gear, rides to parties, and what to bring where. Leaving a schedule is me offloading a small slice of my mental load, just for the weekend.
Of course, I did plenty of prep work just to get to this point. I did all the laundry, stocked the fridge, wrote checks, paid bills in advance, bought and wrapped a birthday present, and in the morning before I left for the airport, I baked the brownies for my daughter’s volleyball party.
Even with all of this pre-planning and knowing my husband had it covered, I was still churning over next week’s load: the dog’s meds, when to schedule the youngest’s dentist appointment, snacks for the upcoming soccer tournament, who will be wearing what for Halloween, and who’s trick-or-treating where.
Am I complaining? Yes, a little. It all contributes to what makes me anxious and keeps me up at night and just plum wears me out. More than anything, I’m finally recognizing what it is that weighs on me and so many women, the way we take on the invisible work of life and the responsibility of managing the emotions of those around us: kids, partners, parents. I am wondering how to change this paradigm and if it is indeed as gendered as it seems.
I’m also wondering what would happen if we just stopped doing all the things. I’m guessing my people would adjust. They would find food for dinner. They would figure out how to get themselves places. They would find the shin guards and bake their own brownies. Would they make their own hair appointments or ask their dad to do it? Eventually. And if not? Well, I’m pretty sure the wild world will keep spinning anyway.
The real question is, what will it take for me to redefine my mental load? Who and what is prescribing this work? Is it me, the culture, the patriarchy? What does it mean to stop being anxious about emotional discomfort, mine, my kids’, my husband’s?
I was hoping I’d have an epiphany about this while I was off living the dream this weekend, free from the mental load and emotional labor of my well-lived life. I did get to spend time with a group of smart, fierce, hilarious women, and I now know what “turnt” means, but I can’t say I experienced an epiphanic moment of any kind. That’s okay though. It’s a circumstance I’m giving thought to, and like most tangles worth unknotting, I think it’ll take time and patience to tease it all out rather than taking a scissors to the whole thing.
When I got home, the kids were all fed, the big ones doing their homework, and the littlest one getting ready for bed. The dishwasher needed loading, and I stepped in dog food that somehow made it into the front hall, but other than that, the house was in its usual, livable disarray.
And the schedule? It was nowhere to be found. I like to think it was followed with gratitude, served its purpose, and found its way into the recycling bin. As for me, I cozied down into my beloved bed, relishing my brain’s lingering low-power mode as I drifted off into a schedule-less, list-free sleep for just one more night.
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