Anna's Story: Sharing the mental load
I’m typing this as schools across the UK are preparing to close in response to the new strain of coronavirus. It’s Sunday night and I already feel my irritation rise - both my husband and I work, but I know it will be mainly my responsibility to ensure that our 4 year-old completes all (or any) her homeschooling tasks on time.
On the face of it, we have achieved equality at home. We both work, we both pay into a joint account and share all expenses. We are perhaps even a little ahead of most households as we share childcare equally, from school pickups to bedtime stories. We both went down to four days a week at work when our daughter was little to spend an extra day each with her. And my husband even took a month of shared parental leave, something most fathers don’t do.
I recognise that this equality comes largely from a place of middle class privilege. We could afford to reduce our working hours and spend more time with our daughter. We could just about afford the exorbitant cost of childcare in London, so I was able to choose whether or not I return to work after maternity leave. We have a cleaner who comes every week to take care of our sizeable suburban house, so we can spend our limited free time on family activities rather than chores.
"We are both convinced that we do more than our share in the house and that the other one is unappreciative of our efforts."
However, something still seems amiss. And I don’t mean the fact that I earn substantially less than my husband – the gender pay gap is familiar to most couples from across all socioeconomic backgrounds. It is something closer to the home sphere. We are both convinced that we do more than our share in the house and that the other one is unappreciative of our efforts. We both hold a grudge that occasionally surfaces and erupts into a fight over who is more tired and who has loaded the dishwasher more often this week.
Over many years of couple-hood and then parenthood we have come up with an unspoken division of labour. My husband oversees our joint bank account and makes sure the bills are paid. He also takes care of things like the car and house insurance. And the bins - weekly sorting of the recycling bins, a task I’m grateful not to be doing. His are also any small DIY tasks around the house that we don’t outsource, from changing lightbulbs to unblocking the drain.
For my part, I do the laundry, arrange our grocery shopping, and take care of most things related to our daughter, from shopping for clothes, through homework to managing her growing diary of social commitments. When the cleaner is off, I also do most of the cleaning. If explicitly asked to help, my husband will grudgingly vacuum the carpets or sweep the kitchen floor.
This division of labour will probably strike many couples as very familiar. It is also very obvious that there are ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ tasks on the list.
It’s of course not a problem as such that couples divide labour, but there is something striking about the male vs female jobs. The male ones tend to be one-off, quick to complete, done rarely and rendering instant results. A picture nailed to the wall. A shed painted. Done and dusted for the next couple of years. The female tasks, however, tend to be more repetitive, are done much more frequently, sometimes daily, and give results that disappear almost instantly (like the always overflowing laundry basket).
It is not only that women spend much more time on these tasks. These tasks also contribute to what is sometimes called the ‘mental load’ that women have to bear.
It’s this need to be constantly on top of things that makes us feel exhausted and drained every evening. Has Johnny done his maths homework? Have I packed Lucy’s PE kit? Does Jimmy need new shoes? Have the kids written thank you notes for grandma? Has the cat been vaccinated?
Women’s heads spin with such questions from morning till night. Once we knock one off the list, another two appear almost instantly. Some say that women are simply better at multitasking. Are we really better or is it that we have no choice?
If we want to achieve equality at home, we need to consider the mental load question. Who is the one constantly remembering, planning, organising, double checking, reminding? If it is always the woman and never the man, it is time to stop and reflect: Is this fair? What price does she pay for the increased mental load? Is it her choice? Why can’t the husband take on some of this?
It could start today with the decision to share the homeschooling responsibilities equally. After all, there is no rule saying that daddies cannot do it. We know they can change nappies, so let them teach the ABC too. And when the coronavirus pandemic is finally over, it may be that the mental load shifts a little, so men remember the PE kit and women can breathe a little more freely, no longer stifled by the nagging ‘What am I forgetting?’ question.