BEHIND DOMESTIC LINES
★ ★ ★ ★
THE INVISIBLE WORK OF MOTHERHOOD
By Jami Ingledue
My husband and I thought we had this whole equal marriage thing figured out. We are a modern couple, after all. He is perfectly capable of cooking and cleaning. I know how to use a drill and do yard work. There were times I worked full time and he took care of the house, and there were times when he worked more and I picked up more of the load. Equality. An egalitarian partnership. Occasionally we had to work some things out, but overall: no problem.
And then we had kids.
It’s impossible to describe just how much the workload increases when kids come along. But one of the most difficult things about the work of parenting is that so much of it is invisible.
So one parent—let’s be honest, usually the dad—can think they are doing the same amount of work as the other. But sometimes they can just be completely unaware of all of the many things that the other parent—usually the mom—is completely taking care of.
Often the most tiring aspect of this work is being the “Knower of All the Things.” So often the mom is the one who holds all of the behind-the-scenes knowledge about all of the many things involved in raising a kid. The one who plans, who notices, who anticipates, who researches, who worries. This is often referred to as “the mental load.”
“The mental load” is not just one job though: it is pervasive. It applies to nearly all aspects of raising kids and managing a household. EVERYTHING.
Why is it so often the mom who carries the mental load? Maybe we tend to be naturally better at these kinds of things, but dads are perfectly capable of carrying that mental load in their jobs and hobbies. So why can’t they more often also carry some of the mental load at home?
Surely this is mostly about our socialization. They don’t because they don’t have to. Because someone else has always done it for them, and it might be completely invisible to them.
So, as a service to fellow moms everywhere, let me spell it out for you, dads. (You’re welcome.)
Stuff. Just this week my husband said, “we need to go through all of these toys and get rid of the junk and loose parts.” Guess what? I already do that every couple of months, apparently completely unnoticed.
There is so much crap everywhere, all the time. We are in a constant war to try to get SOME of it out of the house before the next Christmas when they will get dozens of toys with ten thousand tiny, sharp-edged parts. Mountains of toys, but also things like sippy cups, broken umbrellas, sports equipment, books, school and art supplies, etc ad infinitum. Anticipating what we will need, deciding what toys are developmentally appropriate, where to take things we’re getting rid of or recycling, noticing what our kid is into now or will be into in the future.
And then there are the clothes. Oh my god, the hours of my life I have spent sorting through clothes. Mountains of received hand-me-downs, mountains of outgrown clothing. Do they have the right size, the right season? Do they have the next sizes available for when they grow out of the current one? Will they ever in a million years actually wear this? Let’s place bets on what shoe size they’ll be in when school starts, because who the hell knows.
Gifts. Attending a birthday party? We can’t just show up. We have to buy a gift. We have to think about the age-appropriateness of the gift, what the kid is into, if there’s anything the parents might object to. And of course there are the gifts for our own families. All of the Christmas gifts, plus extended family. Picking up things on sale throughout the year that you think they’ll like, finding the best deals. Sometimes moms even take care of their own Mother’s Day gifts.
And let’s not forget things like end-of-year teacher gifts. My husband did not even know this was a thing that existed in the world.
Keeping Connected. Keeping in touch with family: remembering birthdays, posting pictures for grandma on Facebook, planning family gatherings and visits, getting kids to write letters and make homemade birthday cards for grandpa, making sure they get to spend quality time with their cousins. Organizing playdates with friends, knowing who they are hanging out with, who they are having conflicts with, who is a good influence and who is not. Knowing who their parents are and if it’s a safe place to sleepover.
School. Oh, the never-ending paperwork of school: So many school forms. Reading records. Permission slips. Emergency contact forms. Multi-page forms for every activity. And then there’s overseeing homework, knowing what they are struggling with, knowing when to contact the teacher, making sure they put the homework BACK IN THE BACKPACK FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, preparing for class parties and holidays, choosing school supplies, packing lunches or sending lunch money, bus schedules, Mom-I-forgot-I-need-cupcakes-TOMORROW, communicated at 9 p.m.
Calendar. Managing the family calendar, anticipating schedules for each season, noticing conflicts: this takes up a huge amount of brain space. Just a sampling of the things we have to consider: school schedule (especially weird days off that sneak up on us), bus schedules, concerts, recitals, lessons, class parties, field trips, work travel, childcare, doctor appointments (if there are any chronic health needs in the family this becomes a part-time job in itself), dentist appointments, school meetings, teacher conferences, haircuts, sleepovers, birthday parties, summer camps, and all of the things that everybody forgets to tell you about.
Meal Planning. Planning and shopping to a budget, but also noticing what staples are running low, knowing what everyone will actually eat at any given time, knowing when someone must be having a growth spurt because they are eating enough to feed a small army, balancing health concerns with treats and favorites.
And finally, looking after the Emotional Needs of the family. We think about what is going on in everyone’s emotional world. Who needs some extra support and hugs, who needs to talk, who needs some space and freedom to figure things out on their own? Who is not feeling well and needs cuddles? How can we help them manage their anger better, channel their anxiety, learn empathy for others, treat people kindly, be less bossy? The world sorely needs men who do a better job of noticing how other people feel. Dads, this starts with you.
Tired yet? This is only the tip of the iceberg. And it doesn’t even cover crises and catastrophes. The list is endless and could fill a whole book.
Which I do not have the brain space to write.
Jami worked as a librarian for over a decade before choosing to stay home when her son, now 4, was born. She also has a 17-year-old daughter. She makes all-natural soap and body products and sells them through her company, Dancing Bee Farms (dancingbeefarms.net). She lives with her husband, daughter, and son on an acre of land in rural Ohio, where they keep bees, garden, and brew beer.
I really enjoyed reading this article! Thank you for articulating what it is that runs thru my mind most days.
I especially loved this sentence; “Let’s place bets on what shoe size they’ll be in when school starts, because who the hell knows.” Every single year so far ~ & she’s only entering Grade 1! Lol!!
OH.MY.GOSH!!!! You totally get it! I couldn’t articulate all that my brain goes through and why I get emotionally and mentally exhausted! Thank you!!!
My wife and I have 2-year-old and 3-month-old sons. We both work full time, and she returns to work from her 12-week paid maternity leave soon. She just recently shared your article with me; it more than resonated with her. She indeed carries the “mental load” you write about—but more concerning our very young boys than the emotional health of our marriage, which is always front of mind (and action) for me. I’m very self-aware of the strengths we each bring to our family and fully recognize how hard she works to “keep the trains moving.” That said, I work hard too. She has little idea how to pay our mortgage or the vast majority of our dozens of bills—and isn’t particularly interested in learning the minutia of our finances, etc. I handle our philanthropy, remember special occasions, taxes, friends’ lives/traumas …I could go on, but my point is that [seemingly/ unfortunately unlike your husband,] I SO appreciate all the invisible things my wife does and communicate that to her regularly. But that’s obviously not enough…or she wouldn’t have shared your article. At this potentially perilous time when life’s only bound to get more stressful and busy, what advice do you have for a husband/father in my position?
Have a weekly meeting to go over everything that is coming up and needs to be done. Maybe there is a better sharing of tasks or handing off of things when one of you is inundated with things. Also, try to “see” things in the home that aren’t on the regular list, like dirty toys or laundry piling up, etc. Sometimes we don’t realize how much the other person is doing, which is why I think a weekly meeting is such a big help. Include your kids when they get older.
Thank you for writing this. It made me really appreciate my husband because I feel like he actually does more than his fair share. Three kids and 24 years of marriage later and we are still best friends.
I honestly think a big part of this is that men and women are different. Men’s priority is the big picture: making sure that their families have a nice place to live, a vehicle that’s in good working order, enough food to eat, paid bills, all needs met. Dads are the big angry wall surrounding their family protecting them from the world and preparing kids for the harshness outside the four walls of the family home. Moms, conversely, tend to be more concerned with the daily minutiae: making sure the house is comfortable and the food is delicious (and palatable to whiny eaters!), looking after the relational aspects of family life, and yes, tending to people’s emotional needs. It’s exhausting…and so is, for example, being the sole breadwinner for a hungry and growing family in a society whose cost of living is always slowly inexorably rising. I’m not sure that taking on our husbands’ role would be any less exhausting in the long run!
There are definitely men who could and should do more of this stuff though, for sure.