The mental load

The Guardian published this comic on ‘The gender wars of household chores’ and fireworks went off in my head. I didn’t know there was a term for the ceaseless mental activity of planning, to do lists, forward thinking and logistics that keeps a house running. But there is and it’s ‘the mental load’. And the fact that mostly, women manage the mental load and mostly, men do not, suddenly explains a hell of a lot. And yes, there will be exceptions on both sides to this traditionally gendered breakdown but I will now be speaking to my own experience.

So, the concept of mental load explains why, in a domestic setting, men can present as so helpless (if one is being kind), or such useless fucking twats, God give me strength, you are slightly less use than a bicycle is to a fish (if one has had a stressful day).

Broadly, whereas for women running the domestic chores is a form of programme management, for men any activity is task based. Thus, you can ask someone to clean the bathroom and literally what you will get is a slightly cleaner bathroom. If you also wanted the towels to be replaced and the dirty ones put in the laundry basket, the bin to be emptied, any empty shampoo or shower gel bottles to be put out for recycling, the bath mat to be cleaned and the towel rail to be wiped down, then each of those sub-tasks needed to be individually identified.

So it is this continuous management of the sub-tasks that is so tiring and which leads to so much frustration. On one hand, the bathroom is clean – you got what you asked for. And that is undeniably true. On the other hand, how can so much that is so obvious have been left undone?  I believe the chore blindness is genuine, and then exacerbated by what are often different tolerance levels to dirt and disorder. But then again – how do you think any of this other stuff happens? Which is why men don’t get the gratitude they expect for having completed a basic chore, and women are left eye rolling and thinking ‘If you want something done properly…’

It also explains Male ‘I was going to do that later’ Syndrome. I’ve called out before that I don’t understand when this period called ‘later’ is, when there are not also a thousand more tasks to be done. But now I understand that of course, there can be ‘later’ if you are only aware of one task at a time, and if responsibility for that task has only been ceded until that one instance of it is complete. It actually annoys my partner that by the time ‘later’ rolls around, I’ve already done whatever he was going to do; not that he will necessarily have told me that he was going to empty the bin.

As well, if your only visibility is of a handful of seemingly unrelated actions, then it’s easy not to consider them a big deal. So what if the sheets didn’t get put out to dry? It’s only when you know that they’re part of a chain of events that will require some re-factoring that such minor issues are a problem. So the fact that the sheets aren’t drying now means that the next load of washing can’t be done for a day or two, which means that the running kit will now not be clean for that gap on Thursday when you had tentatively scheduled a run. So if you can leave slightly earlier then, and shift that, and if Sainsbury’s deliver earlier then you just might…

Years ago, in a bad bit in my marriage, I thought my ex had behaved really selfishly. He had given no thought to ‘us’ as unit. He had only considered himself. And I thought, fuck it, I’m going to give that a try.  I did it and it was hugely, astoundingly liberating. Life got so much simpler when I decided that the programme management of our lives was not my responsibility. I did not second guess the implications for another of my every action, presence or absence. I mastered briefly the fine art of not giving a fuck and It. Was. Awesome. I totally get why men exist in that context and don’t want to give it up. If I could walk away from that much responsibility on a permanent basis, I would. It’s one of the reasons why being single is so fabulous and life affirming.

But sadly, not giving a fuck is unsustainable when two people’s lives start overlapping. If those two people want to get out of the door at the same time for work, a day out or a holiday, then someone has to do the logistical planning and behind the scenes stage management to achieve that. Someone has to pick up the mental load, but at least once you understand what’s going on, maybe you can work towards a more equable sharing of that load. To refuse to take on the full burden feels like being selfish, which can be a hard thing for women to encompass. But I’d call it positive selfishness, a way to counterbalance the negative selflessness that leaves so many women ignoring their own need to have someone else just pick up the goddamn dry cleaning already.

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