Mental load and emotional labor make women exhausted.
We’re starting our mental load and marriage series today, where every Monday in the month of June (as well as a bunch of podcasts and some extra posts) we’ll be focusing on how to balance the mental load and grow a healthier marriage (with higher libidos!).
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Let me tell you what I mean by painting a picture of Sandra and her husband Mark:
The Morning Off Where Everything Went Wrong
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning, and Mark has told Sandra that she’s been so tired lately, she really needs a morning off. He’s going to take the kids, and she’s going to go to the gym and then wander around some antique markets and get some lovely coffee, all by herself. It sounds like heaven.
Saturday morning Sandra’s up early, excited about her outing. As she leaves the house, she says to Mark in passing, “Remember to get the clothes out of the dryer when it’s done.”
While she’s gone, Mark feeds the kids a fun pancake breakfast, and then they head out on a bike ride. They all have a great time, and when Sandra gets home, the kids are energetic and happy, and Mark is beaming.
Sandra smiles, relaxed from her morning, and starts to make lunch when she notices that the birthday present for her son Brian’s friend Jared is still sitting on the kitchen island, unwrapped. And they have to leave in two hours. That’s okay, Sandra sighs. I’ll just do it.
As she goes to fetch the wrapping paper, she sees the construction paper for Brian’s science fair project on the dining room table, untouched. Didn’t Mark get Brian to work on the science fair project? Sandra wonders. And then another thought occurs: What about Janie’s practising piano?
They’re under the gun, because she’s going with Brian to the party this afternoon. She needs to help Jared’s mom, since Jared’s dad walked out last year, and Sandra’s been trying to lend a hand. So now, in the next two hours, they have to get the project started and Janie needs to practice. She starts ordering the kids around, and they get grumpy. Mark tells her to calm down, but Sandra’s feeling the clock ticking. This needs to get done.
After much protest, the kids do comply, at least a little, as Mark heads outside on the riding lawn mower, listening to podcasts. Sandra goes to grab her jeans, and realizes they’re not folded on the bed. Are they still in the dryer? Uh oh. All of Mark’s work shirts were in the dryer. If he didn’t pull them out when the dryer was done, then she’d need to do extra ironing. She checks the dryer. Yep. The laundry was still there.
Mark comes in from outside, and calls out, “Oh, hon, I forgot to tell you. My sister called this morning. She wants to know what venue we should book for Mom & Dad’s 40th anniversary party.”
“What did you tell her?” Sandra asks.
“Nothing. I just told her you’d call her back.”
But they’re your parents, Sandra thinks, and sighs again.
Mark can’t figure out what’s going on. “Is this about the laundry? Look, I’m sorry. I just forgot.”
And then everything bursts out of Sandra. It wasn’t just the laundry. It was the unwrapped birthday present, and the homework, and the piano. It was everything.
“But you could have told me all that,” Mark says. “You could have just given me a list.”
Sandra knows he’s right. She’s overreacting. She feels like she’s outside of her body, watching herself get angry, and she wants to stop it but she can’t. But is it so bad to wish that I didn’t have to write him a list? Is it wrong to want him to know some of this stuff without having to be told? Just for once she didn’t want to have to remember everything.
And besides, the present was right in the middle of the kitchen where he had made pancakes. They had talked about the science fair project last night at dinner–it was all over the dining room table. Janie had been practising for weeks, and the Tuesday recital was circled with stars on the family wall calendar. The dryer had a super loud buzzer that you could hear throughout the house. Was it so unreasonable that she wanted Mark to think of some of these things, too, without being reminded?
Sandra felt like she was always the bad parent while Mark was the fun parent. She didn’t like that. She didn’t want to be grumpy. But she’s just so very tired of always feeling like she’s the one who has to remember everything.
Sandra is carrying most of the mental load for the family, and doing most of the emotional labour
What do we mean by those things?
My cousin Danielle pointed me to a great book called Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (And More Life to Live) by Eve Rodsky.
We’re going to be using that book as the backdrop for what we’re talking about this month, and I did find it really interesting when I read it (but it’s not a Christian book, and there is some definitely questionable language. So be forewarned). But I love the way she frames the problem and tries to create solutions that work for everyone without assigning blame.
Here’s how Rodsky defines the problem:
The never-ending mental to-do list you keep for all your family tasks. Though not as heavy as a bag of rocks, the constant details banging around in your mind nonetheless weigh you down. Mental “overload” creates stress, fatigue, and often forgetfulness.
And that’s not the only thing that wears us down. There’s also this:
The “maintaining relationships” and “managing emotions” work like calling your in-laws, sending thank-you notes, buying teacher gifts, and soothing meltdowns in Target. This work of caring can be some of the most exhausting labor, but providing middle-of-the-night comfort is what makes you a wonderful and dependable parent.
Many women are simply worn down by all of these things.
Now, I’m not saying that men are lazy. That’s not what Rodsky is saying, either. It’s just that because this mental load tends to be invisible, both parties often fail to realize how much energy it is zapping out of the person who is carrying it all.
And again–this doesn’t mean that men aren’t carrying stress, too. But it’s a different kind of stress.
What women often carry is what Rodsky calls “decision fatigue”, where you feel like every small decision in the household needs to be made by you. And it’s tiring. What many women long for is the luxury of being able to think about just one thing at a time, without having to carry all of the other concerns of the family.
Everybody needs to feel as if they have time to themselves; everyone needs to feel like the load is being shared; everybody needs to get some down time.
This isn’t only about working mothers, either.
Both stay at home spouses and working spouses feel this when they adopt the majority of the mental load (and I’ll refer to women because it tends to be women, but it isn’t always). It’s that feeling that you can never truly get any time off, because you’re always “on”. You are always the one who has to remember everything and hold everything in your head, while your spouse gets to relax. It’s why moms dream of going to a hotel for a day without cell service. It’s not really that they want to get away from the kids; it’s that they don’t want to have to remember everything all the time and be responsible for everything all the time.
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What exhausts people most is not the actual tasks to be done; it’s having to remember everything and get everything done at exactly the right time. It’s the “load” of responsibility far more than it even is just doing the tasks. That feeling like you must remember everything, that you are juggling so many balls all at once, is exhausting.
Take this relatively minor interaction in marriage.
The Grocery Store Text Question
You send your spouse to the grocery store with a grocery list while you’re trying to get dinner ready, or deal with homework for the kids, or even working. You’re busy. And then you start getting interrupted by texts. “They don’t have any red peppers. Can I get orange peppers instead?” And you take a deep breath, because OF COURSE you can get orange peppers instead. So you reply, “Yep.” But you’re tired of being asked for every little thing, as if he can’t make a decision on his own.
Your husband, on the other hand, can’t figure out why you’re upset, because he was only trying to make sure he did the right thing. He was trying to make you happy–so why are you so testy?
He feels belittled. But you also feel like you’re talking to a child. And it’s all so ugly.
Here are two people who genuinely love each other and who want to serve each other, but somehow they end up ticked at each other. Neither one wants that. Neither one really deserves it. But this keeps happening, despite everyone’s best efforts to serve each other.
How can we do this better? In Fair Play, Rodsky proposes a system to help couples talk about mental load and emotional labor, and divide it up so that you each understand each other better and one person isn’t carrying everything.
This isn’t about who does the paid work and who stays at home, or whose responsibility the housework or kids is. This is something far more basic: Everybody needs to feel as if they have time to themselves; everyone needs to feel like the load is being shared; everybody needs to get some down time. But it’s not about getting people to do more tasks, either, or even to do equal tasks (in fact, Rodsky doesn’t even claim that equality in workload is what we’re aiming for, or that equality is necessary for people to feel like it’s fair). All that has to happen is that one person doesn’t carry it all.
The benefits of sharing the mental load?
- He feels less “nagged”
- She feels like she has a true partner
- She has more energy (and often more libido!)
- They both become more interesting people
- They get grumpy and testy a lot less
Mental load affects sex: it’s one of the main causes of low libido in women.
So here’s why this matters, guys: this is one of the big things that will affect your sex life (plus it’s just part of being a good person!). In module 4 of my Boost Your Libido course I talk about how having all of these things in your head all the time can stop women from feeling in the mood. When women can’t turn off all of the things that are in their brains, it’s very hard to make room for sex.
So guys, if you want a happier wife who is more “in the mood”, let’s talk about sharing the mental load at home!
Are you TIRED of always being too tired for sex?
That’s what we’re going to do this month: Let’s talk fair play and sharing the mental load.
I promise it won’t be about making anyone feel guilty or lazy. It’s instead just trying to avoid these “testy” interactions that all too many couples have, even couples who love each other greatly.
Mental Load/Emotional Labor Series:
- How Emotional Labor Series: How Mental Load Affects Marriage
- The Fair Play Solution: Conception, Planning, Execution
- The Emotional Labor Series: How Do We Decide Our Standards?
- The Emotional Labor Series: How to Eliminate Nagging for Good
- Mental Load Example: The "Let's Go to the Beach" Saga
- The Emotional Labor Series: Why The Daily Grind Needs to Be Shared
- The Emotional Labor Series: Why Everyone Needs Time to Themselves
- PODCAST: What is Emotional Labor?
Plus we’ll have podcasts on the myth of multitasking, how men can do emotional labour, and what mental load means for marriage.
I honestly found Fair Play fascinating, and I hope as we work through it you’ll find a new way of looking at your marriage frustrations, too–and I hope that will, in turn, boost your libido!
What do you think? Do you struggle with emotional labor and mental load? Do you relate to Sandra’s story? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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