Why I Kissed “Give Me a List” Goodbye

by | Jun 24, 2020 | Uncategorized | 16 comments

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Is it fair for husbands to just say, “Give me a list of what you want done and I’ll do it?”

It’s Keith here today; welcome back to Men’s Corner! It has been interesting to watch people wrestle with the concept of mental load over the month.  The fact that in the comments much of the discussion seems to always circle back to the concept of how many housework tasks each person is doing makes me wonder if we might still be a little fuzzy on what mental load means, though.  So here are some of my thoughts and experiences as they relate to the concept of mental load. Hopefully I won’t make it more confusing!

I think that managing mental load is something that Sheila and I tend to do fairly well.  To be honest, though, some of that may not always be for the best reasons. It could be said that she and I ascribe to the “if you want something done right…..” adage a little too much.  It is may also be possible that she and I have occasionally had the label “control freak” tossed in our direction.

Finally, it may have happened that over our years together there have been times where we would divide up household cleaning, then secretly go back and “fix” what the other did.  We can laugh about it, which has always been helpful, but eventually we have learned over time that for some things it is really important to one of us that they be “done right”. So given the kind of people we are, we naturally just took over those things and did them ourselves. And if you really want something done right, you need to take charge of the whole task – to see it as a “package deal”.

But I have a confession to make – and it’s a real shocker, too!

In the first few years of our marriage I did almost nothing to help with the day-to-day management of our household.

Practically everything – not just doing the tasks, but also the mental load of planning & supervising all household tasks was on Sheila.  Even the traditional “husband jobs” were off my plate.

Lawn care? Nope, we lived in a little apartment in downtown Toronto.

Household repairs? Nope, Sheila just called the landlord. 

Balancing the chequebook? Nope, Sheila did that as well.

You see, when Sheila and I first got married, I was in medical school.  Then we had our children while I was doing my residency in Pediatrics at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.  Now most of you probably know this, but the workload expectations for medical students and residents are somewhat higher than your typical jobs.  Thankfully, things have improved since I was in training, but “back in my day” it was not unheard of for me to physically be at the hospital for over 100 hours some weeks.  And when I was finally home, there was the constant need to study in preparation for qualifying exams (and to make sure you kept doing a good job with the patients you were caring for!).

Why Men Need to Help with Mental Load

Keith helping at the Rebecca’s third birthday party

Sheila & I were both realistic about our current situation and what my availability to the family truly was during that time.  And after discussing it, she & I both felt the main thing I needed to be doing when I was home was to be interacting with the children.  Of all the “tasks” in our household that was the priority.  So my life for most of those first seven years was basically work, studying & kids. End of story.

After Keith’s residency exams; Rebecca and “Mommy” decorated the apartment door when he arrived home.

I say this because several people have been arguing in the comments that we need to realize “husbands are stressed, too.”

And, yes, I certainly understand that based on my own life.

However, the response to some husband’s stress not to give all husbands everywhere a “free pass”.

A good man wouldn’t want that anyway! He wants to contribute and to be valued for his contribution (whatever proportion is in or out of the home.

Instead, a couple needs to have an open and honest discussions about what each is doing both inside and outside the home including the mental load associated with that work.  If one spouse has a job that is really emotionally draining then that definitely has to be factored into the equation. And of course we both need to be careful and remember that human beings tend to overvalue our own contributions and underestimate other people’s. If you don’t believe me, just imagine asking all the contributing partners in a business to estimate their percentage contribution to the company over the past year. I can guarantee you the number will add up to more than one hundred!  When having those discussions, therefore, we need to keep an open mind and a humble heart. And we need to recognize that if circumstances in life change, we need to reopen those discussions and recalibrate in a way that is fair to both of us.

But some discussions in the comments suggests to me that talking about mental load in general is still a foreign language to many readers.

For instance, some male commenters have offered “Just give me a list” as a solution. 

When I read that I think two things. First, they seem to honestly want to help.  Second, they have totally missed the concept of what mental load is all about.  So I started thinking of ways that I could illustrate the concept.  Then I recognized I have had my own lesson in what mental load looks like due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As I was writing this, I realized that I have had less time to follow the discussion on the blog this month than usual because I am busier – – but not in the traditional way we define “busy”.  Two things are true for my practice. First, the number of patient encounters I am having is stable or decreasing and second, my workload is massively increasing.  Covid-19 has made medicine a very different environment at present. Balancing the need to care for patients with the need to contain the spread of this virus generates a great deal of extra work. Whether it is going through my list of scheduled patients to decide who can be assessed by distance medicine options, trying to figure out what resources are still available in the community for families or reading up on the most recent guidelines for patient care to make sure I am doing everything right – it all takes a toll. If someone told me that the number of patients I have seen has dropped by 10% I wouldn’t be surprised. If they told me that meant I was 10% less busy I would tell them they are insane. I am much busier now than I used to be but the extra work is not clearly visible from outside. It is planning, adjusting, and organizing – all things that are difficult to quantify, but nonetheless very real.  When we ask for a list from our wives, all that organizational load involved with the task stays invisible – and firmly on her plate. She can find that frustrating.

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Time for another confession.  I didn’t always understand this concept and to be honest I was one of those “list guys”.

Interestingly, though, it was only for certain tasks and not others.  Once I finished training and got settled in to practice, I started to have more time. Obviously, I “upped my game” and started to share more in the managing of the household.  Although I am half a century old, I like to flatter myself that I am a fairly progressive guy. I like to think I am not wedded to outdated notions of “his jobs” and “her jobs”, but I must admit, the first things I took over during that time were the typical masculine jobs – looking after the property for our new home, taking over the finances, etc. 

Now the interesting thing is that when I took those things on, I took them completely without even thinking, including the mental load that went with those tasks.  I just said to Sheila one day, “Why don’t I take over paying the bills & doing the finances.” It was a fairly easy sell; Sheila instantly “gave” it to me and then stopped worrying about it completely. But that was no surprise to me, of course. When I had suggested it, that was what I had expected would happen.  It was my job now.  Similarly, I didn’t expect Sheila to do anything when it came to the property. When our first lawn mower stopped working, I didn’t ask Sheila about it; I figured it out on my own.

But when it came to things that were more traditionally considered “wife tasks” I must admit that I had a very different approach.

I was a “list guy” through and through. And in my experience it was a terrible place to be.  I can’t believe the fights we got into over laundry!  We ended up in a dynamic which frustrated both of us.  Sheila was still in charge of the organizational aspects so she felt like the task was really still hers. Similarly, I was doing all the execution so I felt like I was being a total hero but getting no credit. Then Sheila would have the nerve to criticize the way I had done the task when in my mind all I was trying to do was help her out! I was frustrated that things had to be done a certain way for what seemed to me to be no logical reason other than that was the way she wanted it. 

In reality it was because having never “owned” the task I had no idea what was involved. If I had, then I would have realized why things had to be done a certain way – or perhaps found a better way to do them based on actual experience rather than my convenience.  In any event, Sheila still felt exhausted and I felt micromanaged and more like an employee than a partner.

Then we decided that certain things would become “My tasks” from top to bottom and others I could give back to her completely.

Everyone was happier.  To me this is a much better solution than having a default setting of “give me a list”. I’d never want to go back to that!  Even when we do have lists these days, we try to do a joint list. For instance, rather than saying, “I’ll get the groceries. Can you give me a list?” I tend to say, “I’ve got time to do some grocery shopping. Can we make a list together of what we need?”  I no longer feel like an errand boy and my wife feels like she really has a partner.  It is such a little thing, but it matters so much to her. It is a way of telling her both our contributions are valued. And of course, that is how we all want to feel.

What do you think? Can we get past the “just give me a list” dynamic? Should we? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Blog and Podcast Contributor, Co-Author with Sheila of two upcoming marriage books

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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16 Comments

  1. Nathan

    Great post as always. I never truly got the “mental load” concept until this series. There were some things that I did around the house just because, but I was also a “tell me what to do and I’ll do it” guy. I didn’t think that the mental load, noticing that things needed to be done, keep the schedule in your head, etc. was just as much work (perhaps more so) than actually doing the physical tasks.
    Hopefully I’ve improved over the years. Today, we mostly just “know” who does what

    Reply
  2. Angela Laverdi

    Keith, you’re a rock star. I believe you explained this concept in a way MANY of could not put into words and. As for grocery shopping, LOVE it! My man does his own list too and asks me if I can think of anything extra to be added AFTER the fact.

    Reply
  3. Chris

    Keith, you have good genes! You always look so young! Those pics with the girls; make you look like an older brother or much younger uncle or something! 😂. But i think the reason why some men like lists is because they have been made to feel like they can’t do anything right. I am all for the taking ownership that Sheila has been talking about. But if your husband actually takes ownership of conception, planning, and execution, then thats it! You forfeit your right to complain about how its done. If he handles all the laundry, then no complaining that its not folded the way you want it folded. And I cannot see either of you two as control freaks! 😂

    Reply
    • Angela Laverdi

      “The reason why some men like lists is because they have been made to feel like they can’t do anything right.” Or are those men only doing bare minimum and not caring how they do the task? I.E. washing dishes and leaving food stuck on the plates, or baby bottles and not taking the bottles apart to clean them ( which will leave mold growing, yuck). I give these examples because that what my ex would do. Also cleaning the toilet with a rag and then trying to clean the bathroom sink with the same rag. ( yes , I threw a fit 😥)

      Reply
      • Chris

        The trick with cleaning a toilet is just staying on top of it. Honestly, if you just give the toilet 60 seconds a day of brushdown etc. it stays rather clean. We have agreed ro a flow system for sponges etc. New sponge is dish sponge, then it goes to the bathroom, then it goes in the trash. And whoever is doing a load of laundry has to grab the dish towel and put it in……even if someone else did a laundry load that morning and the dish towel has only been in the kitchen for 5 hours. Seems to work and you don’t have to worry about cross contamination like you had with your ex bringing fecal matter into the kitchen.

        Reply
        • Angela Laverdi

          I’m just saying, I thought it common sense not to use a rag on the countertop that you JUST used on a toilet😭…or are my standards too high?

          Reply
          • Lisa Johnson

            No your standards aren’t too high! This would come under the “community standards” category of what is the reasonable way to do something that Sheila linked to in a comment below.
            In the toilet case it’s even violating basic health standards for not getting sick so definitely not a “his vs her way” kind of thing like folding towels a certain way.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      He does have good genes! 🙂
      But to your other point, I wrote a post earlier in the month on how it’s important to decide “minimum community standards” for each task that is divided up, and there should be an agreement on what a task entails. There are some minimum standards that should be upheld for anything, and it’s not unreasonable if one person wants that. The question is how you decide what those standards are. I have a post discussing all of that here.

      Reply
  4. Lisa Johnson

    Keith,
    Excellent post!
    You said: “If someone told me that the number of patients I have seen has dropped by 10% I wouldn’t be surprised. If they told me that meant I was 10% less busy I would tell them they are insane. I am much busier now than I used to be but the extra work is not clearly visible from outside. It is planning, adjusting, and organizing – all things that are difficult to quantify, but nonetheless very real. When we ask for a list from our wives, all that organizational load involved with the task stays invisible – and firmly on her plate. She can find that frustrating.“
    This is such a great example! If you have another doctor come to you and say “just give me a list of all the things you want me to do to take care of patients under Covid 19” a lot of the work is going to be in figuring out what to put on the list not in the execution of the list.

    Reply
  5. Hannah

    So good! I actually do think there are some times when giving a list is warranted. There are plenty of nights where I need my husband’s helping hand getting dinner on the table, but the dinner card is mine. For a lot of reasons, it’ll stay that way, but logistically due to my work schedule I can’t always make it myself. So I have him make the rice or couscous or whatever. Sometimes it’s just nice to have an extra pair of hands. I think the difference is going into it *knowing* that you just have an extra pair of hands rather than giving up the task card indefinitely, and not going into things without communicating.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, absolutely! And in the book Fair Play Rodsky actually addresses how to handle this, when you have to ask someone else to execute a task that you have already planned. Just all about communication! So sometimes this is unavoidable (ie.: You are the one who keeps track of the kids’ homework, but you’re out of town for two nights. You have to tell your spouse what to look for, what’s due, and what the child has been struggling with so that they can help. But if you say nothing and just say, “look after the homework”, that’s not fair, because they don’t know what the issues have been or what is due.)

      Reply
  6. Jill

    Super helpful post. So does this mean, if your husband owns a task (say, yardwork) you shouldn’t say anything about it, like “hey honey the grass is getting pretty long”? I feel like at that point nagging would be even worse, since it’s his task from beginning to end. It’s his commitment to take care of it, so what if it’s not getting take of? What’s an appropriate response from the other spouse?

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      This is where minimum community standards come into play, I think–once you decide what the minimum is that is required, if it’s not being held up then you can talk about it as a couple. E.g., if he’s in charge of the lawn and it needs to be mowed every week and he hasn’t mowed it in 3 weeks, have a discussion about that and say, “I will not nag you, but this is a problem. Why didn’t it get done, and what do we need to do to make sure it gets done in the future?” It’s not about reminding him to do it, it’s about discussing why he didn’t.
      Maybe the issue is that there needs to be a new “rule” set up in the house where everyone gets the big weekly chores done at the same time so you hold each other accountable, maybe he needs to decide he doesn’t turn on the computer/start gaming until all his chores are done, whatever it is you can talk about it in that conversation. But it’s not about reminding as much as problem solving what went wrong. And if the thing that went wrong is he forgot and he was lazy, he needs to apologize and make it up to you because he is a capable man who can handle this, and when he chooses not to it adds to your plate.

      Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I hear you, Jill. That’s why it’s important to have both (1) standards about what the job being done should look like and (2) a regular check-in time so that you can talk together about how you each think things are going, and fill each other in if there are areas where you’re going to need help this week. Ideally, say, you could talk on Sunday nights, or maybe Monday nights, or whenever works for you, and then you could bring up, “you know, you said you’d do the yard work, but it hasn’t been done. What can we do to get it done ASAP, because I am disappointed.”

      Reply
  7. Stuck

    My mental load is heavy. I feel like I have little help from my husband and I am so burnt out.
    He is good at tidying up but I really need him to help more with kids homework and researching winter tires and a lot of the blah mundane tasks. I even asked him to bathe kids when I worked outside the home and it didnt happen. J still had to come home from work and make supper and do homework with the kids.
    I cannot fully be mentally ok, myself when I am constantly giving of myself to my family. I am SO burnt out and am pretty unhappy in our marriage. I have felt stuck for the better part of our 10 year marriage. I feel completely without hope and that he doesn’t actually care about me.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I am sorry, Stuck. Very sorry. Can you show your husband any of the posts in this series? Or just decide that you aren’t going to do some of the tasks and leave them for him? I understand how hard it can be when you carry all the decision-making over all these tiny things. It is exhausting.

      Reply

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