Even though men help with everyday tasks, the organization of the household continues to be the woman’s domain – and this often leads to total overload. The phenomenon of this “household burnout” is called “mental load”. It mainly affects women who have to think of all the work at home as a matter of natural routine. The result: Never ending work. Our author knows this situation from her own experience…
I often think about my semester abroad in 2011 in the USA. One of the classes I took dealt with family dynamics and the role of women in the household. One of the readings was “A Second Shift” by Arlie Russel Hochschild. As the title suggests, the work discussed the topic of equal rights and the divide between home life and work. The conclusion was quite concerning – there is always a second phase of work, or second shift, for women once they arrive home from work.
This is because the home is mostly managed by women. Even though men increasingly are more involved in everyday tasks, the day-to-day organization of the home remains a woman’s job – and this often leads to total burnout. This phenomenon is known as “the mental load.” First and foremost, it mostly affects women, who often automatically run the household and never have a real break from work.
I actually told the person I was seeing in Germany about this over Skype. At the time I was 23 years old and wanted to do it all differently. Today, it’s 8 years later and after being in a relationship for the past few years, I now have come to a bitter conclusion.
The Whole Kit and Caboodle – or the End of the Household Divide
As child planning goes, the testing phase begins by buying a dog together. My boyfriend thinks this has worked wonderfully! My own experience, on the other hand, is that I’ve said goodbye to my freedom, my character and my career. After the first year with my dog, it is completely clear that when in doubt, ask Mom. Time for exercise? No. Up for a spontaneous evening out? Nope. Concentrating just on work for a whole day? Very difficult. The fact remains: the home is a female responsibility. Still. And this is not because I like it this way, instead I have just automatically been made responsible for it, and, most importantly, took on that responsibility without questioning it.
Free of a Guilty Conscience
This is not all to say that my partner and I do not argue about it, or that I don’t ever complain. But these discussions go nowhere. I simply won’t leave the plate in the sink until it’s covered in mold, or leave the milk out until it sours and my boyfriend is forced to skip his morning muesli. I definitely won’t leave the dog alone at home, just because my boyfriend hasn’t managed to leave work on time due to “something coming up.” No, instead I postpone meetings and leave earlier than planned to go home. It’s sickening!
The most depressing is actually the arguments that I have with my boyfriend. He doesn’t seem to feel any guilt. He does help! Sure, he “helps.” Already the word choice alone implies the crux of the issue. I am responsible at home, he helps me out. I plan, I schedule and I delegate. I am the fire-breathing dragon of the castle, he is the generous helper.
I am a believer in 50:50. As both my partner and I are both working full-time and are even self-employed, I find that is only fair that we split all the everyday tasks of our lives together. Here already there is a difficulty. Should you divide by the type of task or how long it takes? And how do you evaluate the effort each person spends on the household and the rest of the work? Should I do the laundry today and you do it tomorrow, or should I always do laundry and you do the dishes? Should we each take on the jobs that are relatively enjoyable for each of us – regardless of how long we each spend on them? What makes the division of responsibilities fair, and is it unfair if they already fit in with our preferences and everyday life? All of these questions are faced by most couples, at least indirectly, when it comes to sharing the household workload.
Mental Load: Finding Evidence
I really did it. I put a flip chart in our living room and documented the times and details of my work at home. My friend has so far not contributed to the documentation. In fact, my mental load now had the additional item: “involve boyfriend with flip chart.” This was symptomatic of how it is in so many households with male support. Something is only done when they have the time and desire. Spoiler alert: this time never arises in a household with two freelancers, a large social circle and a dog.
Be Done with the Mental Load…or Burnout!
My plea is dedicated to all women that feel unfairly treated or overwhelmed in the household, but above all, to myself:
#1: Make a plan
A plan can help to avoid fights and burnout. It is important to remember that is not only a task, but also the activity around the task. It includes the management, so to speak. For example, anyone who is doing the laundry is not just responsible for washing and hanging everything out. In addition, the person must also keep an eye on things to know when the laundry will be ready to wash again, which laundry is needed on what day and, of course, putting all of the fresh clothes back where they belong. Therefore, the other person doesn’t have to think about the laundry at all – only when it comes to choosing an outfit for a nice dinner out on the town.
#2: Hold Out!
Your better half hasn’t held up their end of the deal? Let your partner feel the consequences of being lazy and show him that some tasks just can not be postponed over and over again. Keep perspective on the situation but you could leave the fridge empty, leave the dishes to go moldy until there are no plates left at all and you could even only wash your own laundry.
#3: Praise Your Partner
Acknowledge when your partner is trying to improve. You obviously do not need to plan a celebration with fireworks just because your partner has remembered to put out the garbage, but a timely recognition or “thank you” is enough. After all, men have it quite easy in their socially-recognized role as household decision makers. It will certainly not be that easy for them to rethink these structures for what is (supposedly) a disadvantage.
#4: Use the New Framework As a Gateway!
The new set up should be used to show them how much nicer, stress-free and relaxed a relationship built on equality can be. Use the freshly-gained time you have together to do new things as a couple – take the dog for a walk, for example. Or pair up for the next cleaning session and accessorize with a bottle of wine and Spotify.
If you need even more persuasive arguments, show your partner the “Mental Load” comics from Emma.