My husband has approximately three things he adds to our household grocery list:
His shaving cream.
Shower spray. (Don’t ask about this one. He has an obsessive thing about the glass shower door.)
It’s not his fault. Not really. I make note of the rest of the 8,000 things a family of four requires because it falls squarely under the duties of CEO of our household—a position I never interviewed for yet I rose up through the ranks to find myself in sometime between the day I got married and the day I popped out a second kid.
I stay home with the kids, which means I am the default day-to-day manager. Nevermind that I also work, it just happens to be at the kitchen table. So while I attempt to craft the next viral essay on the hilarity of momhood, I’m also trying to teach my kids how to craft a homemade paper mache pinata.
This is 100 percent what is happening right now.
As moms, our minds are always going. Going fast. Going in a million different directions. Going away. Going.
And it’s not just the children and the shopping lists we manage. It’s all of it. We think about the cleaning, the cooking, the organizing, the planning, the dressing, the gift-buying, the brushing, the laundering, the caring about EVERYTHING.
If you are lucky enough (like I am), hubs is happy to pitch in. He shares carpool duty and manages bedtime. I have never cut a blade of grass or taken out the garbage. He is known as “lord of the dishwasher.”
But, even though he handles certain chores, there is always me magically elfing behind the scenes—managing the stuff that makes his duties possible. I tell him what time to pick up the kids and who has what practice when. Without me, there wouldn’t be dishwasher pods or garbage bags, and there certainly wouldn’t be toothpaste for brushing, or new library books for bedtime stories.
This, my fellow moms, is why we are tired. Not because we don’t have help or get enough sleep. Well, there is that.
But there is also the fact that mom brain is real thing, and if you’re nodding along with me—congratulations you, too, are suffering from it.
That endless running to-do list is called the “mental load.” It is heavy, and in most families, it is carried by the mom. The notion of the mental load is beautifully captured in all its glory in this cartoon by French comic artist Emma. Her depiction of the struggle entitled “You Should Have Asked” nails this idea that for the majority of households, women are constantly managing and keeping track of all that needs to be done.
In the cartoon, when things go haywire in the kitchen, the husband points out he was there to help. “You should’ve asked!” he says.
But, do we really have to ask?
In short, yes. (So, go ahead and add “Ask for help” to your to-do list!)
Susan Walzer, a sociologist at Skidmore College, published a research article in 1996, called “Thinking About the Baby” that confirms some truths in Emma’s cartoon.
Walzer interviewed 23 couples who had recently become parents and found that women do, in fact, carry more of the mental load. Noting that even when their partners helped out, women are the ones who noticed what needed to be done in the first place.
At no point is this more clear than when I travel for work. Before I hop on that plane I pre-pack lunches, I buy and prepare easy dinners, I do all the laundry, I lay out clothes, I write down the schedule. I make all the plans that I won’t be a part of.
When hubs travels, he just kisses us and leaves.
The burden of this self-inflicted mental load is mine. I’m the one worrying, thinking, planning. But honestly, if I did none of this, he would be fine. The kids would be happy. He might feed them donuts and nuggets and they’d dress themselves in a cacophony of colors, but the world would keep spinning.
But I return and hubs rejoices. The heavy baton of mental load passes back to me: manager in residence. Balance (or imbalance) is restored as I resume my position lying awake in bed making mental lists, and taking note of every dirty sock and empty ketchup bottle.