Yes, the mental load struggle is very real, but so is the love.
In October of this year, I sat down in a simmer of frustration to bang out a manifesto on the mental load and its unbalanced state in my own marriage. I’d gone to bed exhausted the night before, while my husband stayed up late, and he’d neglected to tidy up after dinner yet again. I was irked and needed to tell someone about it, but since I strive to avoid excoriating my husband to our friends and family, I decided that the internet could be my listening ear. The internet can be good like that.
It wasn’t long before the claps started coming, and I felt all my frustration echoed back from other women. Most of the joy of venting is found in the camaraderie of others shouting out I hear you. This is me too. Your feelings are valid. Same here. I got you, girl. The sisterhood had my back.
Then the piece was featured on Medium. Not long after, it was included in a collection. My insecure little writer’s heart was delighted and dumbfounded. Wait…people are actually reading my stuff? I’m not shouting into the void? Then the applause and comments really started rolling in. There was sympathy, skepticism, and a fair number of “GIRL, SAME,” comments. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised at the number of people who advised me to end my marriage. After all, my piece was the only window into the relationship through which others could peer. (To those who blithely proposed that I hire a cleaner: how much money do you think we have?)
It was validating, but I also felt an uncomfortable stab of guilt. As I tried (and apparently failed) to make clear in the piece, my husband is a good partner. He’s my cheerleader and best friend. When I confessed a long-cherished dream of being a writer, he surprised me with a trip to the Apple store and a brand new laptop, because he wanted me to follow that dream wherever it might lead, and he wanted to be a part of any success I achieved. He’s encouraging, positive, and supportive. He is a generous lover and a really good kisser. Recently I texted him about a long and frustrating day at work, sorting through a tangle of improperly gathered data, and dreading my cold, damp bike ride back home. I walked in the door to a hot bath drawn, a glass of wine, and a tidied kitchen, all of which were the prelude to other delights of the evening. Fellas, take note: this is how you please a woman, or at least, this woman.
My point is, he occasionally looks up from his video games and pays attention. He knows that an untidy house causes me stress and that a hot bath and some tender care are the cure for most of my ills. I’m also very aware that he is not without his own concerns, primarily his grad school obligations, which are a tremendous drain on his energy and attention. Knowing this, and remembering the hell that was my grad school experience, I also feel that I should strive wherever possible to lighten his load, even though it may bring me to my knees. That urge to suppress our own needs, to be always the caregiver, is at once the best and worst instinct of so many women. And he, given the opportunity to benefit from the feminine urge to nurture, takes it without a second thought. Wouldn’t you?
He was raised by a mother who found her identity in ownership of all things domestic, and a father who found his at work. Traditional gender roles reigned in both our childhood homes, which is perhaps why I find it so hard not to shoulder the burden of household labor, and why he doesn’t understand its weight. I’m not alone. A long parade of research has demonstrated that, inarguably, women are socialized from childhood to believe to the core that their existence is validated by their status as nurturers and caregivers, and men are socialized to reap the benefits of women’s labor. This is why an egalitarian marriage is work, people. These concepts of ourselves and the things that give us worth are not so effortlessly dissected and discarded.
It would be so, so easy for me to lay myself down on the altar of domesticity and set myself alight. I could burn here for the rest of my life, aproned and smiling, a dish towel in one hand and all my dreams tucked deep into my pocket, still shiny from disuse and cherishing. It would be so easy to let him make the money and the decisions, while I float rudderless on the sea of our life together. It is so easy for him to justify allowing me to do this, while his contribution mainly involves opening jars, hanging pictures, and defending me from muggers and saber-toothed tigers. (Only two of those have ever actually been required of him — I’ll let you guess which.)
If I’m honest with myself, a significant percentage of my perspective on our relationship is nourished not by what is but by what I fear might be. The ghost of Christmas future visits me uninvited and unwanted and shows me visions. Me, waking up before the sun every day to make breakfast for active children who run circles around me like tiny tornadoes. Him, sleeping in past noon, having stayed up late the night before enjoying his hobbies. Me, scavenging scraps of personal fulfillment from managing to meal plan for the coming week, or from raising children who say please and thank you and remember to brush their teeth. Him, racking up career accomplishments as easily as he racks up points in his video games. Me, getting a job below my skill and career level after the kids start school, because I need to be home to make dinner each day, and I can’t be a parent and a professional simultaneously.
I fear the slippery slope. I feel dread for what may be more than I feel anger for what is.
In recent weeks, my husband and I have had many long, heavy conversations. I’ve asked him to rope off an area of mental real estate for me and our household and to make an effort to contribute without needing me to manage his contributions. And he is trying, not without some grumbling, insisting that he does more than I think he does, and a few episodes of mansplaining. Three decades’ worth of social conditioning dies slow and hard, clawing at the walls.
This holiday season, he traveled to his hometown a few days ahead of me, while I stayed behind to finish up some end-of-year work projects. During one of our evening phone calls, I asked how his day went and where he got dinner. He responded cheerfully (and a little smugly), “Great! My mom made a huge dinner, and she didn’t make me do the dishes.”
Okay. So the conversation isn’t over yet.