Becoming a Dad, pt. 3: The mental load, wine circles, and what women know that men don’t

Original post date: June 11, 2019

Becoming a Dad is a series of autobiographical posts about my journey into fatherhood. By definition, it’s a journey that doesn’t end. I’ll try to tell the story in a somewhat chronological order, with some minor details changed for privacy. In general though, I hope it provides some insight into manhood and fatherhood today as gender roles change and men search for a more meaningful, positive, and fulfilling role at home, at work, and with the people we love.

I had so many aspirations to do more. It’s a typical new parent’s thought pattern. I’ll be off on parental leave for seven months; I have The Design of Everyday Men report launch; I have grand ambitions to write and speak and participate and change the world, all while caring for my little girl Elin and watching her grow as the frost of winter thaws into the sunshine of spring and warmth of summer.

Now here I am, just over three months since my wife Erin returned to work, and none of those things seem important anymore. There is only one thing that makes me get up out of bed in the morning and slink back into the sheets at night with so much excitement for what the next day might hold: Elin. She is my everything, and she consumes my everything as well. Every second of every day is planned and executed in accordance with her whims, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Before I took leave, I remember hearing from people that the fact I would be off for Elin’s 12th through 18th months of life would be such an exciting time. It’s not like those first few months, when they’re just a little blob of eat-sleep-poop, or months 5–10 when they’re waking up to the world and turning into little humans. Months 12–18 are the exciting months. They walk. They talk. They have independent thoughts. They react. They knowingly respond.

I always bristled at this commentary a bit that my months were perceived to be so much better than my wife’s time off. It always felt like a bit of an attack on me taking paternity leave, while poor Erin was stuck with the short end of the stick in months 0–12. But what was I supposed to do? I don’t have breasts; I didn’t give birth to her. If I wanted to take time off with her, when was I supposed to do it?

However, now being here on the cusp of Elin’s 15th month of life, I can definitely say: THESE MONTHS ARE SO MUCH BETTER! Holy crap, I actually got her first steps on camera. Like, her first ever steps. How awesome is that?! She actually calls me “dada” on occasion and comes over to hug and kiss me! My heart aches!! I get to see her explore the world and discover new things every single day. I take her to the grocery store almost daily and we play hide-and-seek in the aisles as her smiling face spots me then waddles its way in my direction. We walk to the park and I see her pick up every interesting piece of dirt and point, smile, and yell gibberish at all the others kids she wants to be friends with. We get on the bicycle together and just ride, to nowhere in particular, because we’re together, and it’s just us, and I love her, and she loves me, and everything is perfect and nothing else in this life matters but my wife, my daughter, and our health and happiness.

So that is the cross that I bear: knowing that I’ve negotiated these months for myself, so my wife can’t have them, but I can, knowing what hell she went through in months 0–12 and what joy I’m experiencing in months 12–18. I feel guilt. I can feel like a bad husband sometimes. But Erin and I talk about this, and she is very happy to be back at work after taking her year off and there were also countless bonding moments and milestones that she got to experience that I didn’t as well. It might not be a perfectly fair trade-off and we try to balance it with me taking only seven months while she had 12. But life isn’t about perfect fairness. It’s about doing what’s right for your family and the people within it. And for us, this made the most sense.

The alternative would have been that I took less time off or not any time at all. That would probably have been the most fair to Erin who physically grew a baby inside of her and brought her into this world. Like, there’s gotta be some recognition for that, amirite?? But the two of us deciding that I should take a prolonged leave to care for Elin wasn’t just about getting the opportunity to bond with her. It was also about leveling the playing field. I needed to learn and experience what it’s like to care for a family and run a household, so that when we’re both back working, we have the same skill set to draw from so that we don’t fall back into traditional gender roles where Erin takes on the bulk of caregiving and household management making it more difficult for her to pursue her career ambitions.

The first couple weeks alone with Elin were definitely the hardest. I am guilty of being the underdeveloped childish boyfriend/husband that can’t make a healthy meal or know what laundry detergent to use. I had just never been in a position where I needed to take ownership over that part of my life. To be honest, I relied on Erin a lot for that in the eight years of our relationship leading up until now and before that I just didn’t really take care of myself or my stuff. So in those first ten days, I knew that meal prep and household management were going to be a challenge — and they were and still are — but the challenge was not like I was expecting.

I knew about “mental load” years ago, about how women not only need to manage their workplace responsibilities, but also carry the mental load of running the household as well: what will we have for dinner on Thursday? Do we have those ingredients? When will we buy them? Do my kids actually like that food? When are the cleaners coming? Do we have the cleaning supplies they need? Etc. Etc. This is the constant din in the minds of people that manage more than their fair share, and some could argue is pretty much the primary reason that men succeed more in the workplace, because this mental energy required to run the household can be more freely spent on performing at work.

Those first two weeks were a crash course in mental load. I remember the feelings vividly: physically, I was present. I was watching Elin, making her food, helping her eat, changing her diapers, making dinner before Erin gets home, grocery shopping. But I never felt present. I always felt one degree removed from whatever I was doing. I’d be feeding Elin oatmeal and I’d be looking at the clock thinking about nap time and all the things I need to get done before that. I’d start prepping dinner but half my mind is keeping a mental note of where Elin is and whether she’s close to anything sharp or dangerous or electric. I always felt like I was forgetting something or failing. My mind was abuzz.

When Erin would get home after work, my brain would crash. With her in the room, I could let my guard down with Elin and return to the more familiar thought pattern of focusing on one thing at a time. As this happened, my brain would physically ache and I would become irritable. I was short with Erin and critical of her. My head would spin from being stretched all day. This was a different kind of challenge. It wasn’t a new task to learn or a new trick to perform; it was a new way of seeing the world and conceptualizing time, one that my brain had simply never been required to do.

Now three months in, it’s becoming more second nature. I can have in-depth conversations with adults while also feeding Elin a bottle, making sure not to spill, and watching the time. I can plan and prepare meals based on what ingredients we already have in the fridge and know which groceries we typically need to stock to feed our family of three. I know what “right” looks like in our home for cleanliness and tidiness, and strive to maintain this on a daily basis. I know how to use free time productively, to meal prep in advance or get laundry in the washer, so that I’m not scrambling last minute while also managing a crying baby that wants to steal pots and cereal out of our cupboards.

And that has been my biggest learning moment so far: the persistence and consistency of the mental load din. Caring for a family and household is not an amalgamation of a list of chores that must be dutifully performed on a rotating basis. It’s more cerebral than that. It’s about keeping a constant tally of the present state of things and people, comparing those states to the optimal end states, and continuously tweaking in an endless effort to bring those things and people to their respective optimal states. It requires conscientiousness and empathy and foresight. It requires deep knowledge of how things fit together in their symbiotic relationships. And most of all — for me in particular — it requires yourself to be in service to others because their optimal state allows your optimal state to exist. To care for someone is to be vested in their happiness and success, and as the caregiver it is your responsibility to have constant awareness of how to make that happiness and success a reality.

As men, I think that part is the hardest. We live in an individualistic world where succeeding because of your own skill set or expertise or sheer will is held up as the most admirable and aspirational way to live your life. The visionary CEO. The unstoppable athlete. The relentless politician. The driven scientist. But is that really what makes the world go round? If we had only successful CEOs, athletes, politicians, and scientists, would we really be better off as a society?

I think we’ve got it wrong. In many factual ways, women are severely disadvantaged compared to men. By pretty much any metric outside of life expectancy, incarceration rates, and mental health, women are worse off. But there is a whole world of femininity that I have just experienced over the past three months that is completely foreign to me. And I think it’s one that we as a society ignore as well.

I think of the pure, unadultered, unlimited joy that I experience with Elin everyday. I think of the deep sense of fulfillment I get going to bed knowing that I fed our family, I helped Elin learn something new, I stocked the kitchen for Erin’s breakfast, and I succeeded in keeping the home intact. Erin is succeeding at work and pursuing her career passions to take that next step. Elin is walking and hopefully talking soon. My family is flourishing. And I feel deep down that somewhere I was a little part of these successes. My own success takes place on the fringes when Elin is asleep, the fridge is full, and the house is clean. Then, I do a workout, play music, read a book, or do a Medium post. I’m not going to cure cancer, but maybe Elin or Erin will, and that’s what I hope for.

This is what I hope for men: that we can see the mental load that women take on and the role they more often than not play as caregiver and household manager as something to aspire to. We should hold up these women that play these roles as champions, just as we do with CEOs and athletes. We should learn from them. We should value them. We should want to be just like them. Because even though it’s been tough for me to dip a toe into this world, the new ways of thinking I’ve experienced and the new ways I’ve been able to value my role in the family have been immensely fulfilling. And, these roles are the foundation upon which CEOs, athletes, politicians, and scientists are able to succeed in their own rights.

And that leads to my last point. As I said, I struggled in those first few weeks with the stress of the mental load and the new dynamics that Erin and I had in our relationship where our roles were completely reversed. I shared this difficulty with a close colleague once, and she said, “so who’s in your wine circle then?”

I had no idea what she was talking about. A “wine circle”? She explained: the people you get together with over a glass of wine and talk about your frustrations so you can feel heard, get validation, and figure out how to get through it.

To me, this was a completely foreign concept, to share your challenges with a group of people, presumably, people in the same position as you, like other parents, and just talk through your problems together. For her, this meant getting together with other moms and complaining about all the challenges of motherhood, about kids, about husbands, about jobs; letting it all out so others can hear you.

I think in today’s culture, we paint a pretty negative picture of this mostly-female habit. I’ve heard it referred to as “the hens clucking” or “a gab/bitch fest”. We tend to view women getting together to talk over wine as something bad for some reason; it has a negative connotation.

But in that moment where I shared my frustration with this colleague, and she told me exactly how I should feel about it, what I should do about it, and gave me the encouragement to go after it, I was a changed man. Is this really what a so-called “gab fest” is all about?? Making yourself feel heard and then getting advice on how to deal with it? Because if so, I have days and days of frustrations to share ever since I started paternity leave. It felt so good to share what I was feeling and hear validation. It was exactly what I needed.

And so that is the final piece of the puzzle that men need to figure out. We need to have outlets. And not outlets like drinking a beer and watching the game. Trust me, no real conversation happens in those moments. I’m talking about outlets where there is no distraction, no TV or phone or game to watch. An outlet where you just sit with someone and share your experience. Talk about what is bugging you, why you’re feeling that way, and what you can’t get over. Then have the other person share their experiences as well.

This literally never happens with men. We don’t do it. We don’t share our emotions, because we don’t feel like we need to. I’ve reached out to other fathers that I know quite well and I still have yet to have any agree to meet me for a coffee to just, chat. Typically, if a man is struggling, it’s because he individually feels not good enough and he needs to figure out how to get better on his own. This works well when the situation has precedent or some kind of role model or mentor to help guide the way. Want to be CEO? Well, just emulate what the last CEO did and maybe you’ll get there — no need to share all the messy emotions that go along with this.

But for a whole generation of men who want to play a different role, like that of caregiver or household manager, we don’t have role models. Paternity leave didn’t really exist for my parents. I’m doing something the men before me didn’t really do. So I have to look to my peers, but they’re also just figuring it out on their own too. The thing we’re missing though is that there is generations and generations of social infrastructure that women have built to help them manage the caregiver and household manager roles which typically happens behind closed doors, on your own, in your own house, without anyone else around to witness your experience.

To get around this isolation, women tend to share their emotions with each other more often — based on my own experience. They understand how to deal with them. They get validation and they understand how to move forward. We men need to learn from this! We are now the underdeveloped, lagging-behinders that need women mentors and champions. We need caregivers and household managers that have been there, done that to show us how it’s done, and most importantly, teach us to deal with all these new emotions that come along with the roles.

So to close off my first three months of paternity leave, I’ll end with this:

The approach, mindset, and skillset that I’ve crafted over the past 31 years to succeed in my life as a business professional and a man in general has been wholly unqualified to succeed as a caregiver and household manager. I need to think differently, I need to measure myself differently, I need to view success differently, and finally, I need to look for support in different ways and different places. The silver lining in all of this though is that my wife already knew this. Yes, she certainly had her own growing pains and times of frustration and self-doubt, but she did come preconditioned by whatever society does to differentiate people based on binary gender to be more able to deal with the challenges than me in this role, and I have everything to learn from her. She is my mentor and champion. She is the fully-developed human that I strive to be. And if life expectancy, incarceration rates, and mental health are any indication, she’s much further along the path to a fulfilling, happy, and valuable life than I ever will be.

I just wonder what other amazing things she does that I haven’t discovered yet.

I’m a Dad who cares about men’s involvement in gender equality. In my day job, I’m a leader in inclusion strategy design and execution for global organizations.