The Mental Load Struggle Is Real

Here’s the thing, love of my life: I’m not your mom.

Anja Boynton
Oct 28, 2018 · 8 min read
Photo: Motortion/Getty

This morning, I woke up early for a work call. I walked out into my living room and was disappointed but unsurprised by what I found.

I made dinner last night. Baked lemon-herb chicken, garlic bread, mesclun salad with fig balsamic dressing, and grilled artichokes. It is my ambition to cook on most nights, but lately, that goal has felt out of reach, just another unchecked box on my ever-expanding to-do list.

My husband washed his own plate, cup, and fork — a habit he began after I asked him not to leave his dishes for me after meals. I washed everything else, but, distracted by my chronic back pain that was flaring this weekend, I neglected to transfer the leftovers from the slow cooker to the fridge. This morning, it was still sitting in the slow cooker. I know he saw it because it was next to his mini-blender, and I heard him make himself a smoothie last night after I went to bed. After sitting out all night, the extra food is in the trash now.

Two of his jackets, worn yesterday, were still draped over the armchair.

The coffee maker still held the damp grounds from yesterday. The pot contained yesterday’s coffee.

Several plastic recyclable items were in the trash.

The strainer basket in the sink drain had been taken out and set aside despite my frequent requests to not do that, and the sink drain was plugged by chunks of wet food that I had to dig out.

In this home, I am the noticer.

This Sunday morning, I got up around 8 o’clock. I cleaned out the coffee maker and made fresh coffee. I made my 9 o’clock work call. I finished cleaning the kitchen. I picked up his jackets. I took the plastic recyclables out of the trash, rinsed them, and put them in the recycling bin. I cleaned the cat litter box. I started a load of laundry. I took out the trash and recyclables. I sat down to write this piece. When I’m done, I’ll finish a couple of work projects, clean up the bedroom, finish the laundry, make dinner, and go to yoga class.

This Sunday morning, my husband was still in bed at 11 o’clock. He will get up in the next hour or so to have some coffee and breakfast. He’ll check his e-mail, play several hours of video games, and maybe do an hour or two of school assignments. When he sees me doing laundry, he may request that I wash his clothes as well. When he sees me cleaning, he may ask that I do (insert task here) as well. He will not get up to participate in the maintenance of our shared household unless I explicitly request it. When I make meals, he will eat them and will again wash only his own dishes. Throughout the day, he will occasionally interrupt my routine to ask me to come over to watch a video he finds amusing or ask me to discuss an article he read. I know all this because this has been his weekend routine since we moved in together five years ago.

My husband is a highly intelligent man. He is capable, savvy, and charismatic. He is emotionally sensitive and aware. He walked in the NYC Women’s March with me and, if asked, says he’s a feminist. He is a veteran who has led platoons of soldiers in Afghanistan and South Korea. He is a graduate student in a highly competitive Ivy League program. His list of personal and professional achievements reads like an adventure novel. He is loving, affectionate, and supportive of me and my goals. He is, objectively, a catch.

He simply fails to see any of these domestic concerns as his problem — or even a problem.

I am not writing this to drag my husband. I am not writing this to vent. I am writing because this week, I have been reading about the mental load. I read this Metafilter thread. I read this comic by French artist Emma. I read this article and its follow-up. I read a cascade of blog posts on the topic scattered across the wilds of the internet. And it seems clear to me that this is a major social issue that is hindering women from achieving their potential.

Is it fair that I ask that he shoulder a portion of this load when I, myself, could perhaps simply set it down?

I’m writing because it feels like so many people, mostly men, absolutely refuse to get it. They don’t want to. They feel they shouldn’t have to. They deny that the problem exists at all. A complex origami of excuses unfolds across the internet. And in the forest of excuses and defensiveness, many women wander, gaslighting themselves. Is it right that we feel ourselves so unjustly impacted by this dynamic?

The conversation with myself is continual and exhausting. Should I be annoyed with him for not packing up the leftovers? After all, I did leave them out. I am the one who is bothered most by an unvacuumed floor or by clutter on the coffee table or by the empty paper towel roll. Is it fair that I ask that he shoulder a portion of this load when I, myself, could perhaps simply set it down? Am I being fair? Am I expecting him to be a mind reader?

But then, I also cooked dinner, which he has done perhaps twice in almost five years of marriage. And I am the person who remembers that we’re almost out of that one thing or that the trash needs to be taken out or that the sheets need to be washed or that the cat’s litter box needs to be cleaned or that the cat’s vaccinations are due.

The time and energy I devote to the management of our shared household is time and energy that could be directed to the development of my career or myself.

In this home, I am the noticer. I notice that when he stays up late to study, he likes to have access to snacks and flavored sparkling water to sustain him. I keep these items on hand for him. I notice that he likes a particular meal, and I make it again. I notice that he prefers certain types of coffee, and I purchase that type of coffee. I notice that the holidays are coming, and I make all of the arrangements for parties and gifts and family visits. I ensure that our apartment smells like cedarwood and bergamot, that there are soft pillows on the sofa, and that we have a selection of teas next to the kettle. I buy art to hang on the walls and keep wine on hand so we can offer his friends a glass when they come over. In short, I expend effort to make our home a home, to observe the things that matter to him and make his life better, and to give him those things.

Yes, he is a grown man. So why do I do all of this when he is perfectly capable of accomplishing every item on this list if he so chooses? Three reasons: 1) He is my partner, and I love him; 2) I want our shared home to be a haven of warmth and good food and nice smells; and 3) I would like him to see the amount of care and attentiveness I devote to him and to receive that same treatment in return.

The time and energy I devote to the management of our shared household is time and energy that could be directed to the development of my career or myself. Recently, a supervisor suggested that I apply for a position that was coming open in my organization. It would be a promotion, with greater responsibilities and career potential and more than double the paycheck. I am hesitant to apply for it because I fear the stress and exhaustion that would come from taking on a more demanding job while also managing the needs of my home.

My husband has recently expressed concern that I am not as healthy as I should be and that he thinks I should go to the gym more. My chronic back pain and mobility issues could be at least partly alleviated by regular exercise. I love to write and have long nurtured a desire to finish a novel. I dream of applying to PhD programs to further my passion and career. But, yet again, I frequently lack the energy to go to the gym or yoga or to sit down and write or to even consider the demands of doctoral work when I must juggle a rotating series of tasks and responsibilities.

“Just tell me what you want to have done, and I’ll do it!” my husband groans when I talk to him about my frustrations.

Here’s the thing, love of my life: I’m not your mom. I shouldn’t have to make you a chore list. That is not sexy. That is not equitable. We both live here. We both track dirt on the floor and eat food from the pantry and use towels and bedding that must be washed. And while I did actually cave in recently and list out the tasks I would like you to take ongoing responsibility for, it’s still a gamble whether they will actually get done. From your perspective, these tasks are optional, to be done if you feel like it and when you get around to it.

In his defense, he will point out that I also frequently neglect household tasks such as remembering to throw out the wilted salad mix in the fridge or put away all the dishes after they are washed. My counterargument is that if I were not responsible for the bulk of these duties, I would have less trouble balancing them with my work obligations and personal care tasks.

Perhaps I should send him this article, referencing a 2016 study showing that couples who equitably divide household labor also enjoy more physical intimacy. It’s certainly true that when my mind is an open browser window clogged with tabs awaiting my attention, sex is just another one of those tabs. It’s also true that coming home to a tidied living room and dinner on the table is one hell of an aphrodisiac.

Perhaps I should ask him to sit down and have yet another conversation about the mental load, knowing that yet again the conversation will turn toward how he really isn’t the bad guy and how my request is unfair or unrealistic and how I should simply try not to care so much.

Perhaps I should sit here and write about it, finish my coffee, feel a little sorry for myself, and go put the laundry in the dryer.

Tonight, at his request, I’ll make black-bean, avocado, and chèvre quesadillas for dinner. We’ll eat. I’ll clean up. And he’ll play a video game.

And the week will begin again tomorrow.

I’ve written a follow-up to this story which you can read here.

Anja Boynton

Written by

RPCV, tree-hugger, taco enthusiast, shrill feminist. Mentors teens who are much cooler than me. Only dances when nobody’s watching.

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