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Zachary Watson looked at the blueberry muffins his wife just pulled out of the oven, steam rising off the golden tops.
“Are these too hot to give to the baby?” he asked her.
“Immediately as that came out of my mouth, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why the hell did I just ask that? I know the answer to that,’” Watson said.
It may seem like a small ask of his wife, Alyssa, to think through whether the muffins were ready for their child. But slipping into habits like these can leave one partner feeling as if they are carrying the bulk of the mental load, he said.
The father and content creator based in Marlborough, Massachusetts, has been sharing his experiences trying to divide the mental load — those tasks that take planning, preparation and keeping track to maintain the family — more equally with his wife.
Men are starting to hold themselves accountable, and like Watson, going online to teach other men to take on more of the mental load. The goal is to be more engaged partners and fathers as well as foster a deeper relationship with their family.
From the comments on his videos, Watson has seen that it’s a conversation many women have been asking for and many men benefit from, he said.
Watson said he has read “around 100,000 comments in the past two years. So many of them say, ‘This is exactly why I divorced my husband,’” referring to the inequality of the mental load one partner can experience in keeping a relationship or family going.
Learning about the mental load of a family and how to share those responsibilities is not just for “bad husbands,” said Eve Rodsky, author of “Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much To Do (and More Life To Live).” Any partner may find themselves not doing as much because of how they were raised or the social expectations of what their responsibilities should or shouldn’t be, she said.
“Even the most well-intentioned partners are still not doing their fair share at home,” said Rodsky, who is also the founder of the nonprofit Fair Play Policy Institute.
The work that keeps you up at night
When you or your partner puts their head on the pillow at night or has a moment in a quiet car ride, the noise that swirls around in the brain is the mental load, Watson said.
When should we schedule the next pediatrician appointment? Will I have time to get to the grocery store to get food for our guests before their flight gets in? Wait, do they have food allergies? The baby’s stuffed animal is in the wash, and he gets fussy without it. Does the dog need to go to the vet?
“Mental load, also commonly called, ‘Invisible work,’ has evolved to mean the behind-the-scenes stuff that keeps a home and family running smoothly, although it’s hardly noticed and is rarely valued,” Rodsky said in an email.
The tasks are often involved in maintaining relationships and managing emotions, she added.
“The problem is that, while important and often meaningful, these acts take significant amounts of time, and women are doing most of them,” Rodsky said.
Taking ownership means a better relationship
If your partner is often the one keeping track of all the things that need to get done, why can’t they get you more involved by just making a list?
Now you’ve created another task for your partner to remember to do — and not one that often makes them feel like you two are a team, Watson said.
Taking ownership of a task from start to finish is often more helpful than doing a part of every task, Rodsky said.
“Owning includes not just responding to ‘how can I help?’ but also the cognitive and emotional labor that each task requires — the forethought, the planning, the remembering when, where, and how to get the job done — and without excessive oversight or input from the other partner,” she added.
More men are speaking out in social media posts about how they didn’t realize all the ways they were leaving too much of the mental load on their wives and girlfriends, and those conversations between men are important, Watson added.
“We need to see another guy like thinking hard about it, identifying where we’re kind of screwing up.” he said. “When we see one guy (admitting mistakes), I think it’s a lot easier to also say … ‘Maybe I can put my ego down for a second and identify I’m kind of doing the same thing.’”
Watson said his videos giving examples and explanations of how men can be better participants in the mental labor of their household get a lot of comments from other men showing how beneficial making those changes can be for their relationship.
His favorite comments are ones from male viewers who say that they are able to open up more conversations and understanding with their wives by learning what their partners have been doing behind the scenes and becoming a more integral part of it, he added.
“If mental load is universally understood, accepted and appreciated, I think we will live in a very different world,” Watson said.
The ‘boring meeting’
Often when redistributing responsibilities, the changes start strong and taper off. But there are ways to create a system that lasts, Rodsky said.
The most important thing Watson and his wife did to create an environment in which they share the mental, emotional and physical labor of keeping their home and family going equally is what they call the “boring meeting.”
It happens every week — for them around lunchtime on Monday — and they go over the boring, small details of what is coming up and needs to get done, what in their home needs changing, and how their shared responsibilities are going, he said.
“Having those conversations in a nonreactive, nondefensive moment is a really great way for us to start picking up on those small things rather than waiting for it to explode out of resentment,” Watson said.
When getting started, Watson recommended spending time establishing the minimum standard of care for the different home responsibilities. For example, he and his wife agree that doing the dishes means loading the dishwasher, hand-washing pots and pans, and then wiping down the counters. The couple also agree that because their Great Pyrenees dog is so fluffy, they don’t have to worry about the floors until they can pick up dog hair with a pinch of their fingers twice, he said.
From there, the key is to keep updating each other on progress in the weekly meetings, Watson said.
“System implementation takes some time, so don’t expect your partner to start owning your share of the workload overnight,” Rodsky said in an email. “Start by renegotiating one household or childcare task. Just one can totally change the game.”
When Rodsky’s husband took ownership of extracurricular sports for their two sons, it freed up the equivalent of an entire workday. “I gained back eight hours a week. Start with one task and build from there,” she said.
Get ahead of the holidays
The most wonderful time of the year can be overwhelming, so it’s important to start working out a system ahead of the winter holidays, said Paige Bellenbaum, founding director of The Motherhood Center in New York City.
“It’s the most stressful time of the year especially for couples with small children,” she said. “If it’s not tackled ahead of time, it can be an open invitation for frustration, irritability and rage. So what I always encourage couples to do is get ahead of it.”
That means going over together what each of you expects from your holiday gatherings, what you imagine being difficult and how you can work together to make it easier, she said.
And part of that game plan might be coming up with a code for when your partner needs to take the baby and the questions from your in-laws while you go check out upstairs with a book for 20 minutes, she said.
It may be frustrating to have to spell everything out for your partner, but teams work best when the parties involved clearly communicate expectations and needs, Bellenbaum said.
“What are ways that we can protect ourselves going into it and come up with these strategies so that we don’t find ourselves in a situation where we’re ready to have a nervous breakdown?” she said. “Let’s just get ahead of it and come up with a plan.”
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