2017, it seems, was the year of the “mental load.” Not for scholars – they’ve long recognized the mental labor that goes into raising a family and running a household – but for me, who brought home a second baby and was suddenly crushed under the weight of my family’s logistical needs.
It’s been well recognized since we started keeping track of how much time we spend on tasks that women spend vastly more time on childcare and home keeping tasks than men do. Even when women and men work equal hours outside the home, women still spend significantly more hours per week taking care of the kids and the home than their male partners do. While girls are certainly socialized towards caretaking in ways that boys aren’t, the major gap between how much time men and women spend on housework begins to emerge when they enter parenthood.
While I knew all of this going into marriage and parenthood, I somehow didn’t believe that my family would fall prey to the gendered work-spit that leaves women at such a disadvantage. And yet, when my maternity leave lasted 13 weeks longer than my husband’s (non-existent) paternity leave, I spent the time learning the ins and outs of parenting two young kids in a way that my husband just didn’t have the chance to. And, because I was the one who learned it all, I became the manager of it all.
Managing everything was extensive but, while I was on leave, it was doable. When I went back to work though, the house started to fall apart. We ran out of milk and laundry soap and paper towels constantly. We missed appointments and forgot to send my older son to preschool in the right color shirt for his spirit day and we left the “check engine” light on for weeks without notice. In short, when I stopped carrying the mental load, everything fell apart. In an effort to solve the issue I took on the mental task of listing out every single thing we do to keep our home and family running smoothly – and then I called a family meeting.
In the past, when we were sailing along as a couple of newlyweds and then as the parents of one simple baby, my husband and I moved between the “each person do what they remember” and the “I did it last time” philosophy of chores and tasks. With two kids and two parents working full time though, we needed to make a change. I did some research (yep, more mental work) and decided that we would now tackle our chores and tasks as specialists.
Over the last six months I haven’t loaded the dishwasher, run the vacuum, or taken the trash out a single time. I also haven’t done any of the mental work associated with these tasks like remembering when to do them, making sure we’re well stocked with dishwasher detergent and trash bags, and so on. While it might sounds like I’m living the glam life, in the same time frame my husband hasn’t cleaned the bathrooms, washed the windows or paid a single bill. By specializing, instead of both trying to half do everything, we’ve found balance in the ways we distribute the work of our family.
If you and your partner are committed to sharing the chores of parenthood equitably, check out the tips below to move towards specialization.
1 | Take note of what needs to get done
While most people can easily name the tasks they do one a day to day basis, they can’t always name what their partner does over the course of a week or a month. As a couple, take a hour to sit down and really think about the things your family needs to run smoothly on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Knowing what needs to get done is the first step towards splitting it equitably.
2 | Chose your chores strategically
When you and your partner are splitting chores, consider each other natural talents as well as the things you each already feel comfortable doing. There’s no sense having one person take on paying the monthly bills when finances makes them uncomfortable or having the other wash dishes when it’s their least favorite chore. Take turns choosing chores and make sure that each person has a good balance of daily, weekly, and monthly responsibilities.
3 | Follow through
Once you’ve split divided you list, commit to taking on both the physical and mental responsibilities associated with your chores. So, if you’re in charge of the laundry, that means not only do you wash, dry and sort clothes, but that you also know which clothes go in the dryer and which clothes lay flat to dry, make sure that the house is stocked with laundry detergent and make sure that clothes need to be worn on specific dates – such as for soccer games or piano recitals – are clean and ready on time.
4 | Empower your partner
While there may be times (especially early in your specialization journey) that it would be easier to simply complete a chore yourself, make the intentional choice to step back and empower your partner to excel. While specialization doesn’t mean you let things fall apart if your partner has a busy week at work or something slips their mind, it does mean that you’ll rely on them to ask for help when they need it rather than stepping in when you assume they do.
5 | Recognize the tasks that call for partnership
There are some things, especially when it comes to kids, that just can’t be handled by one parent. Important decisions related to children’s health, development and schooling should be made by both parents so it’s important that they both have all the information they need to come to a decision. While it might not seem efficient, parents should consider being dually present for anything that might require an important decision such as school tours, doctor’s visits and teacher conferences.