When I faced going back to work after my maternity leave, my husband and I faced a very real and common challenge – how to balance household management and the mental load between the two of us.
I’m a “doer” at heart while my husband, Chris, is much more laid-back. So taking everything over was a legitimate risk for me. The mental burden of being a mom is very real, whether you embrace the role of being a “keeper” of everything or find it smothering.
Our situation had an additional twist on it. That’s because Chris was going to be taking on a role that 29% of moms hold, but only 7% of dads do – stay-at-home parent. Because I would be working outside the home and he wouldn’t, I could not be the de facto household manager. It wouldn’t be fair or practical.
So we had to find a balance of duties, both in terms of physical chores and management. Since then, we’ve learned to reduce my emotional labor and mental load as a mom. (Unfortunately, most of these don’t apply if you’re a single parent.)
Pick one major area over which the dad has all responsibility.
A lot of moms’ mental loads come from all of the fussy little things associated with children, especially school. From homework to field trips, there are a million little details. Most of the time, there are so many little things that needing to ask someone else (like the dad) to do that it takes more time than its worth. Taking one of those big areas with lots of little details off of a mom’s plate makes a big difference.
For us, Chris does absolutely everything related to the cooperative preschool our older son attends. Those responsibilities include paying tuition, packing lunch, signing the kids up for extra activities, scheduling parent-teacher conferences, returning paperwork, bringing our younger son to music class, supplying snacks, and helping in the classroom every other week.
It’s an even bigger responsibility than usual because Chris holds a position on the board of the preschool. Attending board meetings, organizing set-up and clean-up days, ensuring people are doing the jobs they’re supposed to, and managing all of the weird little fixes around the building is a huge amount of work.
And I’m not involved with it at all. Of course, I ask how his clean-up days go and we discuss Sprout’s preschool experience. But I purposely don’t learn enough to remind him of deadlines or make his to-do list. I leave all of that up to him. Knowing he can and does take care of it is a huge weight off my mind.
Pick household chores each person is mostly responsible for and that they manage.
In our house, Chris does laundry, cooks, grocery shops, and (obviously) does childcare when I’m not home. I wash the dishes and do much of the childcare when I’m home (albeit not exclusively). If one person is behind or needs a hand with our individual duties, the other will help as we can. But the core responsibility falls on the person to know what needs to be done and ask for help when needed.
Understand each others’ strengths, weaknesses, and needs.
My husband is not a natural household manager. Besides the fact that men aren’t taught to be, he has ADD. His very brain chemistry makes it difficult for him to juggle multiple projects with lots of moving pieces, especially when there are constant interruptions. Otherwise known as “life with small children.”
Knowing that, I take on a bit more of the management than I would otherwise. I’m especially willing to take it on when I know he has a big project eating up a lot of his attention. On the mornings when he directs preschool clean-up days, we both know he needs some wind-down time to eat lunch by himself and chill in the afternoon.
On the other hand, Chris knows that I despise all things involved with home repair and design. It’s not that I can’t fix things around the house or pick out a rug, it’s that I really don’t want to. As a result, he’s the driving force behind most of the home repair and decorating. He planned out our entire basement renovation and took the initiative to purchase end tables for the living room.
Cut out what’s not actually important to you and your family.
Unfortunately, a lot of the emotional and mental burden put on women is imposed by society. From homemade gifts for teachers to first day of school signs, so many of us do things because we “should,” not because it’s actually important to our families.
In contrast, men are shockingly inoculated from these pressures. While their comments of “I don’t get what the big deal is” are frequently annoying and insensitive, they have a point. Shifting our mindset from what we “should” do to what we actually want to do can help reduce a lot of the emotional labor on moms and families in general.
Recognize differing standards and what’s realistic.
Everyone has differing standards for cleaning, childcare, and cooking. What’s a bare minimum for one person may be way too much for another. Acknowledging standards that are different between partners and talking openly and honestly about them can assuage a lot of tension. If serving the kids Kraft Mac and Cheese every night for dinner is really unacceptable, everyone in the household needs to know that.
Sometimes, accepting differing standards and having the person with higher standards do more work is okay too. It’s not something you want to do all the time, but it can prevent annoying arguments if used sparingly. For example, my family had the standard of writing thank you cards for presents; Chris’s didn’t. So I take on the task of writing thank yous and teaching the kids how to do it too.
Acknowledge what’s a personal interest versus a household need.
I love my vegetable garden. I’m passionate about local food and sustainability. But I also realize that growing vegetables is not necessary for the functioning of our household. We’re not farmers; if our crop fails, we can fall back on our community supported agriculture veggie box and the grocery store.
Remembering that it’s ultimately a hobby helps keep me grounded when Chris forgets to pick up soil at Home Depot or doesn’t chip in with maintenance as much as I’d like. While I appreciate his help, I can’t expect him to be as invested in it emotionally or time-wise as I am.
Trust your partner, especially with childcare.
This is so hard, but something I had to accept the very first day I went back to work. Even though I felt – so deeply – that my baby wanted me all the time, I had to trust that Chris would do a great job.
And he lived up to that trust. He’s an awesome dad who plays with the kids, leads near-daily trips to the park, provides endless hugs, talks them through meltdowns with patience, and keeps the toddler from cracking his head open. While sometimes I would do things a little differently, I know in my heart that he knows what he’s doing.
More than four years after the day I returned to work, we’ve found a balance for our household. My emotional labor and mental load are a lot lower than it would be otherwise. While we sometimes don’t keep things as clean or organized as we’d like, we’re at least pretty content with how we’re sharing those responsibilities.