I don’t know about you, but my mind is jam packed with tasks to do and things to worry about. I suppose this is what they mean when they talk about mental load.
There are lots of work-related things on my mental list – a juggle of different clients and projects, along with admin, marketing, and tax concerns – as I’m sure there are on everyone’s. But, as chief household organiser, it also includes many more bits and pieces related to the general admin of family life. Things that have to happen yet are mostly invisible to the rest of the house. Like managing school communication, holiday admin, paying bills that can’t be automated, and automating those that can, organising passports and doctors’ appointments and vet visits, booking in electricians and air-conditioner service people, organising social occasions, remembering birthdays and presents, and wondering whether my family members are happy and how to deal with their various mood swings, device addictions and complete inability to pick their stuff up off the bathroom floor.
I have, it feels like, two full-time jobs – one as a market research consultant, one in household management.
Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the physical doing of tasks. The time given over to writing questionnaires, reports, or proposals, and doing the food shopping, cleaning and cooking, and the laundry – with enough time to ensure underwear and school shirts are not, under any circumstances, being worn twice in a row. (If you have teenagers you will understand the school shirt thing). It’s not just keeping track of things that has to happen, they also have to get done, and they are two different tasks.
I’m often inclined to say everything on my list is there through choice, but a bit of scrutiny shows that is not true. Yes, I like being the person my family revolves around, and I like writing, doing intellectually challenging work that adds value to my clients, socialising, going on holidays and learning new things. But is doing bucket loads of laundry, that just ends up in a scrunched-up pile of disdain on the only bit of chaos free floor in my teenagers’ bedrooms really how I want to be spending my time? Do I really want to be the only one making dinner or shopping or cleaning the house or making doctor’s appointments or weeding the garden or cleaning the fridge/stove/oven or paying the bills?
Obviously not, yet here we are.
This is not a dig at the man in my life who certainly turns up a lot more than most. He does the kid school run in the mornings, the pool, and dustbins. And would do more of his fair share, I know, if I would just tell him what to do. My kids, now heading into the back half of teenagehood, too will do chores in the moment, when asked, and have since childhood been responsible for cleaning up after dinner.
Telling people what they have to do though feels like just another thing I have to do. This used to drive me crazy, to the point where I would just do it myself, grumbling about why I was being treated like an unpaid servant in my own house. Why on earth can’t people just look around and do what needs to be done? Why do they need to be told. Behavioural economists know why. It’s the home version of the tragedy of the commons. They don’t really know what needs to be done, and they assume someone else will do it.
So I’ve suddenly realised telling people what to do is exactly the job I should be doing.
Every team needs a manager. Someone to oversee and delegate a team of doers. There is no getting away from the fact that the overall mental load has to sit primarily with one person – the household’s project manager, which happens (by choice) to be me. The problem is I’m overseeing everything and doing way more than my fair share. I’m like a soccer manager who organises the oranges and also runs onto the field to play goalie and striker at the same time. Impossible? Definitely exhausting and inefficient.
I’m a smart person. Why do I persist with this nonsense?
My husband says in the language of love I’m an acts of service kind of person. I don’t agree. I’m wholeheartedly multilingual in this department, and personally give and receive messages of love across the whole spectrum. Words of affirmation, quality time and touch are far more important to me. Gifts and service I’m not that fussed about.
I think it has more to do with my own frailties of self-belief. That I do… and do and do and do… because I’m scared that if I stop I won’t be valued anymore. Plus, for the purposes of full disclosure, I’m also a control freak, with somewhat higher standards than the rest of my family in terms of the food I like to eat (healthy and interesting), the state of cleanliness of our house (clean and tidy, doh!) and the size of the pile of laundry strewn across the house (smaller is better).
And habit. It’s a habit. A bad habit that we’ve all slipped into, and I’ve enabled.
During our walk to wine session the other day, my friend calls out this behaviour as bad role modelling for our kids. I’ll be honest, at the time my initial reaction was: Far out! Another bloody thing to add to the list of things to worry about. Not only do I feel like I’m doing everything, but now I have to be a good role model too. #FFS
But she is right, of course. I’m choosing to martyr myself to the (patriarchal) housewife lie, so that I feel needed and valued, and because delegating it feels like yet more hard work.
Thinking about my role as project manager though makes all the difference. It’s a lens through which I can separate my own sense of value from the work that goes into a shared house. Work that should be shared. I can still be in charge, but everyone can contribute, as they should.
In our house there are now four, almost, adults. People who are capable of pulling their own weight. The kids have grown up into teenagers who feel like housemates we pay to lounge around on their phones. It is definitely time to teach them that housemates have responsibilities too.
I have no illusions that this will be easy. There will be eyerolls and emotional manipulations galore. Claims of exhaustion and generalised grumpiness. There will be tasks undone or done poorly enough to have to be redone. I’ll have to hold myself back from doing tasks that have been assigned to other people (which sounds like a great excuse to go for a bike ride), and hold people accountable against clear timelines. And I’m going to have to accept some things will be done differently. We’ll have to negotiate what we can all live with. But this is life in the real world right? Not to mention good parenting, and good role modelling.
Don’t get me wrong. I know most of it is still going to sit with me. But getting some of the doing onto the to do lists of other people is a start. And luckily, I’m not doing this alone. We’re a team, my husband and I, and he’s been trying to push this way of thinking for about 10 years – certainly at least since the kids were more self-sufficient and capable. He has no qualms delegating and collects eye-rolls with good humour. I’m the one who has to let go and trust my value more. So hold me accountable friends. Let’s do this.
Welcome to project management 101, family style.
Reading this online? Subscribe to get these life reflections in your inbox.