You Really SHOULD Say Something

There’s a relationship cartoon making the rounds lately that describes the feminist theory of the “mental load” women allegedly have to bear when it comes to household management in the context of relationships. I read through it and, while I think it makes some salient points for guys like to me consider, especially when the fur flies in my own household, I think there a few dangerous assumptions that need to be addressed.

Let’s get started!

The cartoon story of the clueless husband and the over-worked wife is an extreme example that, in the author’s presentation, automatically equates to the norm. The man does LITERALLY nothing and the woman does LITERALLY everything. I do mean LITERALLY in the literal sense (not the now-confusing figurative sense)

She presents the man in boyish poses, with his hand in his pocket and a sheepish expression on his face. He sits on a couch, far away from his wife, trying to open a bottle of wine, his eyes wide like this is some new adventure he has never before experienced.

This man is an idiot. Who doesn’t know how to open a bottle? And for God’s sake why open a bottle of whine while sitting on a white couch … having sequestered company several rooms away from your wife (and the wine glasses)? Meanwhile, the woman heroically handles every single detail, juggling two children (who somehow sit still at the dinner table, which never happens … especially when there are guests), conversation with her colleague, cleaning, and dinner preparation. I’m surprised the author didn’t signify her deity by giving her a halo or drawing her under an arch.

An early draft of the panel in question


This is all a caricature. It is not Real Life. Before any conclusions or discussions of power structure are made, the man is presented at his utmost incompetence and the woman is presented with God-like powers. This might be how it feels at times, especially when kids are young, but absent of abusive situations, no one is ever actually All Good and no one is All Bad, even in instances where there is a heightened power differential between genders.

This is a cartoon, though, so I get it. I’m even willing to let it slide to a point. The next part, though, is where I lose my patience.

First, I know nothing of the author, but the character as presented in this comic appears to be childless and un-partnered. Or, if she DOES have kids, how nice is it that her partner is at home taking care of business while she gouts out with friends and complains about the mental load she and others share?

So the author diagnoses the problem immediately. And the problem is this…when men say something like “Why didn’t you ask for help?” what they REALLY mean is “Why didn’t you order me around? You are the manager, after all. Give me directions and I will follow!”

I can’t speak for all men. I can only speak for myself and my friends/acquaintances. But if I had to put numbers to how my friends and I feel in situations similar to what is described in the comic, roughly 145% of us aren’t asking for you to direct our lives. When you attempt to direct our lives, it pisses us off. When we say, ‘Why didn’t you ask?’ we are most often looking for you to stop taking charge of everything and ask for help when you need it. More often than not, we are engaged in some productive activity, like changing diapers, or fixing a leaky faucet, or maybe even responding to emergency work e-mails on our phones. This is why the follow-up statement is more often “I’m not a mind reader” not “You do such a great job, managing things. I figured I’d let you handle it while I relaxed on this white sofa, searching this quantum physics book for answers on how to open a bottle of red wine.”

The author is right in her conclusion that if a man expects his partner to be the manager of household chores, it places an undue mental burden on his parner. However, this is not necessarily a gender imbalance issue, although I’m sure that exists. This is quite often a relationship issue. The author assumes all or most relationship imbalance issues like this are due to sexism when, more often than not, it’s different expectations.

Note that, at no point in the cartoon, is the husband shown doing anything. If the author wishes to use a caricature to make a larger point, that’s fine, but if she’s going to leap from “this one thing happened once” to “This horrible thing happens all the time” caricatures can be dangerous. Do we look at how much of the traditionally male tasks the female partner takes on? Is she working extra hours to pay the bills? Fixing broken plumbing? Cutting the Grass? Handling the finances? Fixing the car? Making late night runs to the grocery store? Calling the bank or the insurance company or the electric company to argue over billing discrepancies? Ensuring retirement funds?

I hope she’s doing all these things just like I hope the man in the relationship washes dishes and plans meals sometimes when the author is not around to see it. That’s how it should be. That’s reality, even if the division of labor is not always 100% equitable. They are co-leaders of the household, taking on tasks that suit their personalities and assisting in tasks where the other is stronger. This requires both people to step up when needed and take a back seat otherwise. It requires them to work together.

But all we see here is the female partner’s perspective. This is clearly shown a little further down in the post, when the author says, “The mental load is almost completely borne by women.”

How in holy hell does she know that? Seriously. Is she a mind reader? Does she know for a fact that men are not also worried about schedules and tasks and responsibilities? Does she know for a fact that men are not also overwhelmed with life, particularly when children are young and the Difficulty setting for life is at MAX CHAOS?

Does she KNOW this, or does she extrapolate this from her experiences and feelings absent of input from her partner?

She goes on to describe a situation where she faces a simple chore, only to get side-tracked by other chores. When she asks her partner to clear the table, expecting that he will also notice these additional chores, she gets frustrated when he does not see these additional chores. She assumes, however, two very dangerous things. First, that her husband does not also have similar experiences. And second, that he WANTS her to handle everything.

Those are two VERY BIG assumptions.

How many times has he asked her to lock the door on her way in from the car, which she does, but then she leaves the closet door open when she puts her coat away? How many times has she done one of HIS chores, like cutting the grass, because he had to work late this week, but she doesn’t clean the blade, which rusts and has to be replaced? How many times has she promised to take the garbage out to the street, but decided against it because it was heavy and stinky and shouldn’t the man be doing that anyway?

We ALL experience this. We ALL have this frustration. We ALL go through seasons where it feels like I am the only person doing anything in this relationship and, OH MY HOLY GOD WHY WON’T HE/SHE HELP ME?!?!?!! The solution isn’t to blame your partner for not doing enough. The solution is first to assume your partner is well-intentioned and does not want you to be frustrated, and second to say something like “I love you, honey, but this isn’t working for me. Can we talk about it?”

Whenever you get frustrated, remember this … In the vast majority of relatively healthy relationships, your partner would willingly die to save you if it came to that. Your husbands would take a bullet for you. If that is a truth you can believe 100% of the time, how hard is it to believe that, even though it might FEEL like he/she doesn’t care to shoulder his/her half of the mental load, your partner will take on more than his/her fair share.

Look. If you’re in the kind of relationship where you really and truly ARE doing everything while your partner sits idle, if you’ve spoken with your partner and he/she doesn’t care to change, you have a serious relationship problem. You need to see a counselor or make a change. That is not healthy.

But if you’re wandering around complaining that your partner doesn’t magically meet your expectations and you have not communicated those expectations, then whatever mental load you experience as a result is your fault. And assuming that your partner doesn’t care or is unwilling to shoulder that burden with you rather that making the effort to discuss things is a selfish, childish approach to managing your relationship.

Next time you get frustrated, say “I love you sweetie, but we need to find a better way. Let’s talk.” That’s a lot better than cartoon relationship therapy.

I can’t wait.

Removing General Lee

The Mayor of New Orleans spoke recently about his decision to remove Confederate Monuments from his city. That’s well within his rights and I understand why he did it. I disagree. Here’s why.

A little over a decade ago, I worked for the University of Cincinnati Health Sciences Library in the Medical School. I was in charge of the Circulation desk. Every once in a while, this little old man named Dr. Gene would stop in and say hi. Dr Gene was a Professor Emeritus of Radiology, which I took to mean he had retired and spent most of his days wandering the halls looking for people to talk to. Turns out I was one of those people. We both loved baseball. He was a New York Yankees fan and I, of course, was a Reds an (as is required by law of ALL Cincinnati natives), so we chatted about whether Joe DiMaggio or Joe Morgan was the better player, whether the 1975 Reds or the 1927 Yankees were the greatest team of all time, and many other obscure, baseball-related subjects.

I liked Dr. Gene. He was fun to talk to.

One lazy Sunday morning, an older, black woman stopped in. She was frustrated. This was a common occurrence. The library was situated between the psych ward and the morgue, and people were always ending up in the wrong place. I asked her if she needed help.

“I’m looking for the Cancer Memorial,” she said.
“The … what?”
“The Cancer study memorial. It’s supposed to be in University Hospital, but I can’t find it anywhere and nobody over there seems to know where it is.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said, “but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She mentioned a study the university had done in the ‘50s and ‘60s, how her father had participated, and how she wanted to see the plaque commemorating it.

“I don’t know anything about that,” I said. “But I have plenty of time this morning. Go grab a coffee and I’ll see what I can find.” She smiled in a way that said “Thanks, but I know you won’t find anything.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Regina,” she said.
“Sit tight, Regina. I’ll find something.”

I did some research. I took me a while, but I found what she was looking for. Here it is.

During the height of the Cold War, the US Government wanted to know how much radiation the human body could stand. This information would help determine whether (or how … most likely how) to manage a land invasion against Russia if nuclear weapons were at play. They commissioned a study. They looked to the University of Cincinnati, who jumped at the chance. The UC Medical center tested nearly 100 allegedly terminal cancer patients with full body radiation to see how long they would last.

The University told the patient’s families the procedure was “experimental” and that it might increase the chance of survival. They were lying, of course, like most governments do. They knew the patients would die. That was, in fact, the point. The study went on for several years. The overwhelming majority of the patients they selected were low income, blacks and other minorities. Everyone who “participated” in the study was killed. Their families didn’t learn the truth until years later.

The man in charge of the project was Dr. Eugene L. Saenger of the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Gene.

All of this came to light in the mid-‘90s. There was a lawsuit. I’m not sure of the monetary specifics (I would imagine the whole process made a lot of lawyers a lot of money), but one outcome was the University had to admit wrongdoing, and University Hospital, where so many people had given their lives to prepare us for a war that never came, had to erect a monument to those that died.

The idea was we would never forget this atrocity. That was the plan, anyway. But only ten years later, when a daughter of one of the men killed in the project came to visit the memorial that was supposed to help us remember, nobody knew anything about it. No one.

We found a reference to the memorial in an article from the Seattle Times, so Regina and I took off through the hospital in search of the monument. University Hospital is a labyrinth, with hallways leading to places that seem like they haven’t seen use in decades (at least, that’s how my brain remembers it). After thirty minutes of searching, we finally found it. The University had erected the monument in a disused courtyard on the fourth floor. All the way in the back, hidden under a bush.

Regina took a picture. She told me stories about her father, how he would always swing her up over his head and hug her when he came home from work, how he sang her to sleep to the tune of the irish tune “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” how he got sick, how the doctors said he might get better, how hard life was when he didn’t. I don’t cry often, but I did then.

Regina found the closure she sought. She left in peace. That was good. But what of the rest of the families? Does it do them justice to have a monument sitting under a bush in a courtyard no one uses? What are the chances we will “Never Forget” now? If you called University Hospital tomorrow and asked about this scar on their history, would they even know what you’re talking about?

Forgetting is easy. It happens without effort. It’s remembering that takes effort. Tearing down a monument doesn’t fix the past any more than hiding a memorial under a bush. All that accomplishes is making it that much easier to forget. Some monuments, like the Lost Cause efforts in New Orleans, attempt to subvert history, but as the statue of a young girl standing in front of a bull on Wall Street recently taught us, the Meanings of things can change if we put the effort into recognizing the right context.

Mayor Landrieu quoted the Confederate Vice President Andrew Stephens in saying that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

He might as well have quoted Abraham Lincoln who, in debates with Stephen Douglas, said, “And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race” and “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”

Mayor Landrieu accuses his detractors of being self-appointed defenders of history, but fails to recognize that General Lee never owned slaves while General Sherman conscripted freed slaves into his service as he marched to the sea. This does not relieve Lee’s guilt for having chosen to fight FOR slavery and AGAINST the United States. It merely shows that history is messy, and morality is not as easily-defined as the Mason-Dixon line.

Mayor Landrieu asked us to look into the eyes of an African American girl and explain how these statues are here to inspire her. My answer to the little girl would be this: These monuments are not here as an inspiration. They are here as a warning. Evil is a part of all of us. It is in all our hearts. It smiles at us and seems as innocent as a cup of coffee and a few jokes about baseball. Evil is destructive, and it’s greatest power is not in how it trashes when let loose, but how patiently it lies still, waiting for people to forget.

My greatest fear is not that the little girl from Mayor Landrieu’s speech will look at a statue of Robert E Lee and think, “my potential is limited.” My greatest fear is she will think, “I wonder who that is?” and move on. That is the easy path. Ignoring and forgetting evil is easy. Robert E Lee was revered in his time. Dr. Gene was a revered professor at the hospital where he murdered nearly 100 people.

If you call the University of Cincinnati Medical School now and ask to see the memorial, they will probably have no idea what you’re talking about. They may have simply forgotten all about it.