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.
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.