“I really can’t do this much longer,” my client said. “I’m doing the business books, dealing with the kids, making sure my parents are alright, taking care of all the shopping and cooking. I can’t find time to vacuum every day.”
“Wait, WHATTT?!?” I said. “Who vacuums every day?!?”
I know. Terrible health coaching right there. Sarcastic and judgemental. It just slipped out.
“What do you mean?” she responded. “I’ve always vacuumed every day.”
Me, backpedaling as fast as I could, looking desperately for that “high-mileage question” and coming up only with yes/no questions, something we’re taught not to do:
“Did your mother teach you that?”
“Do the kids have allergies that require this?”
“Is it something your husband asks of you?”
“Was it something the carpet installer recommended?”
Finally, I found it: “Where did you get the impression that this is required?”
“Isn’t that just what one does?”
Am I the only one slightly shocked by this exchange?
I’m frankly less dismayed by the fact that my female client was the only one vacuuming daily than by the fact that she thought it was de rigeur.
From what I’ve seen and read, more men are doing more tasks around the house; however, the project management behind assigning those tasks apparently still falls predominantly to women—and it is now frequently referred to as the “mental load” or “cognitive labor” of running a household.
There has been a lot written about mental load in the past decade, perhaps most notably in the Bright Horizons report in the Modern Family Index series and with humor by feminist comic Emma.
If you’re not familiar with the term, here’s a great definition from MindBodyGreen: “[T]he mental load is about not the physical tasks but rather the overseeing of those tasks. It’s being the one in charge of having the never-ending list of to-do items constantly running in your head, remembering what needs to get done and when, delegating all the tasks to respective family members, and making sure they actually get done.”
When I talk about mental load with my clients, they are often startled: their spouses do at least half of the work at home, whether it’s house- or child-related, they say.
Ah, but very, very few of them can honestly say that their husbands know: the names of the kids’ friends, the names of their kids’ friends’ parents, where they live, and what they do; the kids’ school schedules, teachers’ names, counselors’ names, and whom to call when [fill in the school-related crisis] happens; the kids’ extracurricular activities, schedules, locations, adults-in-charge; when doctor/dentist/orthodontist appointments need to happen and where they are; when to go to the store and what to buy there, when to do the laundry and how to remember that the dryer is full of clean clothes that need to be folded and where they go, when the house needs cleaning, when to run the dishwasher and whether it needs to be unloaded.
Basically, women anticipate what needs to be done, do it or delegate it, and follow up on whether it gets done: we are usually the project managers on the home front.
Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, the more full time a woman works, the more mental load she bears.
And frustratingly, the pandemic seems to have increased women’s mental load more than men’s.
We’re more likely to be the ones figuring out how to home school or arrange for virtual learning; in addition to becoming a virtual teacher’s aide for our kids, we’re also more likely to be the lunch lady, the school nurse, the librarian….
No, guys, I’m not judging you; I’m not judging anyone.
Many, many of us take on the mental load without even thinking about it, and that is my point.
Let’s get curious
One of the biggest mindshifts I work on with clients is this: whenever you find yourself getting judgmental, get curious!
There are two ways to ask the same question:
- I can’t believe this. Why is this happening again?
- This is interesting. Why is this happening again?
The first one is a conversation stopper—it’s judgy, blocks a response, and comes from a place of “things always happen to me.” The second is the start of a conversation—it’s curious and invites deeper reflection and opens the door to the possibility that things happen for us.
About a decade ago, I had a very similar experience to the client whose story appears at the start of this piece.
When I was working outside the home, I came home from work one time too many to find my husband leaning against the kitchen counter, scrolling through something on his phone.
The breakfast dishes were in the sink, the lunch boxes were on the counter—not emptied from the day, the dishwasher was ready to be emptied, and there was no sign of any dinner prep yet.
I dropped my things on the counter (okay, I may have thumped them on the counter), gave an exasperated sigh (yes, a passively aggressively loud one), and started in on the dishes.
“Wow,” he said mildly, “you’re not even going to go hang your sweater up before you start?”
“IT’S FIVE O’CLOCK, AND DINNER HAS TO BE AT 5:30!”
“BECAUSE! THAT’S … when … (running out of steam) … we … eat?”
Sigh. That was definitely a lame reason. I hate it when he’s right.
But what a great question! Why did I think—no, believe wholeheartedly—that dinner had to be on the table by 5:30?
He certainly didn’t care. The kids wouldn’t know the difference.
Why: it’s probably the most curious word there is.
Lightening the mental load
There are lots of suggestions for lightening our mental load: just Google “mental load” and you’ll find plenty.
And because I’m a health coach and trained to look for underlying causes rather than just trying to mask symptoms, I want to make one more—I think it’s possibly the most important one there is: get curious!
Why do you feel that something at home must look a certain way/happen at a certain time/be done to a specific standard?
- Is it something you brought over from your own upbringing?
- Is it something someone has specifically tasked you with?
- Or did you simply take it on because you thought it was expected of you?
Don’t stop there, because this is where the magic happens: wonder, “What would happen if…?”
- What would happen if dinner weren’t on the table by 5:30?
- What would happen if you didn’t vacuum every day?
- What would happen if you got someone to clean or cook for you?
- What would happen if you didn’t have each child in three different after-school activities?
- What would happen if you didn’t volunteer for [fill in the blank] this year?
- What would happen if you went part-time?
- What would happen if you stayed full-time and hired someone to help the kids deal with online school?
- What would happen if you just write this school year off as a loss and let your kids stay back a year? (I know, GASP. But I hear that’s what they’re doing in Kenya this year!)
Obviously, some of those questions come from a place of privilege—and even if you need to work full time and can’t afford to outsource housework or help with school, still ask the question.
Sometimes we don’t explore our options fully because we’re locked in that place of lack in our minds and asking the question, daring to dream the answer can help us get creative with a solution.
And a solution to overwhelm and burnout is just what we need in these times of plague and chaos.
WLAA health columnist Liza Baker is a health coach, cookbook author, blogger, podcaster, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice.