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Zachary Watson looked at the blueberry scones his wife had just taken out of the oven, steam rising from the golden tops.
Are these too hot to give to a baby? he asked her.
As soon as it was out of my mouth, I thought, why the hell did I just ask that? I know the answer to that, Watson said.
It may seem like a small request from his wife Alice to consider whether the muffins are ready for their child. But getting into habits like these can leave one partner feeling like they’re shouldering the brunt of the mental load, he said.
A father and content creator based in Marlborough, Massachusetts, shares his experiences trying to divide the mental load into those tasks that require planning, preparation and follow-through to maintain a family on an equal footing with his wife.
Men are starting to hold themselves accountable, and like Watson, they’re taking to the Internet to teach other men to take on more of the mental load. The goal is for them to be more engaged partners and fathers, as well as to cultivate a deeper relationship with their family.
From the comments on his videos, Watson saw that it was a conversation many women were looking for and many men were benefiting from, he said.
Watson said he has read about 100,000 comments in the past two years. Many of them say, this is exactly why I divorced my husband, thinking of the inequality of mental burden that one partner can experience in maintaining a relationship or a family.
Learning about the mental strain of family and how to share those responsibilities isn’t just for bad husbands, said Eva Rodsky, author of Fair Play: The Game-Changing Solution When You’ve Got Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live) . Each partner may find themselves not working as much because of the way they were raised or societal expectations of what their responsibilities should or shouldn’t be, she said.
Even the most well-intentioned partners still aren’t doing their fair share at home, said Rodsky, who is also the founder of the nonprofit Fair Play Policy Institute.
When you or your partner lay your head on a pillow at night or have a moment in a quiet car ride, the noise swirling around your brain is a mental burden, Watson said.
When should we schedule our next pediatrician appointment? Will I have time to get to the grocery store to get food for our guests before their flight gets in? Wait, do they have food allergies? The baby’s stuffed animal is in the wash, and he gets nervous without it. Does the dog need to go to the vet?
Mental workload, commonly called invisible work, has evolved to mean the behind-the-scenes stuff that keeps the home and family running smoothly, even though it’s barely noticed and rarely valued, Rodsky said in an email.
Tasks are often involved in maintaining relationships and managing emotions, she added.
The problem is that, while important and often meaningful, these procedures take a lot of time, and most of them are done by women, Rodsky said.
If your partner is often the one keeping track of all the things that need to be done, why can’t they get you more involved just by making a list?
Now you’ve created one more task for your partner to remember to do, rather than one that often makes it feel like the two of you are a team, Watson said.
Taking ownership of a task from start to finish is often more rewarding than doing part of each task, Rodsky said.
Ownership involves more than just answering how can I help? but also cognitive and emotional work that each task requires thinking, planning, remembering when, where and how to do the work and without excessive supervision or input from the other partner, she added.
More men are speaking out in social media posts about how they haven’t realized all the ways they’re putting too much of a mental burden on their wives and girlfriends, and those conversations between men are important, Watson added.
We need to see another guy so he can think it through, identify where he kind of screwed up. he said. When we see a guy (who admits mistakes), I think it’s a lot easier to say and “Maybe I can put my ego down for a second and identify that I’m kind of doing the same thing.
Watson said his videos that give examples and explanations of how men can be better participants in the mental work of their household get a lot of comments from other men who show how beneficial these changes can be to their relationship.
His favorite comments are those from male viewers who say they are able to open up more conversation and understanding with their wives by finding out what their partners are doing behind the scenes and becoming a more integral part of it, he added.
If mental workload is universally understood, accepted and valued, I think we will live in a very different world, Watson said.
Often when redistributing responsibilities, changes start strong and fade away. But there are ways to create a system that lasts, Rodsky said.
The most important thing Watson and his wife have done to create an environment where they share the mental, emotional and physical labor of maintaining their home and family equally is what they call the boring meeting.
It happens to them every week around Monday lunchtime and they go over the boring, small details of what’s coming up and needs to be done, what needs to change in their home and how their shared responsibilities are progressing, he said.
Having those conversations in a non-reactive, non-defensive moment is a really great way to start realizing those little things instead of waiting for them to explode in resentment, Watson said.
When he started, Watson recommended spending time establishing a minimum standard of care for various household duties. For example, he and his wife agree that washing dishes means loading the dishwasher, washing pots and pans, and then wiping down the counter. The couple also agrees that because their Great Pyrenees is so fluffy, they don’t have to worry about the floors until they can pick up dog hair twice with their fingers, he said.
From there, it’s key to stay updated on progress at weekly meetings, Watson said.
Implementing the system takes some time, so don’t expect your partner to start owning your share of the business overnight, Rodsky said in an email. Start by renegotiating one household or childcare task. Just one can completely change the game.
When husband Rodski took ownership of extracurricular sports for their two sons, it freed up the equivalent of a full day’s work. I went back eight hours a week. Start with one task and build from there, she said.
The most wonderful time of the year can be overwhelming, so it’s important to start working out a system before the winter holidays, said Paige Bellenbaum, founding director of the New York Center for Motherhood.
It’s the most stressful time of the year, especially for couples with young children, she said. If not dealt with in advance, it can be an open invitation for frustration, irritability and anger. So what I always encourage couples to do is to be forewarning.
That means considering together what each of you expects from your holiday gatherings, what you imagine will be difficult and how you can work together to make it easier, she said.
And part of that game plan might be coming up with a code for when your partner needs to pick up the baby and questions from your in-laws while you go upstairs with a book for 20 minutes, she said.
It can be frustrating to have to explain everything to your partner, but teams work best when the parties involved clearly communicate expectations and needs, Bellenbaum said.
What are some ways that we can protect ourselves from going into that and coming up with these strategies so that we don’t find ourselves in a situation where we’re ready to have a nervous breakdown? She said. Let’s just get on with it and come up with a plan.
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