In the ACT we pay stamp duty when we buy a property. For first home…
When my daughter was about 12 months old, our family was invited to a colleague’s house for dinner.
It would be early, as they also had young children, but was on a weeknight and I was back working full time.
On the surface, it sounded like a fun way to spend a Wednesday evening. Someone else was cooking and I was promised wine. Perfect. But while my husband simply confirmed with me we were free then figuratively washed his hands of any further responsibility, I immediately had a growing mental list of everything that now needed to be done for this night to happen. Read: everything that I now needed to get done.
Because while my husband just needed to turn up on time, I would need to pack a bag with nappies, PJs, a teddy (for the car ride home), a sleeping bag (just in case), a bottle of milk, and a pre-prepared meal for my baby’s dinner. I would also need to remember to block out my calendar at work so I could leave 15 minutes early in order to get to childcare, pick up children, and drive to the other side of Canberra by 6 pm.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, once we got there I would almost certainly have time to inhale a delicious home-cooked meal, half a glass of wine and enjoy 20 minutes of adult conversation. Then I’d leave early to get the baby home to bed.
I’ll be really clear here. No one asked me to do all that. I just did it. Because somehow, like millions of other women around the world, we just do.
We think of all the stuff that needs to happen to get things done and then we go right ahead and do it. Many, many, many times a day. It’s called the invisible or mental load, and it’s a very real, very present thing.
So real, in fact, that Heather Pye, a mother of three and coach, founded The Invisible Load, a coaching service to help families deal with the weight this load places on households and relationships.
Based on her work, Heather sees the issue as multi-faceted.
“There are a number of reasons why the invisible load exists and is so heavily skewed toward women,” says Heather.
“One is the expectations placed on women and the links with our identities. This can be in the form of subtle (and not-so-subtle) messaging we receive every day about what it means to be a ‘good mother’.”
It’s also important to also consider the problem on an individual level, she says.
“It’s culturally the norm in Australia for women to take a decent chunk of time for parental leave, but not for men to do the same. Policies and systems have been set up to support the implicit expectation that it is the woman’s role to be home with the baby. “
And so begins a self-perpetuating cycle. Women are typically home more, and through ‘on-the-job’ training, we learn ways of caring for our children and managing a household. We research parenting techniques, use trial and error, learn from our peers through mother’s group and chatting with parents at school pick up, and set ourselves up to become the experts.
From a neuroscience perspective, says Heather, this means that women who spend more time managing the household and caring for children create neural pathways that their partners’ brains have not had the chance to create. We become the experts and take on the associated invisible load.
Then we go back to paid work, yet continue to carry this load at home. In her book The Wife Drought, Annabel Crabb writes that in Australian nuclear families (with a heterosexual partnership) where dad works full time, sixty percent have the support of a stay at home mum to manage the household. Yet the equivalent support is there in three per cent of families where mum works full time.
Three. Per. Cent.
Is it any surprise that a recent ANU study found that of the 20 percent of people who reported an increase in alcohol consumption during the COVID lockdown, women said it was to deal with the stress of the extra caregiving responsibilities they had on top of their paid work? The men said it was because they had more time on their hands.
Heather’s work backs this up. “We know from research, such as the longitudinal HILDA study, that women in heterosexual relationships in Australia consistently spend more time on housework and caring responsibilities in the home than men.”
“And when women return to paid work, we usually continue to manage the lion’s share of the mental load,” she says. “The tendency to hold onto the parenting responsibilities is called ‘maternal gatekeeping’. I often hear this in the form of ‘it’s just easier if I do it’ or ‘he doesn’t do it as well as me’.
It doesn’t help that men have a tendency to overestimate how much they contribute in the home.
For example, in a study published in the New York Times in May 2020, nearly half of men claimed that they were doing most of the homeschooling. Only 3 percent of women agreed. That’s quite a gap in perceptions.
So, what can we actually do about this seemingly huge divide in our own homes? How do you overcome a situation where one person is the expert and the other person either doesn’t know how or is happy to go along for the ride?
Here’s the answer. Are you ready?
If you want to shift behaviour in your partner, you need to start letting go. Be prepared to relinquish control over the way things get done in your house.
Seriously though, one of the most powerful things you can do is to look for opportunities for your partner to walk in your shoes. In neuroscience, this is called perspective-taking.
In practice this means giving your partner a chance to learn and build confidence that they can manage the meal planning, putting kids to bed, homeschooling or running the social calendar without scrutiny.
Here’s how to get the conversation started:
- Be clear on why this matters. What are your reasons for why you need change? Write down the reasons that are personal and real to you. Share it.
- Make the invisible, visible. What gets seen gets managed. Capture all the responsibilities and tasks you are managing. A shared spreadsheet or list is good for this. It’s not a point-scoring exercise—it’s a management tool.
- Schedule time to discuss with your partner and check in regularly. Select a time to discuss when you are both relaxed. What do you need right now? What is working? What is not working? What is one thing that you can both do differently?
Heather says the first and most important step is acknowledging that things need to change.
“The challenge is to make a conscious decision and agreement as a couple to shift the responsibilities in the home. Then we can start to enable our partners to learn how to share the mental load.”
Sure, things may not happen the exact way you would do it, or in record time, but with some guidance, patience and space to practice, you can rebalance the mental load in your home, one conversation at a time.
And maybe the next time you are all invited out for dinner, you can actually enjoy the damn meal.