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Invisible Work: The Weight Of A Family That Men Don’t See

A father’s role is not to help the mother out, but to take on the “mental load” of knowing what needs to be done.

Photo of a man walking in the park with his three children

A father walks with three kids in the park

Ignacio Pereyra*

Last winter in Greece, I ended up spending several full days with Lorenzo, my now three-year-old son, because he had been sick and could not attend daycare. My wife is the main breadwinner in the house and I am the one who gets to leave behind work in case there are emergencies like that.

When Lorenzo got better, we went to a café in the outskirts of Athens. I envisioned a win-win situation where I could have a break — eat lunch, check emails, answer some messages — while he could play in an area designed for children — with a ball pit, tables for drawing and painting, a book corner… how important it is to have such spaces!

While Lorenzo was running and jumping, three women appeared with balloons, posters and food: they were preparing a birthday party. Perhaps because of the contrast — there was not a single man around — the scene reminded me ofan article I had read in the Washington Post, by U.S. psychologist Joshua Ziesel, who’d described his effort to be more egalitarian by organizing his daughter's birthday. How hard could it be?

Empty lectures

Ziesel counsels his patients about the enormous mental load that certain invisible tasks represent at home and that typically end up becoming a heavy burden for women. Suddenly, he realizes that he really doesn't know what he's talking about. He doesn’t even have an awakening. He makes a comment and his wife tells him how it is.

This is how he retells the story: “Confident that I wasn’t one of those unsupportive husbands, I shared my observations with my wife [...] She burst out laughing, marveling that I was lecturing my clients on mental loads when I didn’t understand how the concept played out in our own household.”

Women are not only ahead in planning the family’s tasks, but they also remember (and organize) those of the rest of the family members: "Did you call the pediatrician?", "Did you find out if we can take the dog or where to leave it for the vacations?", and a long list of etceteras. This leads to what is commonly referred to as "hidden mental load".

And no, my friend, women do not have a factory setup that makes them better at these tasks than men. It's not much of a mystery: These are skills that are acquired and developed with practice. There is no special female biology, which men were denied in their DNA that comes with remarkable domestic or caregiving skills (or for everything we men don't do because they supposedly do it better).

To change that, we must take the initiative without waiting to be told to do so.

Contrary to widespread belief, there are studies that show that women are no better than men at multitasking (in fact, the human brain can tackle one task at a time properly; switching tasks is another thing, though at the end you always end up doing one thing at a time).

Let’s say that these arguments don’t do it for you, and that you are not going to change anything because you are adamant that women are superior in planning the ironing and folding of handkerchiefs, demonstrate an unattainable skill in cleaning toilets or are champions in managing the mommy chats. That doesn’t mean that they have to do it anyways, right?

In other words, whatever innate differences in this regard you think might exist — and they don't! — should not determine who enjoys certain rights and freedoms. To change that, we must take the initiative without waiting to be told to do so.

Ziesel also addresses this: "I realized that, also unfairly, she constantly had to choose between just doing all the mental labor herself or continuing to try to help me see what I simply do not see, which is incredibly laborious in and of itself."

Unpaid work and mental load

In Spain, for example, official statistics show that women spend 38 hours a week caring for their children, while men spend 23 hours. In cooking or housework, women spend an average of 20 hours a week and men 11.

And this does not happen because men are the main breadwinners. If we talk about employed people, the distribution continues to be uneven. Considering paid work + unpaid work, women's working hours are longer (63.6 hours per week) than men's (56.7 hours).

Men usually dedicate the same number of hours to unpaid work (14 hours per week) regardless of whether they work part-time or full-time. Women increase the time spent on unpaid work (30 hours per week) when they work part-time.

The uneven trend is similar in most Western countries. From an economic perspective, we also talk about unpaid work and the figures are staggering.

The concept of mental load comes from the workplace context. In the 1980s, the French feminist sociologist Monique Haicault used it to make visible an invisible and harmful burden. The author wrote of "two universes, the professional universe and the domestic universe, which coexist and overlap". She defined mental load as the fact of having to think in one domain while physically being in the other.

The mental load includes divided and varied attention, which implies a state of fragmentation that generates mental tension and pressure. That can explain why it is difficult to carry that load, how much exhaustion it produces, which ultimately makes it unsustainable in the long term.

An example: While one person in the couple goes to bed and falls asleep, the other remains awake to go over all the tasks that were to be done during the day and, at the same time, begins to organize the next day. One disconnects and relaxes, the other cannot. One goes to play tennis, the other is frustrated or too tired even to take time off to play a sport, or to do anything else that is pleasurable.

These tasks are so naturalized, even for those who perform them, that sometimes it is difficult to perceive them. A couple of nights ago I was reading the news while Irene, my wife, hung the laundry — on autopilot. Why her and not me? "I'm used to doing it," she told me, and we got back to talking about the division of tasks. One way to identify the division of the load would be to write down for a week each thing you do: put the child’s backpack together, book a dentist appointment, keep in touch with the school, have the gym clothes ready for Tuesdays, and so on.

First-hand experience helps understand more deeply

In his attempt to start addressing the mental load imbalance, Ziesel set out to do something very basic that he had never attempted in eight years as the father of three children: throw a birthday party.

But as soon as he started, he realized he didn't even know the names of his daughter's classmates. "I hoped the rest of the planning process wouldn’t be so frustrating. But it was," he confesses, before listing the difficulties that arose at every step.

We can aspire to a little more equity in the home while we continue to fight outside for structural changes.

Sure, planning a birthday party is a fleeting, once-a-year event in family life. But this anecdote invites us to focus on the subject in a didactic and quite universal way. It helps us understand that until we experience something first hand, it is difficult for us to truly understand what it means.

How would Ziesel, or any of us, have coped with his partner going away for a month? Would he be able to take care of the house, of the kids and of everything else without calling her all the time? (And let me clarify: I'm not judging him!)

Photo of a man washing dishes

Not just "helping" with household chores: sharing them

Nathan Dumlao

See the burden and make it your own

Something that this anecdote also teaches us is that a simple conversation with your partner can lead to something bigger and that if, in fact, we then roll up our sleeves and organize the party, take care of the vaccination schedule and book an appointment with the pediatrician, then we will understand that there are many other things that we are not seeing.

At the same time, this may save us from out-of-place complaining about the lack of milk in the fridge or the shirts that have not been ironed, and open our eyes to things that others do for us without us even realizing it.

In this way we will be able to take care of more invisible tasks too, the heavy or undesirable ones, not simply of going to the park or grocery shopping. It is basic arithmetic: If the man takes over more tasks, the other person will do less. Thus, we can aspire to a little more equity in the home while we continue to fight outside for structural changes.

Anticipate the move

A woman has every right to demand of you: "I don't want you to do only half of the things, I want you to think about the other half of the things that need to be done!"

The first thing we do should never be to ask how we can help — that makes it clear that we have no idea! Moreover, it may imply that the task of knowing what needs to be done is the responsibility of the other person, and that we are only giving a hand out of solidarity or compassion. Running a family and a household is a joint enterprise and we must be co-responsible in sharing the loads (concrete, material, and mental).

Applying the same energy and attention to organizing our own activities and leisure time to the home and the family.

What does it mean to be co-responsible? “It's not enough to just do the shopping, but it is necessary to help make the list or plan the menu. Reality shows that many fathers are not co-responsible, they are executors of tasks. Mothers have to remind them what to do. And then we don't have time to take care of ourselves and they have a hard time letting go of their leisure time. All this prevents real co-responsibility. They have to take a step back and we have to take a step forward," explains Laura Baena, the Spanish founder of the Club de Malasmadres, a community that wants to demystify the idea of “perfect” mothers.

What they are telling us men is that we have to be alert and anticipate what needs to be done. We have to apply the same energy and attention we devote to organizing our own activities and leisure time (going for a run, playing soccer, traveling with friends) to the home and the family.

If this happens in every home, in every couple, if every man does it, life will be a little easier for everyone. And, as Ziesel found out, it is not about getting a medal.

At the end of the birthday, the guests thanked his partner for the party (which she had not organized). Instead of correcting them, the psychologist thought of all the celebrations his wife had planned alone for eight years. Instead of victimizing himself, and despite the frustration and effort it took to move out of his comfort zone, Ziesel decided that he would continue to take on more of the mental load for his family “because it is the just and equitable thing to do."

*Ignacio Pereyra is an Argentine journalist and author of Recalculating, a newsletter on masculinity and fatherhood.

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