Share The Load | International Women's Day 2018
Recently, a French cartoonist’s feminist comic strip, “You Should’ve Asked”, went viral. Originally posted in French, it has since been translated to English and shared over 200k times on Facebook. “You Should’ve Asked” addresses the Mental Load – an invisible responsibility carried almost exclusively by women. For International Women’s Day 2018, our team at the Villa Blog decided to look more deeply into this topic. We’ve collaborated on this post, as well as the short video that summarizes our own collective experiences.
You might imagine us sitting around a virtual table, sharing our ideas and experiences:
Lately, I’ve been wondering something: Why do we women take on the emotional work of our families? You all know what I’m talking about. We are the ones who are faced, every day, with making sure that our families are healthy and happy. Yes, there are plenty of dads who pitch in. But, and tell me if you disagree, it seems like we mothers do the lion’s share of what psychologists call “emotional labor”.
We are the ones who can’t seem to leave the responsibilities of home at home when we are doing other necessary jobs, like working. We are the great multi-taskers, who can conduct a meeting while also planning our 5-year-old’s birthday party simultaneously in the margins of our minds. We keep track of each family member’s schedules, sending quick texts to our teenagers reminding them that they have a SAT study class tonight, and to our husbands, reminding them that we have parent-teacher conferences tomorrow, and that they are also supposed to pick up the 10-year-old from soccer practice.
As women, we are socially conditioned and genetically engineered to worry. We tend to be the ones who hold everything and everyone together. The mental load is constant and unending.
“When was the last time I talked to my girlfriend? What if she thinks I don’t care anymore?”
“I wonder if my comment last week upset my boss and that’s why he’s been delegating less responsibility to me.”
“How is my mom doing? I should FaceTime her to let her see the kids. But I’ll need at least 20 minutes so it’s not rushed, and we really need to go grocery shopping for the dinner party we’re hosting. What if she thinks we’ve forgotten about her?”
“Does this shade of lipstick make me look professional? Or slutty? Will people treat me differently or look at me weird if I try out this new style?”
“My toddler is 2 months overdue for his wellness check. I’m so busy at work, but I’ll have to take time off to take him in. Will I be viewed as less committed to the project if I do? Will my new insurance cover check-ups?”
The mental load is emotional, invisible, and completely draining.
It’s not just women who have children. If we are inviting guests over for dinner, my husband thinks I’m silly to spend so much time cleaning the house. But if I didn’t do it, they wouldn’t arrive and think he doesn’t keep a tidy home. They would be looking around and wondering, “What’s wrong with Meagan?”
When your spouse says, “Just tell me what you want me to do,” you’re still carrying the mental load of having to formulate the problem-solving method, and then outline it for them. That’s when you tell yourself that it’s easier to do it yourself. All this goes on behind the scenes, and sometimes you don’t even realize that you’re building resentment and wasting energy just carrying the responsibility for the tasks, let alone doing them.
It was only recently that I figured out that it was the invisible mental stressors that were putting me in a low-level state of exhaustion most of the time. For the past six months, I’ve been carrying the emotional weight of caring for our family’s beloved senior dog, Sophie, who—by the vet’s estimation—lived four years longer than most dogs with congestive heart failure. Even while I was facilitating a workshop in Cairo or Nairobi, I was still texting home to see if she was getting her meds or ask what she was eating every day. It wasn’t until a week or so after she died that I realized how much of the emotional part of it I was carrying, even though my family was filling in and helping with the daily caregiving whether I was home or away.
So why is this a gender equality problem? And what is the solution?
As women – no, scratch that – as human beings, we only have a finite amount of energy in our energy banks every day. When the mental load required to keep households, groups, organizations, and projects running smoothly is placed solely on one individual or gender, carrying both the mental and physical tasks drain our energy banks and leave low-to-zero reserves for anything else.
When the mental loads land on our shoulders, we (women) dutifully pick them up because—hey—that’s what we do—and we don’t even realize how it’s affecting the rest of our lives. A woman who has a long list of talents, creative ideas, leadership skills, etc., to offer her family, her workplace, her social groups, and her community may never have the chance to fully realize or express them because she is carrying a bigger share of the mental load.
For a long time, I’ve been trying to crack the code of what holds women back from pursuing bigger aspirations, climbing the leadership ladders of their companies, or starting their own businesses. Sure, all of these things take confidence, and that’s what we talk about most often. But there’s something deeper. I think women take a practical approach to life, because we know how much energy goes into managing life—not just for ourselves, but for our homes, families, and even what we might call our “work families”—our colleagues, bosses, and team members. Think about it: When it’s time to celebrate a colleague’s birthday, who organizes it? I’m not saying, “Who picks up the cake?” because I’ve seen that task shared. Who thinks of it and asks someone to pick up the cake? Who remembers we need plates, napkins and plastic forks? Who sends the card around for everyone to sign?
When I ask many women if they’ve ever considered reaching for a bigger role or a higher position, they often hesitate, then say something like, “Maybe someday…when my (fill in the blank here: son graduates…elderly mother is gone…husband’s career is more stable…) Perhaps then I’ll have more bandwidth and could think about that. Right now, it’s just not worth it.”
Is this one of the invisible barriers that might be holding women back from being more influential at a higher level in a world that desperately needs us?
Most women can relate to this, and it’s a topic that has been discussed in the social sciences for decades. The concept of emotional labor was first introduced by Arlie Hochschild, an academic who gave this concept a name in her 1983 book, “The Managed Heart.” Emotional labor was first discussed as a workplace concept that is the process of managing one’s feelings and expressions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors. Both male and female employees are expected to “go the extra mile” for their clients and to make the workplace a more pleasing place and your customer a more satisfied consumer, although women have greater expectations placed on them to express positive emotions like happiness, kindness and supportiveness.
According to Rebecca J. Erickson, a sociology professor at the University of Akron, research supports the theory that women and men operate under different “emotion rules” in the workplace, in that women are rewarded for their positive emotional affects and judged as either weak or aggressive for negative emotional responses such as anger or fear. Men, on the other hand, are rewarded for showing anger, assertiveness and other emotions associated with male power. Over time, the term began to be associated more with female employees and women feeling like they are filling a “proxy parent” role in their workplaces. And though women are technically getting paid for their time, they still shoulder this expected role, which adds an invisible responsibility to their workload that is seldom reflected in their job description or paycheck. Then, it is time to trudge home and begin the emotional labor demands at home that do not come with a paycheck.
As women, how will we ever claw our way up the equality ladder when we’re trying to drag our entire world around with us? If we want to solve the issues of gender parity, we need to look more carefully into this and understand the effect it’s having on women.
We often spread ourselves so thin carrying this mental load that others might see only the willing smile on our faces, but not the invisible drain on our energy. Like apps running in the background on our smartphones, our batteries get depleted until one day, we fall into an exhausted heap on the floor. And then our partner says, “Uh, why didn’t you say something?” or, “You should’ve asked.”
But, wait. We honestly have to ask ourselves, “Whose problem is this?” I learned a long time ago that the problem belongs to the person whom it bothers most. Is this thing bothering the people around us? Why do we care so much? Why do we walk around with a metaphoric shovel, gathering up all the things that need to be done because someone has to do it?!
Are we silently screaming, “Why don’t they see this burden I’m carrying?”
But they don’t see it. Or they don’t pick up their share because we’re carrying it, and it looks like we’ve got it under control. And we put on the smile and say, “Never mind. I’ve got this.”
(And maybe you don’t really think they could do as good a job at carrying it as you are doing. Hard to admit that, right?)
Someone who has never carried the mental load simply cannot understand how it affects every single aspect of everyday life. They take for granted all those around them who carry this invisible load while enjoying its benefits of balance and life continuity.
When someone says, “Just stop worrying so much” in response to a verbalized expression of mental load anxiety, what they’re actually doing is refusing to share the mental load. They want to continue living in their blind state of enjoying the benefits while someone else carries the burdens.
This is why the mental load is not – and never will be – just a women’s problem.
When it’s placed on (or picked up by) primarily women, we are taking advantage of the finite energy banks of HALF THE POPULATION.
But we have to acknowledge that men also carry their own mental and emotional loads. Honestly, I don’t think about when my tires need to be rotated—I leave that to my husband. Maybe that’s me ascribing to typical gender roles, but he takes care of it. I don’t think he worries about it, though. He just does it. He’s more focused on what’s happening in his business, or how he might fund the next phase of the new division, or what time it is for his developers working in Abu Dhabi. I’m sure these are mental and emotional stressors for him, too.
So, I think he assumes that I’ll take care of the basics that keep our lives running, like shopping for food or arranging a trip to see his parents. (Seriously? This one is mine, too?)
I don’t know. I recently read an article in The Guardian by Rose Hackman about this that confirmed where we as a society are with this issue. (‘Women are just better at this stuff’: Is emotional labor feminism’s next frontier? The Guardian, Nov. 8, 2015)
She said, “If we are socialized from a young age to be this way, is it possible that we really are better at it, even if nature did not make us so? Should we just shut up and get on with it because the world would probably stop turning if we didn’t? Or is it time we started forgetting the birthdays, too, time we stopped falsely screaming ecstasy, and demanded adequate, formal renumeration for emotion work provided in the workplace as a skill? Now that, right there, would probably be a shake-patriarchy-to-its-core revolution.”
What can we do?
This isn’t going to be easy to change. For centuries, women from all backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities and generations have been picking up and carrying the mental and emotional loads. We do it naturally, dutifully, without a second thought. Changing the expectations of society could take a long time, but there are some simple things we can do now to reduce the weight of the mental and emotional loads we may be carrying.
Here are some ideas we’ve gathered in our exploration:
1. Take inventory: Do a Brain Dump
Make a paper-and-pen list of everything that’s on your plate: Who and what you’re worried about, what you’re afraid you’ll forget, what’s playing constantly in the back of your head. Big stuff. Trivial stuff. Today stuff. 10-years-from-now stuff. Just get it out of your head onto the paper. See it in writing.
As we were brainstorming ideas on how to write this article to create the greatest impact, Merrilee suggested that we take five minutes and just write down everything we were worried about in that moment.
This impromptu exercise was eye-opening. We discussed and laughed about our most granular issues: “My nail polish came out too dark and now I’m worried people will think I’m gothic.” “I didn’t do my hair today and I’m worried people will judge me.” We also connected and empathized as we shared our deeper, more intimate concerns: “My son is starting a dangerous new job in Alaska.” “I’m always so busy with work. Am I good mom?” “I haven’t talked to my mom in a long time. Was that last text I sent her meaningful enough? Does she know I love her?” “Am I enough? Are my daily choices in line with my overarching goals and values?”
In addition to being eye-opening and therapeutic, this practice is a critical part of overcoming the mental load problem. We must make ourselves and others aware, and that starts with getting it out of our heads and into the open.
2. Sort your inventory: What’s in my control? What’s out of my control?
We carry a lot of energy for things we have little or no control over. When you sort through what’s on your plate, you begin to see where you CAN DO something, and where you CAN’T. For the “can’t” items, just work on reducing your emotional investments in them…for now.
3. Ask for help. Make a plan.
We know: we shouldn’t have to ask. But others can’t read our minds, and we may be so good at carrying the weight, we didn’t even know until now that we were.
Talk about what you’re carrying—with your spouse, your partner, a trusted friend, a colleague or boss--someone who can help you see your burdens accurately, or make changes to lighten the load. You may find—surprisingly—that he or she is also carrying invisible mental and emotional loads. Sharing stories with each other connects us and leads us to new solutions.
Then make a plan for managing some of the things you CAN control:
Negotiate the division of labor at home and at work—physical, mental and emotional
"I'll make the weekly schedule and we can divide the kids' activity transportation."
"I want us to plan the vacation together this year."
"I'll be in charge of paying the bills if you plan the weekly menus for dinner. And I need you to field all your mother's phone calls."
Make your organizational systems work for you. If you’re a paper list person, do that. If you like technology or apps, use them. The less you have to carry in your head, the better. Write it down and get it out of your head and off your shoulders.
Limit your inputs: social media, news, or anything that makes you feel “not enough”. We could write all day about how we absorb the energy of all the information and inputs that seep into our unconscious minds every day and add to our mental load. You don’t need that, so put yourself on restriction, and set limits. Maybe the world has a lot of sad, tragic things happening, and maybe there are a lot of wonderful causes and efforts to join. We have to care, because we’re designed to care. But we can’t carry it all, all the time. You don’t have to post all your pictures on Instagram just because you took them. Pay attention to where your energy is going, and reel it back in sometimes.
Give yourself time off: calm your mind, practice mindfulness, meditate, and re-set. It will take a long time to make changes, both in our internal mindsets and in the practices of the people around us. But start with some practices that help you clear your head and set down the load from time to time. When you re-set your brain, you get a fresh new start, and you can see what you really have to carry—and what you only think you have to carry—more clearly.
Here’s the good news: Now you know. You can recognize when you’re carrying the mental and emotional loads of your life and the lives of the people around you, and you can do something about it.
We know. They should see it and pick it up and take it off your shoulders. But that’s not going to happen, and we all know that. But we can talk about it, acknowledge it, and share the complex challenge it might be to solve it at a more fundamental level. Because the world needs more women leaders to come to the table and solve some of the bigger challenges we are facing on this planet. We can’t allow the energy drain we are experiencing in our own worlds to keep us back.
We can, however, #share the load. We can help each other, we can ask for help, and we can work with our male and female partners, colleagues and family members to help us carry the mental load and do the emotional labor that keeps our worlds turning.
Happy International Women’s Day 2018! As we all #PressForProgress, what will you do to #ShareTheLoad?
Special thanks to Haley Fields, Carol Story, Meagan Nielsen and Merrilee Buchanan for contributing to this story and producing our IWD 2018 video: “Share the Load.” And big thanks to Beth Beuler for drawing and animating our video characters to tell this important story.