I’ve been trying a new approach to achieve that coveted-yet-unrealistic idea of a 50/50 household. It’s ambitious, but I don’t care. The experiment? Let’s creatively call it “equal distribution of the mental load.”
The key to sane parenting, I think, is managing mental energy—not the amount of actual day-to-day tasks that I complete. My mental load has increased significantly with each kid (we have two) and the financial load of keeping the tiny people educated, entertained, clothed and fed. At this point, lightening my mental load feels more luxurious than a chia-bowl-filled yoga retreat in the tropics.
Here were the ground rules my partner and I stuck to these past few months to make that a reality:
We split up tasks in a way that accounts for the mental load. It’s tougher than it sounds. For example, he recently sent out our daughter’s birthday invite, wrote the text and tallied the guests rather than asking me to write the text and keep track of the RSVPs while he physically sent the email. It was a small battle, but I won. And that’s exactly the type of task that shouldn’t involve mental input from both of us.
We don’t pull each other into the other’s mental load. We each buy our own toiletries. We each call our own relatives. We each research our own winter boots, and—in general—act like independent adults.
We skip the reminders. No Post-its or texts to take out garbage, pay bills, handle school tasks for the kids. Instead, I calmly focus on my own tasks, while letting my spouse focus on his. If a task was previously assigned to him, then I try (with all my might) to forget about it. Vice versa.
Here’s what my partner, James Agres, and I have learned so far.
No day is perfect.
Alina: I break my own rules at times, but persist on most days. Months later, my quest for equally distributing mental load is becoming more of a habit.
James: I’m still playing along.
It takes constant effort.
Alina: Texting or saying reminders can be easy—it pops into my head and then I say it. But truly relinquishing responsibility is more complex. Once we’ve agreed on who does what task, it can be especially difficult to be patient until it’s completed. It takes all of my willpower not to nudge—and sometimes I still do.
James: Both of our lives would be a lot easier if Alina were to relinquish the desire to send reminders. I’d much rather be left alone to do the things that need to be done on my own.
There will always be new, unassigned mental loads that pop up.
Alina: Without thinking we can rope each other into a task that’s squarely in the other’s domain. Most recently, it was a fully clogged dryer vent that made laundry dry in two hours versus one. In the end, I arranged to have it fixed—only slightly bitter at the added mental load. And when it comes to family parties, I—not my spouse—feels the pressure to make sure the entire family is dressed and on time. It’s especially because working for myself as a journalist means last-minute mental loads sprout, and I have little choice to decline.
James: Mental load division aside, sometimes we have to be accommodating to each other’s schedules and needs. If things come up that are easier for the other person to do, then it should be done knowing it’s for the benefit of the entire household.
You can’t know the full extent of the mental load your partner carries.
Alina: Thankfully, James does some things behind the scenes (that he’s pointed out to me in one of a dozen or so mental load conversations in recent months). He pays bills, potty trains, fixes broken toys, replenishes our stockpile of fancy tea, deals with insurance companies, keeps track of the kids’ hair-washing schedule, cuts their nails and makes us the previously noted tea most weekdays. Some might call me unappreciative for not noticing—but neither of us are waiting around for a thank you and I’m glad.
James: Some people may call you unappreciative. I won’t be that person.
The tit-for-tat can make you feel like enemies.
Alina: The most important thing I learned is that men worry about the mental load too; in fact, the topic was brought up by a friend’s husband. Allowing each other to live with our own mental load is best for both of us. It’s not pleasant to be reminded of things you’ve slacked on—and my husband is guilty of this too. Having these boundaries allows us to be the best possible role models for our children—and no one wants to feel treated like a forgetful child.
James: Agreed. This point was very accurate.
It’s a strategy that needs to be constantly recalibrated.
Alina: After vacations, business trips and with each passing school year, we each need to take on new tasks, give up old ones and keep moving to both feel like equal contributors to living our intertwined lives.
Our biggest takeaway: The mental load is never going to be perfectly distributed. I’m OK with that. But on days that we succeed in more equal divvying-up, I find myself feeling lighter and with more energy to devote to dreaming about yoga retreats.