A Social Experiment

Misadventures in trying to tackle our family’s Mental Load.

I’m currently running an informal social experiment in my house. I want to see how long it will take someone other than me to change the roll of toilet paper. So far it’s been three days and nadda… The old roll is still  sitting on the ring, all sad and used up. Don’t worry, we are continuing to practice good hygiene… The new roll is just perched on top, so literally every time someone in our house uses the bathroom they have to pick up the new roll from directly on top of the old one. So far it has not occurred to a single child or adult in the house (other than me) to just change the darn roll, lol. 

Just to be clear about my intentions here, I’m not doing this as a way to pass judgement or punish anyone. Frankly,  I’ve already tried both those tactics and… Well, obviously here I am writing this, so neither effort produced a desired outcome. This is however, the first time I have not just immediately caved and changed it myself. I’m interested to see what happens when the new roll is finished.

Are we going to start playing used toilet paper roll Jenga? Probably

Funny passive aggressive toilet paper experiments aside though, I have been thinking a lot about all the unnoticed tasks that moms and women invisibly take care of every day. The thing is though, they only go unnoticed until they stop happening and all heck breaks loose. Then you better believe that I am hearing about how there are 10 empty rolls of toilet paper on the bathroom floor, “why is the house such a mess”.  Or my husband rushes downstairs late for work and says “I have no socks, why didn’t you fold them and put them in my drawer”, or my kiddos exclaim, “you didn’t register me for pizza lunch and all the other kids had pizza and I didn’t”, the inhumanity! All this daily behind the scenes household management has been coined “the mental load” and I think in a lot of cases women and mothers end up feeling it the most.

Now, I’m certainly not discounting the really important role dads play in contributing to a happy home here, I am absolutely positive there are dads out there who are fully engaged and just generally killing the whole parenting and running a household thing at next level status! I however, can only speak to my own experience and those of the women and moms that I interact with on the regular. More often than not, when I am chatting with my married or partnered up girlfriends the conversation turns to our families and then into the daily struggles we experience just trying to get everything done! We joke about it and playfully ask ourselves, “why do they always need to be asked?” My husband for one, is an absolute superstar. He is an amazing dad, a true partner and the love of my life. He’s always on board to help with whatever needs to get done. But… (ah the dreaded but!), we too have tried to dissect this topic, usually poorly (on my part) and involving me hitting my limit, half-dressed on a Sunday morning, completely overwhelmed and yelling through tears about the fact that the floors aren’t vacuumed, or why the eight candy wrappers he left on our bedroom dresser are still there days later. The response back is “well, all you have to do is ask for help”. But this is the crux of it, or at least for me it is.

Sometimes just having to ask for help feels like too steep of a mountain to climb.

Sometimes I don’t even know where to start, or what to ask for help with and in my head I just end up rationalizing that it is easier if I just do it myself. What’s that you say, it sounds like a choice I am making? Absolutely, you’re 100% correct, I do choose to take it on. But, riddle me this; if I made a different choice, if I chose not to all this invisible work, who is stepping in to pick up the slack? Who’s getting us all to the dentist, making sure we have what we need for dinner, checking backpacks to make sure homework made it inside for the next day, mentally noting soccer registration is next week and we have a parent teacher interview on Thursday. Who’s calling the insurance company because they randomly increased our premium, or buying a card that has to be mailed early because we have family on the west coast. Who’s making plans to see family over the holidays, buying a birthday present for that party in two days, or packing sweaters because it’s supposed to be chilly in the afternoon? And for goodness sake, who is shoring up our next family getaway because this mamma needs a break!?

I recently read an article on this topic after it popped up in my Facebook feed. Oh Facebook, how well you know and stalk me, lol. It was published on Working Mother and highlighted a cartoon on this subject. It so perfectly depicted and validated my feelings around this, I almost started to cry. Seriously, check it out here, this is life changing stuff. 

Ultimately, that article led me to start reading up on this whole idea a little more and I found a report which was published last year called “Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report. Gotta love when your feelings are backed up by statistics! In a nutshell, it highlighted that since the mid-1970s, family structures have really changed. As more and more families have moved toward dual incomes, women have started spending more time outside the home participating in paid work. And men’s roles within their families have also evolved in a lot of cases and they are spending more time inside their home participating in unpaid work, like childcare. So if women are spending more time outside and men are home more, why is there still such a crazy feeling of inequality around all this?

Women are basically taking on another “shift” of unpaid work after they finish their paid work day.

“Research also highlights women’s retention of ultimate responsibility for the coordination of children’s lives; the smooth functioning of the household (e.g., planning meals; scheduling medical, dental, and other appointments; and arranging for repairs or deliveries); “emotion work” (i.e., the enhancement of relatives’ emotional well-being and provision of support); and “kin keeping” (i.e., the maintenance of relationships with immediate and extended family by keeping in touch; remembering and acknowledging birthdays and other milestones; and planning and organizing family celebrations and vacations)—even as their economic roles have expanded. Although women often spend substantial amounts of time doing such mental and emotional work, it is largely invisible to others (except in its absence), typically lacks social recognition, and goes unmeasured”. (Moyser & Burlock, 2018).

Check out some of the language here: “Invisible”, “unmeasured”, lacks social recognition”. It’s powerful stuff and really resonates with me and how I feel about my own experience with all of this. Inevitably all this “light” reading led me to my next conundrum, what the heck can I do about it? Bottling it all up until I lose my mind and act like a crazy raging lunatic isn’t my idea of a fun family Sunday morning… And it probably isn’t easy for my husband or kids either – ok, definitely terrible for them too!

I can’t profess to have all the answers and clearly this is evidenced by this whole silly game of toilet paper roulette going on in my house right now… But, every so often in my slightly less cynical and “higher self” moments, I have really tried to give this some serious thought and explore what I could do to feel better about it all. So far, all I have managed to come up with is trying to better communicate my needs and do my best to let go of the reigns a little bit.

So what if a pair of dirty socks have been sitting on the kitchen island for three days!?They’ll still be there after I drink my coffee and read my book for 15 minutes…

At times it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I think the important thing (at least for me), is to keep plugging away, keep asking for help when I need it and trying my best to show genuine gratitude when my partner takes care of something without me asking. I have also found profound solace in venting to my tribe when I need to, followed by basking in the warm afterglow of their validation and support – at least until I have to go home and play toilet paper Jenga again. In the meantime, I hope this continues to be written about, talked about and discussed. At least in my own little corner of the planet, I will continue to work on and hope for the day when we can skip off merrily into the sunset holding hands, carrying the load 50/50.

Love, Nic

Moyser & Burlock, “Time Use: Total work burden, unpaid work, and leisure”, 2018. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/recovering-disasters.aspx

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