Want to know how to make life easier as a mother and reduce the invisible load? There are lots of terms you may have heard: invisible work, mental load, second shift, emotional labour…. all try to get at those tasks which are unseen and unappreciated as work but take up an inordinate amount of time and energy.
By Jessica Hill of The Parent Collective
If you haven’t established a division of labour with your partner before your baby arrived, these roles will fall largely to the mother.
It sneaks up on you in those early days of maternity leave.
You are so overwhelmed with keeping this new baby alive as well as the endless cycle of laundry, bottle cleaning, grocery shopping and diaper changing that you don’t quite appreciate that now that you are home all the time, you are paying the bills, doing the housework, and managing the household without much equity to speak of.
Maybe you have found yourself in a situation where your partner asks, ‘how can I help’ and you aren’t quite sure what to say.
You find it hard to articulate what the tasks are and each individual one may feel insignificant and not worthy of outsourcing.
The real bugbear is the mental energy to keep it all straight and make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
If this speaks to you – you might be locked in an unproductive cycle of nagging and feeling harassed and don’t know how to make a change.
I hear you. And I have been there!
I have a husband who is incredibly engaged and helpful, but he will be the first to acknowledge that when he goes to work, all he thinks about is work.
And when I recently described a relatively average day I had – Making a business development pitch and follow-on proposal. Managing an intern. Arranging doctor’s appointments for both kids. Reorganising carpooling. Racing home for a tutoring session. A meeting with my web designer. Cooking dinner. And coaching a client – his response was ‘I couldn’t do what you do’.
There is a meme that circulates occasionally that says ‘I’m going to bed’ with two columns for mum and dad. The mum’s side has a long laundry list of tasks to do to close up for the night.
Things like – start the dishwasher. Pick up toys in the living room. Make lunches. Sign forms in kid’s folders. Shower. Check on the kids. Try to go to bed and begin thinking about all the things you forgot to do. Get up make a list… you get the idea.
Dad’s side of course only says ‘go to bed’. It’s extreme but it does highlight what we are up against.
So how do we make roles more equitable?
Here are three strategies for making a dent.
Make It Known
If your partner doesn’t see that work is being done, they won’t know to chip in. Eve Rodsky refers to how she created the “Sh*t I Do” list where she wrote down every task no matter how seemingly insignificant, along with the time required to complete it.
This will inevitably be a loooong list with many of the items being microscopic tasks.
Try to group this list into buckets: i.e. meal planning, kid schedules, house admin etc. Think about which buckets can most easily be outsourced and managed remotely. It’s easier to search recipes and place online grocery orders at the office than sterilising baby bottles, for example.
Ditch the Shame
Many of us (me definitely included) have been reluctant to ask for help in the past because we feel like we should be able to manage. And somehow asking for help indicates we are failing.
Brene Brown defines shame as: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.
Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnection.”
This feeling thrives in silence and secrecy – when you feel like you are the only one who feels it. But having worked with expectant and new parents for years, I can guarantee you that you are NOT alone.
If you want to be able to move past your shame, Dr. Brown concludes that we must reach out and share our stories with trusted supports. This requires courage and vulnerability. And hopefully it is greeted with empathy and support.
Ask for Help
Or rather, have a discussion about how you and your partner can more equitably divide and conquer.
Keeping in mind the above points and the anxiety you may be feeling throughout this conversation, it’s important to remember to be productive. This will undoubtedly be an emotionally charged conversation and you may get upset and blame your partner for not helping more or not seeing that you are struggling. Resist this.
a. Do: Work to split buckets of tasks not individual tasks. That way your partner owns the mental load of planning for the tasks as well as the action items. This will free you up and might also remove the perception of you as nagging to make sure tasks are complete.
b. Don’t: Don’t expect your partner to be a mind reader. If you are doing all of this work in a vacuum, you can’t fault your partner for not realising it. (Even though I have absolutely blamed my husband on many an occasion for not realising it).
c. Do: Give them the bandwidth to become the expert at something. Don’t micromanage or that will only make them reluctant to help. Maybe they are in charge of meal planning and groceries. If they take that on, give them the space to own it and maybe fail at it. You can always order dinner and that will give them a more grounded window into all that you keep ticking over. It will also allow you to remove this from your endless list in a meaningful way.
d. Don’t: Don’t return shame and blame to your partner if he or she can’t manage to take on something more while they are at work. Look at their situation with empathy and try to problem solve in a way that respects everyone’s limits. Maybe you outsource some responsibilities (hire a cleaner, send out laundry etc). Maybe your partner is in charge of all weekend activities, so you have a mental break from planning. Be creative and recognise that your partner is not you and will have different boundaries.
e. Do: Maintain communication and connection with your partner as your relationship evolves. Parenthood is an entirely different ballgame than being a couple. There are a million more responsibilities and much less bandwidth for focusing on each other.
Whatever you choose to call it, the invisible work of parenting is vast – both mentally and physically – and largely managed by mothers.
We have internal barriers in place that stop us from reaching out and asking for help: we are striving for some idea of perfectionism and we feel shame in admitting we are struggling.
In an attempt to manage the countless and competing expectations of our mothering, we end up martyrs, giving ourselves over entirely to others.
By working as a household to shift this mindset, you will be one step closer to achieving the balance we all crave.