A friend and her partner were on their way back home from a late evening movie. She realised then, at about 10.30 pm that the house had no groceries for the following day. When she raised the alarm, she was met with an exclaimed response. “You remember this now, after all shops are shut?” he asked. And that escalated into an argument between them both, she pointing out that it’s not her sole responsibility to ‘remember’ what is needed to run the household and he exasperatedly explaining that he does half the chores and cooking at home.
When she narrated this incident to me a day after it occurred, peace had still not been restored in their home. She was convinced that there was something wrong that she was unable to articulate and he was resolute that he was doing all he could around the house. It was the word ‘doing’ that caught my attention, and I said to her, “There’s a phrase for what you’re going through! It’s called the mental load.”
I proceeded to show her French artist Emma’s comic strip You Should’ve Asked that was published in The Guardian’s website a year ago. The comic explains the concept of ‘mental load’ which ‘is the term for all the thinking and planning that goes into organising a family home. It is the ‘organiser-in-chief’ role that women tend to play, regardless of whether they have full-time careers or not.’ This is not rocket science — there are things in a house that need doing, but the act of remembering that these things need to be done is the cause of mental load.
As the comic points out, in most cases ‘a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, (and) he is viewing her as the manager of their household chores.’ Though women bear the mental load in most households worldwide there are obvious exceptions to this, be it a household of women or one with a stay-at-home dad. Or in a family like mine, where my mother’s main accusation of me is that I only “remember to forget that she is 24/7 thinking about running the household”.
The point is that a mental load exists in every household, and the same is not shared equally by all persons present. This becomes normalised when there are those who bring in the money and those that don’t, which is to say that the ones that put the bread on the table often don’t see that it needs to be toasted. While cooking is great, we must recognise that what is cooked often requires planning; when paying for the painting is important, we often don’t see that one person is stuck with having to coordinate the job; picking up the medicines is not the same as fixing doctor visits.
Remembering, planning, and coordinating that make up the mental load always outweigh the paying or the doing in the home. To start with, we must become cognizant of the mental load, identify who in the house bears its burden and do what it takes to share both the ‘doing’ and the ‘remembering’. Let’s remember not to say “You should’ve asked”, shall we?
The writer is a city-based activist, in-your-face feminist and a media glutton