by John Hoffman
The other day I read an article about women’s invisible workload, written by Lisa Wade, professor of sociology at Occidental College. The idea that mothers have a hidden workload – a psychological and emotional burden – that men don’t always see is not a new idea to me. I have written about it several times over the years. Aside from child care and housework, there is an extra “keeping track” function that is usually a mom’s responsibility. It’s not a question of how many hours she puts in. It’s a constant – stuff like, “We’re almost out of peanut butter,” or, “Joey is going to run out of clean underwear unless somebody (probably me) does a load of laundry.”
Mother’s Day is as good a time as any to talk about this. I suggest you check out Lisa Wade’s article. She does a good job of laying out the argument about women’s invisible load in families without dumping all over men. It’s something men need to be reminded about because this hard-to-measure “keeping track” function falls to Mom in most families, even when child care and housework are shared fairly equally and even when the mom is putting a lot of time into paid work or schooling. I once talked to a mom who was going to law school in one city while her partner and kids were living in another city 200 miles away. She was still doing most of the family organizing – planning play dates and meals and filling out the weekly to-do list.
The point is, this 24/7 load affects your partner; therefore it affects you and your relationship. If that mental/emotional burden that I call the “m” gets too heavy, it can cause excess stress. And part of being a good dad is being aware of your partner’s stress and supporting her with it. There are two parts to that. One is acknowledging her stress – letting her know that you know when she’s stressed and that you’re sympathetic. This is something that guys are usually not as good at as women. We tend to want to fix things (“Just tell me what to do and I’ll get it done!”). But, in my experience, women don’t always want us to “fix it.” Sometimes showing them that we know how they feel (and that we care about it) matters more.
The other thing is that, even when we can’t (or shouldn’t try to) “fix it,” we can still look for ways to lighten our partner’s burden a little bit. So, if your partner seems stressed, take some initiative. Lean in. Do some housework that maybe you don’t do that often, or do something with the kids so she can get some “me time” to recover from her stress.
But in order to be able to do any of this, first you have to pay attention to the signs of stress. Stressed out people are more irritable, harder to get along with, less happy and seem tired. That’s because, even when someone is doing a good job of coping, excess stress drains energy. Thus, your reward for stepping up and taking on some of your partner’s burden is a happier partner with more positive energy. That’s as good for you (and your kids) as it is for her. So, trying to be more attuned to the “motherload” is as good a Mother’s Day resolution as I can think of for a dad.
There’s a flipside to this, by the way. I also discovered a good article about a different kind of invisible load that men carry. It gave me a lot to think about. I’ll talk about that next month when Father’s Day comes around.