by John Hoffman
I’ve been writing about fatherhood for a long time—a loooong time. And over the years there are a few themes I have kept coming back to because I think they are so important. One of them is “the motherload.” That’s the somewhat intangible (and to men, sometimes invisible) load of responsibility, care, worry, planning and keeping track that usually falls on mothers’ shoulders. I continue to be convinced that the ongoing inability of many dads to understand and appreciate the motherload often contributes to unequal parenting, marital strife and stress for moms and dads.
The other day I came across a blog post which reminded me that we need to keep talking about the motherload. It’s a tricky issue for men to understand, one that’s hard to discuss as a couple. The post I’m referring to was written by Kate Desmond, an American stay-home mom, who is also a freelance writer in, as I used to call it, the cracks of time. I was a stay-home parent/freelancer writer once.
Ms. Desmond says her partner is one of the good guys but still, she writes:
“But, even though he handles certain chores, there is always me magically elfing behind the scenes—managing the stuff that makes his duties possible. I tell him what time to pick up the kids and who has what practice when. Without me, there wouldn’t be dishwasher pods or garbage bags, and there certainly wouldn’t be toothpaste for brushing, or new library books for bedtime stories.”
I’d urge you to read the whole blog, but I think that quote captures the way women see the motherload very nicely. This motherload vs. fatherload thing is not going to be the same in every family, and not always exactly as Desmond experiences it.
But the point is that, guys need to watch out for this unique kind of parenting inequality. A lot of women handle the mental/emotional burden of parenting very well. They are efficient and skilled and usually function so well that, to us fathers, it doesn’t seem like they need us to take some of the load. But, sometimes resentment lingers beneath the surface. The motherload is stressful. Some of the stress is good stress, the kind that can make you feel competent and energized. But when the stress gets bad and builds up for too long, that’s not good. It’s a real drain on energy and mood and usually results in an unhappy, resentful partner. Even from a purely selfish point of view, an unhappy partner is not what you want. It’s not what your kids want either. It’s not what she (or he) wants.
In the quest for more equal parenting, pundits and the media have tended to focus on a sort of bean counting of how much time fathers spend looking after kids and doing housework. Fair enough, we should talk about those things. But the unequal mental/emotional load of parenting is just as important, if not more so. And it is harder to measure. But it’s there and I’ve seen the impact of this parenting inequality in moms (and couples) over and over again.
In fact, one of the first things I learned as a stay-home dad was that, even though I was the one who did most of the hands on child care during the day, and most of the shopping, cooking and laundry, my wife’s mental load was still bigger than mine. It mystified me at times, but eventually I just accepted that she carried this bigger emotional load in parenting. I can’t say I was perfect at supporting her with that. It’s actually pretty hard, and possibly even inefficient, for a couple to try to share an emotional/mental load equally. But the fact that I was aware of this more subtle inequality in mom/dad parenting helped me be less blind to her load and her stress. That helped me be the kind of mindful, supportive partner I wanted to be.
We’ve made lots of progress towards more equal parenting between moms and dads. There is still further to go. And lightening the motherload is one issue we still need to work on. So, if I could give only two quick pieces of advice to a new father, I’d say this. Get involved in the care of your baby and try to understand and appreciate your partner’s experience of motherhood. Acknowledging and lightening the invisible load she carries is a big part of that.