Designated Drudgery How to take a load off.

Designated Drudgery How to take a load off.

  • Words Ana Kinsella
  • Artwork "In the Light of Wind" by Jeffrey T. Larson

You can’t quite see the mental load the way you can see a pile of laundry or an armful of groceries, but that’s part of the problem. Underpinning every household is a wealth of activity and thought that runs just beneath the surface, keeping everything from breaking down into chaos. What’s in the fridge? Whose birthday is coming up next? How long have those dishes been there? The mental load is the endless to-do list of tasks and data that looms in the mind, a complex network of responsibilities that allows us to get anything done in the first place. In heterosexual relationships and family units, it generally falls to the woman.

Back in the 1990s, Dr. Susan Walzer, a professor of sociology at Skidmore College, identified what she termed “worry work.” She interviewed 25 heterosexual couples about their experiences of the transition to parenthood and, in her paper Thinking About the Baby, observed that new mothers tended to find the feeling of ultimate responsibility for their child more stressful than their male partners did. “There were a couple of exceptional men in my sample,” Dr. Walzer says. “But for the most part, worrying, processing information, and being the overall manager of care tended to fall to the women.”

There are reasons for this: Women are encouraged to be caring from a young age, and society expects new mothers to have a natural inclination toward parenting that it doesn’t necessarily pin on new fathers. But the mental load goes beyond families. In any close-knit group of people, be it a friendship group or a work cohort, one person is often identified as more thoughtful or capable, and as a result, an endless cycle of tasks will silently fall to that person. She books the group dinner or she organizes the cake for an office birthday. She looks up directions and she collects money for the upcoming weekend trip. Call her the burden-carrier, and let’s always assume that she has had enough.

What if she simply stopped? This proposal works on the assumption that someone else will pick up the slack. In one week-long experiment conducted last year by Arielle Tchiprout, a Cosmopolitan journalist, the author’s male partner fails to wake up in the morning when she skips the task of setting an alarm to wake him. He also elects not to purchase new toilet paper until they are down to the very last sheet. “We survived,” he notes at the end of the week. His partner, drowning in a week’s worth of unwashed laundry, fumes.

In fact, the range of proposed solutions available online—many of which revolve around feigned incompetence—would suggest that the problem is endemic in family units as well as workplaces and friendship circles. A New York Times article suggests that the way for the go-to person to step back is to become incapacitated through illness or injury for a prolonged period.

But avoidance—and engineering incapacitation—goes against the spirit of cooperation that is arguably fundamental to human progress, and if we can’t rely on refusal, then it falls to us to redraft the rules. These issues often occur in groups that have well-established ties or a common goal—college friends or members of a team, for example. Perhaps remembering what brought you together can help lead to a solution. Dr. Walzer suggests strategies that focus on what is best for the group in the face of systemic unfairness. “Stay on the same team, resist enacting cultural notions of how families are supposed to work and try to be real about where the pleasures and needs actually reside,” she advises. “In the end, we can’t lecture or berate someone into wanting the best for us. But we tend to be willing to take on a lot for people we love—including making fair choices in an unfair context.”


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