Friday, 8 December 2017

Why I Don’t Want To Split the ‘Mental Load’ Equally

There’s no question, for me, that women, by and large, bear the brunt of the ‘mental load’ or ‘emotional work’ of running a household. In other words, they tend to be the chief manager of a household (regardless of whether or not they work outside the home too) and are expected to delegate tasks they want completed. So even if the visible, tangible housework and admin is split 50:50 (which it often isn’t), the woman is usually the one to establish the split, and check on the progress.

Recently there’s been more discussion about how this is a much more consuming role than it would be simply to share managerial duties equally, without one person (typically the woman) having to micromanage the other.

Various articles offer the same cause and the same solution for this problem.

The cause is that women are socially conditioned from a young age to be more giving, more caring, more selfless, etc. etc. etc., and essentially we grow up to believe we ought to take on that mental load ourselves instead of sharing it equally.

The solution is thus to re-educate ourselves, our husbands, our children and society in general, about gender roles, so that they can become more similar to each other, described as more ‘equal’.

I personally don’t agree with either cause or solution, although I don’t claim to have resolved the matter myself.

As regards the cause, it does not match my experience. I don’t feel like a victim of society’s plan to make me more self-sacrificing than my male counterpart. The notion that ‘men are less naturally capable of self-sacrifice’ to me does not seem like a lie conceived by men to force women to let men off the hook. I don’t think the patriarchs of the world are cunning masterminds who have trapped matriarchs into taking on a less desirable role in order to free up their time to do all the fun out-of-the-house things.

My personal experience is almost the opposite of this: the ‘lie’ that has been socially constructed is that the conventionally matriarchal role is mindless, unrewarding work (that consequently has very low social status) and the conventionally patriarchal role – ie any role carried out outside the home – is romanticised into a self-actualising adventure. In my experience, all work is equally tedious, so if there’s some kind of social construct that does not reflect reality, it’s the idea that working outside the home is somehow objectively preferable, and thus women should undertake it too and the work inside the home is low-level drudgery that should be outsourced or split fifty fifty.

This leads me to the problem with the suggested solution: the fifty-fifty split.

In school, when the teacher would gingerly announce ‘we’re going to do groupwork for this lesson,’ I’d mentally switch off. I can work with others if there’s a need to, but only within a structure where someone is in charge, and only when there’s a true need for teamwork: where working together is beneficial for results. I hate communally doing a task that can be completed individually – it inevitably takes longer, and someone’s usually doing most of the legwork whilst other people feel frustrated, bored, or excluded from the process.

If something complex needs to be executed, the vast majority of the time I prefer one person to take charge, and the rest of the people can act as subordinate support. I believe in having a strong leader – if someone suggested splitting the role of Prime Minister 50-50 I’d envision chaos ahead, rather than a more egalitarian utopia. Again, this is my personal preference based on a lifetime of witnessing this as the typically most productive structure. 

So when people say the solution to a home’s mental load inequality is to split the task equally, I get traumatic flashbacks of spending twenty-five minutes trying to establish who should do the bubble writing for the poster about sedimentary rocks.

The problem for me is not so much a lack of equal distribution of responsibility, but rather a lack of support for the woman in charge. An overwhelmed manager doesn’t need a timeshare contract, they need a more efficient team. 

The role conventionally taken on by the matriarch is not one that can be carried out in isolation. Humans are herd creatures. Most mammals are fertile until death – but the human female has an exceptionally long infertile period, following the menopause. That’s because human females are meant to support their offspring with their respective set of offspring. Human childrearing, in purely biological terms, takes a very long time compared to other mammals,  is very hard on the mother’s body, and is not carried out by an individual. That’s why I started this blog – because it hit me that being a ‘mother without a mother’ was a unique challenge that I had not previously considered.

But it’s not just morhers’ mothers that need to help. I’m not suggesting the mental load should be split evenly between mothers and grandmothers instead of mothers and fathers. It’s more that mothers ought to operate within a network of people who can soften the material load. This would free them up to take on the main share of the mental load. Like the way a bar manager takes on staff to do bar work, so they can do all the behind the scenes work. 

That is easier said than done. Living as we do in isolated urban dwellings, instead of human support we resolve to use artificial replacements for the support network: we can formula feed with bottles so that we’re not tied to the infant as relentlessly, we can outsource childcare and household work to hired help, we can use modern medicine to tackle the various childbirth-related physical ailments that may arise pre-, during or post-labour.

All these artificial forms of support have done a lot to lower mortality rates among mothers, and also given women a host of choices: we can choose whether or not to stay at home with our children, we can choose whether we want to clean or not, we can choose whether the role of matriarch has anything to do with our identity as woman or not.

The flip side of all this choice is that it has made the mental load of becoming a wife and a mother completely unsustainable for a single person, sucking the joy out of what should be a very challenging and stimulating job: caring and educating for children and building not just a home but an entire life.  It’s like a Prime Minister whose cabinet are all off on holiday at the same time. The only available solution is to hire help from unknown employees, or to split the role of Prime Minister between two people. Both of which, to me, seem inadequate.







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