When men will be equal with women at home, then women may have a chance to be equal with men at work. If I believe a French 2018 Ipsos survey, eight out of ten French women feel concerned about the mental load.
What are we talking about?
While the notion of mental load refers, for French men, to the professional field and the risk of burn-out, the concept refers for French women to the domestic area, since this load resides in the work of anticipation, planning, organization, coordination, management and satisfaction of the needs of each person in the household.
This work, which typically falls on women’s shoulders (and a fortiori on mothers’ shoulders), is permanent and invisible (and unpaid, I should add).
It subjects these women and mothers to a double burden, in the professional and the domestic fields.
It also subjects these women and mothers to a double punishment, in the domestic life and in the professional life. Women, who are on average more educated than men, mostly make professional choices that disadvantage them. They bring their domestic concerns to the workplace, which take a toll on their mental availability for work. This forced posture, which differs from that of men, contributes to the widening of the gender gap in the labor market.
The mental load requires purely pragmatic skills which become more and more complex, according to the evolution of a society which becomes over the decades more and more sophisticated on the material level – and more and more pressing in terms of perfection, through the media and advertising.
Women have to coordinate multiple temporalities attached to each person in the household and data of all kinds (professional life, love life, family life, leisure activities, extra-curricular activities, vacations, business trips of one of the family members and the impact on the family unit and its organization, family trips). I’m not even talking about dealing with post-modernist constraints, like lack of money or indebtedness.
Beyond the material dimension, the mental load is also about mobilizing cognitive capacities which become more complex with the development of the psychology of the couple, the psychology of the child, in a nutsell the emotional availability to maintain the emotional harmony of the household.
The mental load is also the absence of sexual availability because the brain is focused on what must be done but also because the fatigue is such that the whole person, body and mind, is disengaged from any sexual interaction, mistakenly seen as non-essential and tiring.
Conversely, male domestic activities are less related to daily management and emotional cognitive abilities: they are most often do-it-yourself or gardening activities, and can even be assimilated to hobbies.
Is it a question of gender?
In many heterosexual households, the partner expects his partner to ask her to do things, which implies that he considers her responsible for domestic work, which is already a mental burden in itself.
On the other hand, according to an American study dating from 2015 conducted by the “Families and Work Institute” and PriceWaterHouseCoopers, 76% of homosexual couples declare sharing household chores (where 31% of heterosexual couples say they do).
There is undoubtedly a gender stereotyping and a social construction effect in the distribution of household chores. As same-sex couples are probably less impacted by the gender division of labor, they are more apt to discuss the division of chores within their household.
There is also undoubtedly a purely financial effect as pointed out by Abbie Goldberg, Professor of Psychology at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts: the person who earns the most will be less involved in the household. and this pendulum effect is still quite acceptable today for both men and women (which doesn’t help, with regard to women facing the glass ceiling effect and wage inequality).
Finally, we have to point out the latent perfectionism – maintained for several decades by society, advertising and the media – in women, who will often prefer to do chores themselves and under their conditions, rather than delegating such chores to their partners. Such attitude may be efficient, but it ultimately remains a social construction where women are the first victims.
And not the last ones.
As the mental load weighs on women’s well-being and induces stress, anxiety and aggressiveness in some cases, the mental load may impact the spouse and children in the household.
Progress has been made, as more and more men are investing the domestic field.
But as women, what to do?
Let it go, of course.
Stop pursuing this perfection chimera (whatever it means, by the way).
Divide the chores.
We will not remember a perfectly clean house, perfectly groomed children on our deathbeds. I don’t believe so.
So, let’s break social constructions, let’s unload ourselves, please.
October 29, 2021
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