Women Across the World Need to Take a (Mental) Load Off

Stories from Indian and American women and their partners

Welcome back Chaise Lounge readers and a heartfelt first welcome to our newest subscribers! Thank you!

As promised, this week we will take a look at the ways that both American and Indian women approach the topic of mental load with their partners. I have partnered with Mahima Vashisht who writes the fabulous newsletter Womaning in India after reading her article on mental load. I was intrigued by the idea of looking at what American women and Indian women report to see what cultural similarities and differences might emerge. We decided to do an article swap. Last week, she compared abortion law in India with that of the United States based on my article from a couple of weeks ago. It was a real eye-opener in terms of the different ways that laws affect women, so check out her newsletter and subscribe!

Subscribe to Womaning in India

At the end of this article, you will also see a link to join our conversation about the mental load situation in your household. We’d love to hear about how you and your partner are dealing with these issues. What works and what doesn’t? And if you just need a place to vent, we are here for you!

Note: For the immediate future, we will omit the Global Updates section and replace it with U.S. Abortion Law updates as things are evolving quickly.

National Updates

  • On October 2, the Women’s March organization is hosting marches across the country to stand up for reproductive rights in response to the Texas SB 8. I will be attending the march in Raleigh, NC, so if you are local and looking for some people to march with, please contact me. North Carolina has a legislature that can be trusted to try to pass a similar bill if given the chance. They need to see that there is strong opposition.

  • In yet another bad-ass move, gymnast Simone Biles has created a gymnastics tour of her own that excludes USA Gymnastics. These post-Olympic tours have been big money-makers for USA Gymnastics, but Biles wants nothing to do with the organization as she blames it for not protecting gymnasts from former trainer Larry Nassar who sexually abused hundreds of gymnasts. The new tour began on Tuesday in Tucson and is called the Gold Over America Tour starring Simone Biles or GOAT referring to her nickname, greatest of all time. Many other gymnasts join her on the 35 city tour.

  • With all of the misinformation floating around regarding vaccinations for COVID-19, only 25% of pregnant people are vaccinated in the U.S. In Mississippi, where they have seen a large number of infant and mother COVID deaths, the problem is even more severe. Some of the pregnant women who have shown up a the hospital were not vaccine averse and tried to get a vaccine but were turned away by pharmacists. State health officials are trying to get the word out that pregnant people are more likely to have severe cases of COVID and should be vaccinated immediately.

  • Having claimed five Olympic medals and four World Cup championships, the US Women’s Soccer team is one of the most successful sports franchises in history. This week they were finally offered equal pay to their male counterparts. This is the welcome result of a long-fought battle by the women’s players.

Abortion Law Updates

  • The U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case on December 1. The case involves a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of gestation. The law was declared unconstitutional because, according to the Roe v. Wade decision, abortions are legal up to the age of viability which is 22-24 weeks. The court will consider the following questions:

    1. Whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional.

    2. Whether the validity of a pre-viability law that protects women's health, the dignity of unborn children, and the integrity of the medical profession and society should be analyzed under Casey's "undue burden" standard or Hellerstedt's balancing of benefits and burdens.

    3. Whether abortion providers have third-party standing to invalidate a law that protects women's health from the dangers of late-term abortions.

    This case could undo Roe v. Wade if the justices decide that pre-viability prohibitions are unconstitutional.

Medication Abortion

  • In an article for NBC News, Dr. Daniel Grossman, OB/GYN professor at UCSF, makes the argument that making abortion medication more available is the key to keeping people safe from dangerous abortions, especially as laws like the one in Texas are on the books. During the pandemic, laws that prevented abortion pills from being dispensed through telemedicine were suspended proving that the pills are safe. But many states, like North Carolina, do not allow telemedicine for abortions.

Texas Law Update

  • Last week, Dr. Alan Braid, an Ob/Gyn in Texas penned a letter published in the Washington Post announcing that he had broken the state law and performed an abortion after the six-week mark. Two lawsuits have been filed by former lawyers from other states. In addition, the Justice Department and a group of abortion providers have also brought suit. According to legal experts, the lawsuits brought by the out of state lawyers may be the first test of the constitutionality of the Texas law.

  • A Florida representative filed a bill similar to SB 8 in Texas banning abortion at six weeks with the same vigilante-reporting provision. Expect to see more of these bills filed in states hostile to abortion rights.

Women Across the World Need to Take a (Mental) Load Off

Stories from Indian and American women and their partners

American women of a certain age, myself included, will remember this commercial that played in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The message was that a woman could work until 5, read the kid’s bedtime stories, cook dinner and still satisfy her man because she was a “24-hour woman”.

Of course, we now know that is an impossible ideal, but as a young woman coming of age during that time, I believed it to a certain extent. Advertisements like this one told us that if a woman wanted to enter the workforce, then she still did not relinquish the traditional home duties. She merely had to stay up 24 hours!

In the United States, there was little to no discussion of how the changing of a woman’s role would affect household management. And men who did step up to be helpful were often derided by other men as “soft”. Fortunately, those attitudes have shifted somewhat, but many men still do not take on the mental load of managing a household and leave it to their partners. And some men claim to not even understand what their partners are talking about when bringing up the topic.

To be clear, the mental load of keeping a household running means that there is someone who does the planning and executing of needs for the household. Not just cleaning or doing laundry but keeping track of family appointments, children’s activities, school forms, keeping the household stocked with needed items and food, extended family birthdays, etc.

Pandemic changes the playing field

For those who carry the majority of the mental load in running a household, the pandemic lockdowns created new issues. With everyone home all day the amount of laundry, housecleaning, grocery shopping, and food prep increased exponentially. 

And as enlightened as we like to think American culture has become when it comes to gender roles, in the majority of households, women continue to carry the mental load whether they work outside the home or not. The pandemic just accentuated an issue that was bubbling underneath the surface. We saw an explosion of articles discussing the strain that mental load places on women as they try to work full time and rise in their careers. 

This issue is not unique to American households either. I recently connected with Mahima Vashisht who writes the newsletter Womaning in India after reading her article on mental load. I was intrigued by the idea of looking at what American women and Indian women report to see what cultural similarities and differences might emerge. Mahima kindly agreed to let me use some of the material from her article in order to do so. Let’s start with some Americans.

Sharing the load, American style

The Orchestra Director

Julie is an environmental scientist and her husband Bill is an anesthesiologist who both work full time. They have three boys under the age of ten. Julie takes the responsibility for all of the mental load in running the household and the children’s activities. She says that this is one of the main causes of when she and Bill don’t along.

Bill tries, but he usually forgets whatever he has promised to do. At one point, he was supposed to be responsible for picking up the family prescriptions. When she went to take her blood pressure pills, there were none, only raising her blood pressure more! Julie says,

He really doesn’t get it (the concept of mental load) and he gets hurt when I show him an article describing it. He says, “I’m not that guy in the article”. He wants me to tell him what to do and remind him five times. For me, that is more work than just doing it myself. 

Recently, I was finishing up some work and asked Bill to get everything ready for the kids to go to the pool. When they got there, Bill had not packed any snacks, sunscreen, pool toys, or googles. The kids were upset and I had to go back home to get the needed items. 

They have tried having an au pair but have not had good luck. Julie had to teach one to drive and manage another one’s boy craziness. Julie finds it easier to do things herself but says, “I do not get a break.” 

Hunters and Gatherers

Joanna is a dermatologist and Steven is the CEO of an entrepreneurial tech company. They have three young children. When I spoke with Joanna, she had an interesting theory that men and women carry their strengths from our hunter/gatherer days. With men as hunters, their work required more process thinking and action. Women as gatherers were also active in collecting other foodstuffs, but they also gathered the needs, hopes, and wants of their families. She believes that we carry that historical thinking with us evolutionarily speaking. Yet she also recognizes that men and women are capable of handling both roles.

So how does that work in her household?

“I feel like most of the time, I’ve done all the household work, but if you talk to Steven, he thinks he has done it all. I feel like I carry the mental load though. He wants me to make him a list of things to do. If I do that, he will do many of the items, but not all. And if I remind him of the two he missed, he feels like I am nagging him, so that doesn’t work for me.

Joanna is finding that when she is more direct, she gets better results. Rather than wait for Steven to pick something up or wash some dishes, she will ask him rather than just doing it herself. While that still puts the onus on her, she finds it works better.

When I showed him an article explaining mental load, he didn’t really have insight into this. If I want to be happy, I have learned to make a list and just accept that is how things will get done. Recently, I have been requesting that he do more and he is, so things are slowly getting better. I find that if I just ask him to do something, he will do it. I also rely on my nanny to get things done for the kids. If I didn’t have a great child care provider in the home, my life would be completely out of order or I would absolutely go crazy.

The Plate Spinner

Stephanie and her husband Aaron co-own a cidery business that is taking off and expanding. Stephanie had maintained her media production career on a part-time basis in addition to helping with the cidery business, but she found that with the additional workload from the cidery, caring for their two daughters, and keeping the household running, something had to give. This past spring she left her job in media and is devoting her working hours to the cidery. 

I am the plate spinner of the household. The longer my husband, and I've been together, which this is our 20th year, the more I do that, and the more he counts on that, and the more that dynamic is solidified in our marriage. To be fair to him, I don't think I could handle it any other way. I think if he started trying to step in on my turf, I think I would get annoyed. 

But sometimes I get annoyed the other way around, because he doesn't understand the big picture. He'll ask me repetitive questions. Just yesterday, I had to check out for the better part of the weekend for work stuff.  I told everyone, him and the kids, who had to be what, where, when, and all that. And by God, I still got questions over text and phone calls about things, even though I had put it in writing and verbally.

Stephanie is able to give credit where it is due.

To be fair, my husband has a larger work mental load than I do. In the structure of our business, if there's no hard cider to sell, then there is no business. There are all all these things that I can't even imagine. So the balance of workload, their mental load, you know, his mind is occupied with that information.

I always joke with his friends and family that it's no accident that he married a producer because he is the big idea guy. And he married someone who executes on the details. I don't mind it at all, but I mind it when I've been interrupted after I've laid the groundwork for you and written it down. And you're still calling me. I mind a whole lot? Yeah.

So Stephanie accepts the role of Plate Spinner in her family, she just asks that when she is working for the family business, she be allowed to work without interruption just as he is.

The Indian side of the equation

The following examples are pulled from Mahima’s article on the mental load that Indian women carry.

“The kids are hungry, the kids need to poop”

Jyoti's husband is much more detail-oriented and meticulous than her, in general. Yet, when it comes to the mental load of household responsibilities, she is left with the lioness's share of it.

“Each time we argue about how much I have to take on, he says 'You would just not like what I do. You have higher standards.' I get very annoyed with this standard response. My brother, who is single, shoulders the mental and physical load of running his house perfectly well. So it is not that men are fundamentally incapable of doing this work. But something seems to change in them when they get married.”

Jyoti has a theory for why this is.

“I thought about this a lot. I think that our traditional family structures are to blame. There is tremendous pressure on the wife to make her mark in her 'new family', because she becomes a part of his family, rather than an equal merger of two families. She is expected to be the 'homemaker' - even when she has a full time job and earns as much or even more than the man.”

“I am always told by my in-laws, 'The kids are hungry, the kids need to poop.' Why isn't this ever addressed to the man of the house? They seem to feel like marriage marks the end of men's household responsibility because the woman is now in-charge. This is a deal breaker.”

The Dietician

'You would just not like what I do. You have higher standards.'

It is the universal back-handed compliment women receive when they confront their partners about mental load.

Leena is not buying it.

“This 'higher standards' argument makes no sense because, at work, men maintain high standards without any trouble. But somehow, the span of their perfectionism does not extend to their own home where they coolly let the wife pick up their slack.”

Leena's husband thinks that hired help is the Holy Grail of household management.

“He wants to be able to play with the kids when he likes, but doesn't want to be bothered with regular responsibility for them. He says we should hire help for that. My view is that there are enough issues when it comes to kids that need the personal attention of the parents. Overseeing their nutrition, hygiene, personality development, encouraging and nurturing hobbies, ensuring they make good friends, and spend time in good company - all of this takes immense amount of energy and planning. Parenting cannot be outsourced to hired help.”

Leena tried sharing articles about Mental Load with her husband to make him realize the tremendous pressure she was under. But he was either unable or unwilling to understand.

“Finally, I came up with an idea. My husband is very particular about eating healthy. So I asked him to take over that same for the kids as well. He probably doesn’t think about it but this includes diet planning for the kids, ensuring that the kitchen is well-stocked, drawing up and sharing a healthy menu with the cook, giving her cooking instructions, etc. A few days of doing all this made him realize the sheer amount of effort that goes into the ‘simple’ task of putting food on the table - even when you have hired help.”

There are still quite a few lapses because Leena's husband often travels out of town for work, and simply switches off his brain towards the house when he is not in it.

“I pick up the slack as usual. But I am happy that we are at least making some headway here.”

Leena specifically requested me to change her name for this piece lest her husband reads it. She doesn’t want him to realize the stealth programming she is doing on him - to make him do a / job any grownup should be able to do.

Husband programming - a mental load of its own kind.


The international list of excuses from men

  1. You will do it better, or women are better at this than I am.

  2. We can hire someone else to do it.

  3. I am too tired after a hard day at work to deal with these issues.

  4. You have higher standards.

While these stories are only examples from a few women, they paint a picture of how many working women feel about the extra burden of the mental load they carry. The men in these examples are able to shirk their duties simply because they know that their partners will pick up the slack. If they really wanted to help with the mental load, they would. Asking their partners to make them a list is a way to keep that responsibility on her.

Of course, each couple has to come up with their own way of dealing with the many tasks that a household requires. Sometimes one person has the more flexible hours and can pick up sick children or attend their school events, but then the other partner must carry a different part of the mental load like menu planning.

From a cultural standpoint, the American and Indian couples appear to be similar in their experience. While Jyoti’s theory is that the problem lies in the patriarchal history of Indian family structure, you could find many places in more conservative parts of the United States with similar thought patterns. Although American women do not traditionally marry into their husband’s families, in many instances, they are expected to hold to traditional male/female roles.

I don’t know if Joanna’s theory about evolution playing a role in the different ways that men and women think about household tasks is correct, but I do know that as we have changed to households with two working parents, the only ones who have made significant shifts in their roles are the women.

What is clear is that we have been so acculturated to the idea that a man goes to work and then comes home to relax, that no one stops to think about what a working woman deserves.

Join the Mental Load conversation