One argument that a husband may lobby back at a wife who wants help with chores is “Well, you should have asked me. I would have helped.” A French cartoonist named Emma recently illustrated how this statement deflects responsibility for having to equally plan chores in the first place. ‘Yes, women can ask their male partners for help,’ her comic into heterosexual relationships invites us to question. ‘But why is it too many women’s burden to have to always ask men to remember things?’
The mental load of always being stuck being the planner
When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things at home, he is not viewing her as an equal partner, he is viewing her as the manager of household chores, Emma’s cartoon argues. The man becomes an employee who works for his partner. The partner gets slotted into the nagging role of product manager, whether she likes it there or not.
“The problem with that is that planning and organizing things is already a full-time job,” the comic states. “The mental load means always having to remember.”
And Emma’s cartoon argues that women unfairly get stuck with the invisible, unpaid mental load of planning office housework. This is a pervasive issue. In the United States, about one-half of women do housework, while only one-fifth of men can claim the same. Australian census data shows that Australian women spend up to 14 hours per week doing unpaid domestic work, whereas men spend less than five hours a week doing the same. Emma’s comic shows a couple on a couch to illustrate this. The man is obliviously watching television while the worried woman has a thought bubble above her filled with food she needs to buy, clothes she needs to launder, baby booster shots she needs to call about.
When partners say, “Let me know if you need help,” the request may be well-intentioned but it is communicating that the partner does not want to share the mental load of planning out chores on the couch.
Office housework is a problem too
This mental load takes a toll on personal relationships. One woman shared her story of how being the household planner hurts families in the long-run by perpetuating gendered work dynamics: “It is difficult to model an egalitarian household for my children when it is clear that I am the household manager, tasked with delegating any and all household responsibilities, or taking on the full load myself,” Gemma Hartley wrote in Harpers Bazaar. “I can feel my sons and daughter watching our dynamic all the time, gleaning the roles for themselves as they grow older.”
This uneven distribution of invisible labor also happens at work. One 2005 study found that working women often do office housework to the detriment of their careers. When they do it, it’s time-consuming extra work. When they don’t do it, their performance review suffers. When women declined to stay at work late or refused to help a coworker out with their duties, women got rated 12% lower than a male peer who did the same in their later evaluations.
This behavior thankfully can be unlearned. It starts with learning to make these invisible contributions to the workplace and the household visible for all to see. It also changes when men take equal ownership in being the household planner for paying bills and taking time off work for childcare.
“For things to change it seems clear that men have to learn to feel that their home is also their responsibility,” the cartoon concludes. One concrete way this change can happen is through more fathers taking paid parental leave. Study after study shows that when men take family leave, everyone benefits. Women get to return to the workforce more quickly, benefitting the labor market and their own careers. And children get the benefit of having their fathers be involved in their life. One American study found that fathers who took leave were more likely to be involved in their child’s life later on.