The Messy Nest: Columnist Naomi Shulman on managing ‘the mental load’

  • Naomi Shulman. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • An image from “The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic” by the French cartoonist known as “Emma.” Emma’s next book, “The Emotional Load,” is coming out in June. COURTESY SEVEN STORIES PRESS

  • An image from “The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic” by the French cartoonist known as “Emma.” Emma’s next book, “The Emotional Load,” is coming out in June. COURTESY SEVEN STORIES PRESS

  • An image from “The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic” by the French cartoonist known as “Emma.” Emma’s next book, “The Emotional Load,” is coming out in June. COURTESY SEVEN STORIES PRESS

Published: 1/29/2020 9:46:54 AM

Editor’s note: You may have noticed some new changes on this page. One is the addition of former Hampshire Life columnist Naomi Shulman, who’s making the Home section her new home at the Gazette. Her column, “The Messy Nest,” will explore parenting and family life in these strange times. 

A teen is half-reclining at the kitchen table. A middle-aged mother is moving between fridge, stove and sink. She has just finished preparing a meal and is getting ready to go shopping for more groceries.

Also — and this detail is important — there is a chalkboard wall in the background. A list of grocery items are written upon it. The middle-aged mother will take a photo of this list with her phone before she heads out. 

Mom: I’m going to the store soon. If there’s anything you want me to get, add it to the list.

Teen (eyes on phone): Ice cream.

Mom: Fine. Write it on the list.

Ten minutes elapse. The teen has not moved from her perch at the table (which is still littered with dirty dinner dishes, by the way). The mom has put on her winter coat and boots, schlepped the reusable shopping bags from the pantry, and taken that photo of the chalkboard wall. As she drops her phone into her bag ...

Teen: Don’t forget the ice cream.

Here you must imagine the mom’s head quietly exploding underneath her fake-fur-lined hood.

Mom: Did you write it on the list? No! So will I remember it? NO! 

(Full disclosure: There may have been an F-bomb tucked in there.)

And then the mom — OK, it’s me — stalked out into the cold night.

Let’s unpack this a little. There’s a lot going on here, such as the fact that the teen’s eyes remained glued to her phone throughout, the fact that I apparently raised ungrateful and unhelpful children, the claim that I wouldn’t remember to buy ice cream. (I mean, come on. Who forgets ice cream?)

But I wasn’t mad because the teen was paying attention to her phone. I wasn’t even mad that I was doing the grunt work, because I’m on autopilot most of the time when I’m doing that stuff, anyway. I barely notice I’m doing it. 

It was about the list. 

Not the chalkboard list. I’m talking about the list in my head. The same list so many of us have taking up valuable real estate in our brains, keeping us awake at night as we scroll through it. The list that we carry as we try (and sometimes fail) to multitask our way through our days, our weeks, our years. Psychologists refer to this unwritten list as the mental load.

Adding one more thing to that load? When I’ve asked repeatedly for you not to? Yeah, I’m not going to respond well. 

A couple of years ago, a French cartoonist who goes by “Emma” published a comic called “The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic.” In it, she detailed a scene from domestic life that isn’t so far off from the scene in my kitchen the other night. A woman is trying to make dinner while also helping kids with homework while also welcoming a guest into the home. When a pot overflows, her (male) spouse admonishes her — why didn’t she simply ask for help?

Which leads to Emma’s point: In this scenario, the husband sees the wife as the manager of household chores, and therefore it is her job to delegate them. Of course, as any project manager knows, keeping track of all the tasks and making sure they’re all executed properly is itself a full-time job. And for many women, this full-time job is an invisible backdrop to the other, more visible jobs they’re also doing. “Remember that the baby grew another 3cm and doesn’t fit into his trousers anymore, that he needs to get his booster shot or that your partner doesn’t have a clean shirt left” — these are just a few of the examples in Emma’s comic. “The mental load is almost completely borne by women.”

I hear you already, and you’re right, of course: It’s not ONLY women. There are certainly plenty of men who bear a mental load. But research put out by the 2017 Modern Family Index backs Emma up: In two-parent, hetero households, women are nearly twice as likely as men to “make sure all family responsibilities are handled.” In other words, even in households where men are happy and willing chore-doers, women are still the project managers.

Then there are those of us who don’t live in two-parent hetero households. As a divorced mother of two, I am necessarily stuck with the project manager title. (When I first found myself single again, I realized there were only two tasks I wasn’t already used to doing: snow removal and mice management. I hired both jobs out. Money has never been better spent.) I can’t ask my kids to help bear the mental load the way one might ask a partner to. It’s truly not their job. But I certainly can ask them to write ice cream on the list rather than add to my own mental load. 

Perhaps if I’d just responded that way to my teenager, I wouldn’t have found myself pausing at Stop & Shop feeling regretful. Yelling isn’t OK when they do it, and it’s not OK when I do it. I had my phone out anyway to look at the photo of the list, so … I texted the teen from the produce section. “I blew it,” I said. “Sorry.”

“It’s OK, mama,” the teen replied. It was over.

But I did remember the ice cream. 

And when I got home, all the dirty dishes had magically found their way into the dishwasher. 

The mental load is still mine to bear. Someday, more than likely, the teen will bear her own mental load. But at least she’ll have a label for it. It’s more than my mom or my grandmother had. Sometimes even just being able to name something can feel like progress. 

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine, as well as on NEPR and WBUR. Follow her on Twitter: @naomishulman.


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