The phrase “the mental load” describes the invisible labor required to manage a project, household, or family. It is anticipating needs before they happen, figuring out what viable options you have, making the decision, tracking the progress to make sure it turns out okay, and redirecting the course if necessary. If you do it well, no one knows you’ve done it. It is like Luisa in Disney’s “Encanto.” She handles the load so well that her family doesn’t even know it is heavy.
In a corporate setting, the mental load is what managers are paid to carry. In a domestic setting, it is a burden that, studies suggest, often uniquely falls on the woman’s shoulders , regardless of whether she is the breadwinner or not . While much feminist prose has been devoted to describing this imbalance and offering solutions, in the near future we each simply need to live our lives as best as we can. A wise woman in my life once told me an analogy in passing which has now become a guide for me.
Taking care of all the tasks in life is like juggling a whole bunch of different materials.
Some of the balls are made of rubber or plastic. Most of the time when you drop them, they bounce back without damage. If you ignore them forever, they will become hard to restart. These are tasks like cleaning out the fridge or tidying your closet. Putting off the task for a little bit generates no additional suffering. The balls bounce back to a high enough height that you can simply catch and toss when ready. Never doing the task, however, causes the ball to fall flat and creates the burden of having to stoop down, pick it up, and restart it while juggling everything else.
Other balls are made of wood. They rarely break when they fall but they also don’t bounce back. If you miss catching it, it clatters to the floor and requires more effort to restart than it would have to catch it. These are tasks like staying current on the dishes, getting sufficient sleep, or investing your savings. They require attention because you are constantly having to catch and toss them, but in a pinch you can let one drop to keep the others in the air.
The final set of balls are made of glass or porcelain. If you toss them wrong or fail to catch them, they will normally break and cause a disaster. These are tasks like feeding everyone, showing up at work on time, and paying your bills. These tasks need to be done faithfully. They are sometimes called “the daily grind,” because they often require regular attention. If everything is running smoothly, these are the balls people don’t notice you juggling. The crowd “oohs” and “aahs” at the trick throws of the wooden balls or the comical dash to catch and release a rubber one, but these glass ones represent a lot of load.
I find this analogy helpful at checking expectations and finding solutions.
For example, sometimes my husband or I become frustrated that a task is not getting done. In the analogy, this is normally a sign that a ball has fallen flat, but why it has fallen flat changes the solution.
Wooden balls are always upsetting when they fall. Not only do they fall flat, but some roll away in surprising ways, like when the dishes pile up on the counter, the dishwasher is still full of clean dishes, and there are no spoons in the drawer. This is what we call “dish debt” in my house (a term introduced to my family by Austin Fey). Like other kinds of debts, the dishes seem to incur compounding liability as the food crusts and the new charges pile on top. Tasks which are dropped in favor of running after a wooden ball need no solution. The trash wasn’t taken to the curb this week because the dish debt was paid off. It was a wise trade.
Other times, a task has been dropped because the juggler was focusing on the wrong things. If you keep your eye on the wooden balls, your partner is pulled to catch and toss more of delicate ones. Juggling all delicate tasks is exhausting, especially if you are catching ones moments before they crash which you thought your partner was going to catch. In this situation, chores need to be reshuffled and the delicate tasks redistributed more evenly.
Other times, you’re frustrated about a task that your partner has rightly identified is okay to fall. If your partner has their hands full of delicate tasks, it is reasonable that they might leave a wooden one for you to catch or for it to fall. This is the productive stay at home parent whose home is often cluttered. Their attention is captivated on more delicate tasks, and they have identified tidying as a wooden task okay to fall flat. Working parents often wrongly complain about such wooden tasks falling. However, the stereotypical passive attack of “What did you do all day?” is misplaced when the stay at home parent is burdened with many delicate tasks.
Lastly, sometimes both of us have our hands full of delicate tasks, and together we are watching all the others falling flat. In this case, the only solutions are to ask for help or to remove our reliance on some of the delicate balls. For example, by reorganizing our pantry and teaching our daughter how to find her own snacks, we changed snack time from a porcelain ball to a wooden one.
Juggling domestic responsibilities is a second shift adults are burdened with. I find this analogy helps me to set my expectations and focus more properly.
Photo by Peggy Anke on Unsplash