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Woman Up: I taught my husband about the 'mental load'. You should talk about it too

SINGAPORE — When we got married and moved into our own place, my husband and I split the housework equally — he cleans while I handle all laundry-related chores and we both do our fair share of cooking. 

TODAY journalist Nabilah Awang and her husband in their home.
TODAY journalist Nabilah Awang and her husband in their home.

SINGAPORE — When we got married and moved into our own place, my husband and I split the housework equally — he cleans while I handle all laundry-related chores and we both do our fair share of cooking. 

But when we became new parents about a year ago, I found myself suddenly taking on far more household chores. 

In addition to my usual share of housework, I became the person-in-charge of getting the diaper bag ready before we leave home, planning my son’s meals, arranging his daily pick-up and drop-off and ensuring we have household essentials stocked up each month.

I also became the main logistics officer, scheduling medical appointments and playdates.

It was not physical work but it still felt exhausting, especially as I resumed working full-time after my maternity leave ended and I was also breastfeeding my son. 

But even as I suffered from the toll of all the added labour, I did not think to question my situation until I worked on a news feature about gender equality last year.

While working on that story, I had a lightbulb moment.

I came across a whole body of research on what people call the “mental load” — all the "worry work" and intangible chores that women disproportionately bear, mostly related to household administration and logistics. I could relate wholeheartedly.

And as I began working on this series about the societal mindsets that are still holding women back, both at home and at the workplace, I found many women in the same frustrating situation.

Meanwhile, the men I spoke to, including my husband, were mostly ignorant about this mental load, and honestly believed they were equally sharing household duties as their spouses, though many also admitted that their wives spent more time on childcare. 

And so while the men felt confident they were in equal relationships, their wives were silently suffering from shouldering more of the household responsibilities.

In fact, when asked why they did not raise this to their husbands, one of the women whom I interviewed said that even talking about it was emotionally labourious and she did not have the energy for that. 

Through my interviews, I've found that the couples who have managed to find something like true equality — where both the wife and husband agree they share an equal load at home — communicate a lot.

Whenever either partner feels overburdened, they sit down to recalibrate.

And so I set out to follow their example, and spoke to my husband. Truthfully, it took several conversations with him before I started feeling more at ease about my share of the work at home.

I recalled how in the beginning, my husband was quick to say things along the lines of: "Just tell me what you need me to do and I'll do it."

But you see, like most other women, I don't want to have to tell someone to take out the trash. That still requires the work of observing that the trash can is full and then delegating the task of clearing it.

I want him to take the initiative of noticing when it needs to be done and then doing it without having to be told, so that I can completely offload the issue from my mind.  

So it took some patience and a whole lot of explaining, but it eventually paid off.

My husband has started taking stock of household items that need topping up and has taken over pick-up and drop-off logistics. He has also subscribed to notifications for our son’s medical appointments.

Just last week, he told me that he has had his own lightbulb moment — he now understands the mental load and how it can be utterly exhausting.

It’s because it’s not like laundry or doing the dishes — you can’t see when it needs doing or when it's been completed.

You only know that someone has dropped the ball when you miss a parent-teacher conference or a doctor’s appointment, when there's no kitchen towel in the house when you need it, or when you realise there's no milk powder in the diaper bag only after you've reached the water park.

There is no way to make this work more visible but women can and should start realising that they don't have to bear it alone, especially if they are feeling overwhelmed and are starting to resent their partners for it. 

My experience has taught me that our partners are often well-meaning and want to help, but may be completely oblivious to this invisible burden.

It's time for us to help them help us create equal partnerships and hopefully, over time, a more equal society. 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nabilah Awang is a journalist at TODAY, where she covers community and social issues, health, sports and the arts.

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Woman Up women Home gender equality

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