Krystal Cormack was on the verge of a meltdown.
Earlier this year, the 35-year-old mother of three from Oxford, Mississippi, was holding down her job as a director at an educational nonprofit while also moonlighting in an unpaid side gig: as her family’s de facto secretary.
Since becoming a mum nine years ago, Krystal’s to-do list had ballooned to include making her kids’ orthodontist appointments, drafting grocery lists, scheduling piano lessons, and planning social events. “It felt like running a small business,” she recalls. The constant stream of duties left her so overwhelmed, “I became the angry mum who was snapping at my family.”
Krystal was essentially the ringmaster of her family circus—an invisible job that overwhelmingly impacts women. The French artist Emma (no surname, FYI) spotlighted the issue in a cartoon that was shared more than 300,000 times on Facebook this year (and likely e-mailed to an infinite number of spouses with the subject line “READ THIS”).
Research proves that we do more physical chores at home than men do and that we handle “office housework” at work (like planning celebratory toasts) in disproportionate amounts. And five new, related studies by William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, and Columbia Business School in New York City found that women (not just mums) also take on most of the mental housework compared with their male partners, like remembering dates and appointments, booking vacations, buying gifts, and restocking supplies. Oh yeah, and reminding our partners when they need to do a load of laundry too. Sadly, it’s a favour that is seldom reciprocated: The data revealed that “men only remind women of tasks when it personally benefits them” (e.g., they’re more likely to issue reminders related to their buddy’s wedding or their office holiday party).
This never-ending to-do list is driving many women to burn out and break down. The new research found that it can lead to heightened anxiety, feeling constantly distracted (it’s pretty hard to focus when your mind’s always racing), and self-neglect (researchers point out that if you’re spinning your mental wheels thinking about your partner’s to-dos, you’re likely ignoring your own needs).
Beyond wearing away at your emotional reserves, doing the majority of this silent labor can also strain your relationship, creating a one-two punch of feeling swamped and feeling resentful of your partner. “I got into this toxic loop where I was always mad at my husband,” admits Jancee Dunn, author of How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, who estimates that at one point she was doing 95 percent of the mental tasks at home. (Yes, in her “simmering molten rage,” she was keeping tabs on how much she was keeping tabs.)
So how did modern women get stuck in this retro trap? Even though more of us have careers than ever, “there’s still the expectation that women are supposed to be the caretakers,” says Janet Ahn, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at William Paterson University and a coauthor of the recent studies. “Keeping track of everyone’s tasks, even after working a 50-hour week, is one way women are trying to meet this standard.”
Krystal finally reached her breaking point. She was so overworked, she’d stopped going to the gym, gained 20 pounds, and, one night, burst into tears mid-conversation with her husband—who hadn’t connected her weight gain with the stress of the mental housework. He turned to her and said, “You know that you’re not in this by yourself, right? You have to start sharing things with me.” She’s since managed to do more of that.
If you could use a break too, we’ve got simple ways to even out your mental checklists that worked for Krystal and other women. So before you hang up your secretarial duties, you may want to take a few final notes.
1. SPEAK YOUR TRUTH
Your partner’s not going to read your mind and spontaneously start pitching in overnight. And constantly snapping at him to stop being a sloth isn’t the healthiest thing for either of you (experts say expressing anger or frustration in unconstructive ways is a major issue for marriages).
Instead, make a coffee (or wine) date and have a heart-to-heart in which you explain all the upsides—for both of you—to his getting more involved. “This isn’t nagging,” says Elizabeth Haines, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at William Paterson University and a coauthor of the recent studies. “It’s letting him know where you’re coming from.”
Dunn told her husband, Tom, that if he took on more mental chores, he’d see that “I’m happier, you’re happier, and our child is happier. Things will be easier, and we’ll have a more peaceful household.” She delivered on her promise: Once Tom got involved, she was less resentful and he felt more connected to their family. If all else fails, tell him about the data that couples who share equally in housework have more sex.
2. MAKE THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE
Unlike a mountain of dishes in the sink, your pile of mental housework isn’t something your partner can physically see. “We’re both busy, but my husband didn’t realise that when we were watching an episode of Game of Thrones together, I was also ordering diapers and answering e-mails from the kids’ schools,” says Maggie Strong, a 35-year-old government analyst and mom of three in Charlottesville, Virginia.
So break it down in a tangible way: Over the course of a week, log your mental tasks in a Google doc and share it with your spouse. Ask him to do the same—you may even learn that he’s doing mental tasks you never knew about (in Dunn’s husband’s case, keeping up with the monthly car insurance bills). “Saying ‘I do everything around here’ didn’t resonate with Mike,” says Maggie. But “getting all the tasks down in black and white really helped us say, ‘Okay, things need to change.'” For starters, Mike started picking tasks from Maggie’s list to tackle himself.
3. PLAY TO BOTH YOUR STRENGTHS
Women’s Health executive editor Theresa O’Rourke’s techie husband, John, an IT analyst, took over their online bill paying when he discovered the Keeper app, which remembers the couple’s infinite passwords and lets them share notes (like “Need to refinance”). “He takes charge of bills and accounting because he really likes playing around with the interface,” Theresa says.
Krystal’s husband, Michael, a former principal who’s used to overseeing school projects, started managing the kids’ summer-camp prep, including medical forms, permission slips, and travel plans. And Tiffany Dufu, chief leadership officer at career services site Levo and author of Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less, turned her daughters’ packed calendar of playdates and parties over to her social-butterfly husband, Kojo. “That took up a lot of time and energy for me,” Dufu says. “He finds much more joy in it.”
4. REEL BACK THE REMINDERS
Many partners are more than willing to do their share of mental housework—as long as they’re peppered with plenty of reminders. (You: “Hey, can you order your mom’s birthday gift?” Him: “Sure, remind me tomorrow?”)
But the next time he asks, think twice. “He benefits by your keeping tabs on his duties—but you don’t,” says Haines, who notes that having to nudge him about his to-dos is almost as stressful as just doing them yourself, because it doesn’t free up your mental load. Instead, kindly point him to Siri—she’ll add reminders to his iCal, hands-free.
5. DROP THE BALL
One boon to doing everything yourself? It all gets done your way. “I realised I was shutting my husband out of the household work because I liked being in control,” admits Dunn. But if you really want to lighten your mental baggage, once your partner takes on tasks, give him a quick debriefing if necessary, then (deep breath) don’t micromanage. Even if it means letting him fail—or figure out his own way of doing things—at first. “A big reason why our partners are not incentivised to do things around the house is because we do all the chores before they can care about them,” says Dufu. If your husband is constantly asking where things are (the keys, the baby’s socks), simply say you don’t know and let him sort it out. And embrace the notion that “done” is better than “perfect.” As Krystal has discerned, “Nobody’s going to die if the baby’s bag isn’t packed just so.”
This article originally appeared on Women’s Health
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