"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Of Butterflies, Buffaloes, and the Mental Load of Moms

"You Should've Asked," by Emma

Recently there's been a lot of talk about the mental load of moms. In particular the piece "You Should've Asked" by Emma does a great job portraying the very real struggle that women, and particularly moms, encounter in trying to run a household. Many moms that I know really identify with this, and, in fact, some of my friends posted it on social media. Being a mom and managing a household does put an enormous mental load on the woman, which the man seems largely to escape.

At one point the female narrator states, "Of course, there's nothing genetic or innate about this behaviour." She elaborates, "...we're born into a society, in which girls are given dolls and miniature vacuum cleaners, And in which it seems shameful for boys to like those same toys." "In which we see mothers in charge of household management, while our fathers only execute the instructions."

It is here that I just can't agree with Emma. To me there IS something clearly genetic or innate about this behavior. It's not just a matter of conditioning and societal expectations. To borrow Gary Smalley's analogy, it is the difference between a butterfly and a buffalo. "The butterfly has a keen sensitivity. It is sensitive even to the slightest breeze. It flutters above the ground where it can get a panoramic awareness of its surroundings. It notices the beauty of even the tiniest flowers. Because of its sensitivity, it is constantly aware of all the changes going on around it and is able to react to the slightest variation in its environment....The buffalo is another story. It is rough and calloused. It doesn't react to a breeze. It's not even affected by a thirty-mile-an-hour wind. It just does right on doing whatever it was doing. It's not aware of the smallest flowers, nor does it appear to be sensitive to slight changes in its environment" (Smalley, For Better or for Best, 39).

When my husband mentioned Smalley's analogy to me a few years ago, it really struck a chord with me. Like many women, I tend naturally (genetically! innately!) toward being a butterfly. Like Emma's description, the mere task of clearing a table can involve complex multi-tasking. In our household, I notice things - like my daughter's hairbrush stuck under the couch, the school permission slip waiting to be signed on the counter, the dripping wet jacket thrown on the floor that needs to be hung up, the crushed cracker underneath the kitchen table. My husband tends naturally toward being a buffalo, and for the beginning years of our marriage I took this personally. To me, the laundry basket full of clean clothes at the bottom of the steps clearly announced, "THIS LAUNDRY NEEDS TO BE CARRIED UPSTAIRS." The dirty skillet on the stove said, "YOU CAN'T USE THIS STOVETOP UNTIL I'M CLEAN, SO DON'T WAIT." The toddler shoes tossed on the bedroom floor screamed, "YOU WILL BE LATE FOR PRESCHOOL UNLESS THESE GET PUT AWAY BY THE FRONT DOOR."

So when my husband hurdled over the laundry on his way up the stairs or hustled through the dishes without noticing the skillet or stepped over the toddler shoes while doing the bedtime routine, I was offended. Like, really offended. I would even talk to him about it so he knew my feelings. His response was a genuine, "Oh, I didn't see the laundry basket." "I didn't even realize the skillet was there." "That's where the shoes were, then!" 

My husband is an awesome, loving, kind, supportive man, and so I finally concluded that he was being honest with me. He really did NOT see the laundry, the skillet, the shoes. He is a buffalo; I am a butterfly. He charges ahead, on task, single-mindedly doing whatever he is doing. And he gets stuff done in this way. Meanwhile, I get stuff done in another way. And I do get lots of stuff done too, although most of it the world regards as menial (finding the lost hairbrush, signing the permission slip, hanging up the wet jacket, sweeping up the crushed cracker).

Emma goes on to describe the hellish adjustment women go through after having kids and returning to the work force, including how fathers seem inept at parenting. "The problem is that when we stop, the whole family suffers. So most of us feel resigned to the fact that we are alone in bearing the mental load, nibbling away at our work or leisure time just so we can manage everything."

Yes! How true! The mental load is something I would be happy to share. Emma is negative about the solution of "outsourcing" these household responsibilities to "poor immigrant women." While this may seem not to be the ideal situation, the fact is that many of us women simply have more to do than we can do (or can do well). The isolated nuclear family is not the ideal, and it is ok to admit that help with childcare, cleaning, and cooking is helpful or even necessary. In recent months, I've often commented to my husband that this is just too much for one woman to do well.

But I think there is some good news here when we recognize the difference between a buffalo and a butterfly and are honest with the gifts that each bring to the home. To be a butterfly may bring with it a challenging mental load, but being able to manage every little flower in the household really is a gift that the life of the family depends upon. In the eyes of the world it is menial, but for the life of the family, it is essential. Also, when we recognize our natural tendencies, we can see both a complementarity and a challenge - both to understand each other fairly and to assess our own behavior as necessary.

There are times that my husband will urge me to "be a buffalo!" For example, when I'm having a hard time leaving for my morning run because there are books on the floor, a dirty diaper to change, or dishes on the table. He'll urge me to get out the door and get going, assuring me that he can handle the house but that I won't get my full work out in unless I leave NOW. Likewise, when I have grading to do for my online course and only two hours of childcare, I'll say to myself, "Time to be a buffalo!" I will not put away the shoes on the floor that I pass on the way to my office. I will not stop to wipe out the disgusting bathroom sink. I will only sit down and start working.

My husband has also improved at noticing things. He looks around more now and no longer hurdles over laundry baskets. He'll sometimes notice something and ask a question, "Now is this going down or up the stairs?" or "Is this pan sitting here for a reason?" But he now recognizes and addresses much more in the house, constantly emptying the trash, taking out the recycling, picking up and putting away books, etc. And he sometimes tells me, "I'm doing things around the house that you don't even know I'm doing!"

Because I am full-time at home and he has a full-time job, I do bear the brunt of the mental load. And sometimes it does feel like too much. Yet it is also an important way to contribute to the family, and I don't regret providing this service to my family, even if buffalo work tends to earn more recognition from the public. I outsource as much as I can to Siri: "Siri, remind me to change the laundry in 35 minutes." "Siri, remind me to put air in the bicycle tires tomorrow." "Siri, remind me to schedule the kids' eye doctor appointments today." "Siri, put spaghetti on my shopping list." And I also try to get a break from the mental load by having moments of being a buffalo (exercise, Mass, academic work), as well as acknowledging that with too many flowers to tend, I may miss some things here and there.

In our nuclear-family based society, moms will continue to bear the mental load, not simply because we're trained by society to do so, but because the ability of successfully managing this mental load is a talent we've been given. Recognizing and naming it is a good first step toward understanding why it can be so overwhelming. But seeing it as a gift means not letting it ruin our lives. We can thank God for the real and important responsibility (especially knowing it goes largely unappreciated by society), while trying to minimize the mental load as much as possible, obtaining help when necessary, and  understanding that the immensity of the task means we may not always be able to handle everything in the way we'd like.