I have been a fan of Brigid Schulte's work for the Washington Post -- a quick Evernote search shows that I've saved ten of her articles and blog posts -- and I'm very excited to read Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time ... when I have the time(*). Her beat is on family policy, life-work issues and the area where your day job and your life overlap, even when nobody wants them to.
She's done at least two NPR interviews in the last week, and this one on Morning Edition stood out for this quote:
There's physical labor that goes along with that, but there's also mental labor. You're keeping track of everything, you know? You've got all this stuff going on in your mind: the to-do lists, and "Did I remember the carpool?" and "Oh, my goodness, I gotta fill out the Girl Scout forms," ... all this stuff that kind of gets crowded in there along with all the stuff you've got to do at work. Men generally don't have that. They have one sphere, which is work.
I keep chewing on it for two reasons. First, her experience about the mental labor is my experience with the mental labor.
I am still, frankly, gobsmacked that it took me until last fall to tell my husband, "It would be a good idea if you had the numbers for our date-night babysitter, our nanny and the preschool in your phone."
Why, why, why did I just assume the duty of sole parental communicator without even thinking about it? For that matter, why did it take me until last weekend to say, "You know what? From now on, I'm forwarding you all the emails I get for coordinating playdates and birthday parties. There's no reason I should be the sole keeper of the calendar for our kid's social life."
These little attention-sucking tasks just quietly creep in and integrate themselves into one's mental ecosystem. For example, I'm the one who keeps the spreadsheet for our child's wardrobe and subscribes to ten different retail or flash sales emails so I can fill any holes in her closet with clearance-priced clothing. Break that down: I have a spreadsheet, and so I have to keep it up to date or it's useless. I have a volume of email coming in, so I had to spend five minutes setting up the Gmail filters that keep all the promotional messages out of my inbox -- and then I set aside 10 minutes every day to review all my promotional and sales offerings, and unsubscribe from any sender who hasn't proven useful in a six-month period.
And that's just one mental chore I've taken on to keep the house running at peak financial and logistic efficiency. There are the tax spreadsheets; the master list of addresses for our friends and family; the master list of all household accounts and account holder information; the master list of all online accounts and passwords (in the event of my death); the disaster prep maintenance; the freezer and pantry inventories; the charitable contributions and volunteer commitments to track; the general home maintenance schedule; the to-dos and projected budgets for the assorted home improvement projects; the holiday buying/planning spreadsheet; the reading to do in order to anticipate my daughter's upcoming developmental milestones; the reading to do in order to make sure we're not badly biffing the parenting we're doing in this particular stage ... I'm sure I'm forgetting one of the things I track or organize on a frequent basis.
But before I could sail off on a tide of smug indignation -- Look at me, diverting my mental energy to the black art of wrangling a preschooler! Look at me, making sure everyone in the house can count on a clean, orderly, well-run haven! -- it hit me ...
I would be like this even if we were still child-free.
I was like this when I was child-free. I was pruning my Google Drive account the other day -- what, like you don't do regular digital maintenance to make sure you aren't wading through a sea of files? -- and came across the spreadsheet I had put together for 2010, with its household resolutions broken down by ten categories across four fiscal quarters. Who does that? Other than a crazy person, I mean.
(I kept the spreadsheet, because I drafted it about five weeks before I found out I was enceinte. It's fun to see what I had projected for myself that year, compared to what actually happened. You may be amused to know that "See therapist and work through any residual issues related to infertility" was in the Q3'10 and Q4'10 columns.)
The cognitive load for merely existing as a middle-class person in the 21st century U.S.A. is not small. You're expected to be a money manager and know enough to make sure you can comfortably retire; you're expected to be the second coming of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and lifehack your way to peak workplace efficiency; you're expected to create for yourself the kind of domestic comfort and social life that old-school artisocrats needed staffs to replicate.
(I'm not getting into the cognitive demands placed on the working-class or poor. That's another blog entry.)
Some of us, those whose brains are wired so that our executive function goes up to eleven, may have a natural impulse to just keep optimizing and organizing the bejeesus out of things, and as we keep on taking on more, we can't figure out why years of practice and design are falling short of our current realities.
I think Schulte is right in that there's often a grave imbalance of mental labor between two parents. But I think that there's a lot of unexamined mental labor, period. Think about the mental labor people without partners do to make sure they're safe, comfortable, self-sufficient. Think about the mental labor in any partnership. When I think about the mental labor that must go on to keep poly relationships operating smoothly, I need a lie-down.
My 30-minute timer's just pinged and I have three more items on the to-do list before I try to get to bed. So let's stick a pin in this -- for now. The topic of mental labor and dividing the have-to-dos from the nice-to-dos to the no-need-to-dos is one we can return to later.
* If I'm going to read before bed, it has to be something where I'm not going to be up all night chewing over what I've just read. So most of the books I'm really interested in, I have to read in bits and pieces through the day; at night, I pretty much stick to the weirdly specific genre of "murder mysteries set in Alaska." You're welcome for the royalty checks, Dana Stabanow and Stan Jones.