Dropping My Mental Load

The French comic artist Emma and her depiction of “mental load”  has gone viral for illustrating the burden many women take on as family project manager.

In my marriage, I am the one who:

  • Knows when we’re about to run out of toilet paper.
  • Remembers to buy an end-of-year card and presents for our kids’ teachers.
  • Hunts down the contractors and makes doctors appointments.
  • Makes hotel reservations for hotels.
  • Pays most of the bills.

In the past, my husband has said to me, “Just tell me what you need.” During my more rational moments, I tell myself, “He’s right. Just speak up and tell him to change the dentist appointment. Let him initiate the what-are-we-having-for-dinner? conversation. Let him respond to that text from our daughter’s friend’s dad for a playdate.”

But I’m not always rationale or calm. Sometimes I am just plain fed up. “Why do I have to tell you?!” I want to shriek. “Can’t you just see that there is no creamy peanut butter in the house? Didn’t you notice that our 9-year-old daughter has been wearing the same pair of shoes for a year and a half and might need new shoes? Do you even know where toilet paper comes from?”

So. If I lose my shit, it’s my fault for not speaking up.

If I “take over” the task, I’m not giving my partner the chance to take care of things.

But. If I tell him what needs to be done, I’m still doing a share of work that all those lovely surveys that say women still do more housework don’t and can’t possibly measure.

This: What our partners are really saying when they ask us to tell them what needs to be done is that they refuse to take on their share of the mental load.

So this month, I am dropping my mental load. In the immortal words of Crush the sea turtle: Let us see what happens when Squirt flys solo.

To be sure, there are certain chores and tasks that we’ve discussed and divvied up:

  • I shop for the groceries and cook. He does most of the dishes.
  • I get the kids up and out the door in the morning. He picks them up from the bus.

But everything else, I’m letting go. I’ll let you know what happens.

My Dark Truths About Parenting and Marriage

IMG_3681After reading Kristen Oganowski’s piece 10 Dark Parenting Truths We Never Talk About, I was inspired to write about my own dark truths. The stuff that I think and then push down by busying myself with the laundry or a glass of wine. I appreciate the honesty of her piece because so much of what a I read on parenting involves how to make yourself better (because you are inadequate) or is sarcastic. I’m not judging either of those responses, but I wanted to sit with my dissatisfaction. Let it be. 

Once written, my truths, this radical honesty, still left me feeling unsettled. “God, I thought. “I’m just as horrible and complain-y as my children.” But a thought or a feeling is just that: a thought or a feeling. I can observe it, acknowledge it, and move on. My “Remember” refrain is way of moving on.

I don’t like to play with my daughter.

When she asks if she can give me Minecraft lessons or if I’ll play Legos with her which involves building and playacting different scenarios, I cringe. Then I feel guilty. My daughter is nine and in the next few years, I expect that she’ll begin to pull away from me. Shouldn’t I embrace this time when she wants to spend time with me? My mom’s schizophrenia prevented me from having a close relationship with her, so I feel like I should be more dedicated to cultivating my relationship with my daughter.

Remember: I do enjoy being with her: biking, letting her bounce her invention ideas off of me, lazing in bed and talking, reading Harry Potter to her. We’re different people who enjoy different things.

I let my husband be the heavy.

Last night the kids were jacked up on ice cream and giddy from having spent the day at a friend’s house. They were giggling and happy and it was after 9 p.m. “Can you be in charge, please?” I asked Rodney. “They listen to you.” Other times, I’ve found myself saying the cliched words, “do you want me to tell Daddy?” because I know they will be scared into doing whatever I’ve asked them to do. I don’t like resorting to keeping the kids in-line through Daddy’s Reign of Terror, but I don’t always have the energy or the patience to do things the “positive discipline” way.

Remember: There are lots of times you do find the positive, firm way to get the kids to do what you want. Using the “When you ___, you can” construction works wonders. E.g., “When you put your shoes on, then you can play for five minutes on my iPhone.”

I consider my husband a third child (sometimes).

Rodney gets jealous or upset when I put the kids’ needs or wants ahead of his own. He’ll snap “I guess that I don’t get to talk!” when he’s interrupted. And when the kids are finally engaged in their own activities, he’ll demand attention by grabbing my various parts. “Why can’t you just talk to me!” I silently scream in my head. “Why all this groping like some teenager!” 

Remember: Channeling my therapist, I think she’d say that I need to schedule more regular dates with Rodney so we feel more connected. That reaction also speaks to my need for some alone and recharge time.

I’m in it for the money and benefits (for now).

Jasper’s preschool for the 2016-2017 year will be $410/week, which is $19,680. When confronted with the possibility of switching to a job that’s more meaningful and creatively challenging, I find myself holding back because I need my job which isn’t too demanding and pays well.

Remember: This doesn’t mean that I can’t change in a year, find a job that gives me the pay and flexibility that I deserve. I can also find ways to inject creativity and challenge into my life, but I’m not at the right time of my life to take those risks.

I’ve called my kids names

For once, we were doing something that I wanted to do—visiting a quaint town with an independent book shop, vintage furniture stores, and unique clothing places—and my kids were bitching about walking. Are we there, yet? I can’t walk anymore. Can I get something at the toy store? All these values I’ve tried to instill, and I have two whining children who can’t set aside their own wants for a day to do what I want. That’s when Jasper collapsed on the ground.

“I can’t walk anymore,” he cried.

“You both are being brats,” I hissed. “Brats!”

Remember: Everyone loses their shit. I told Rodney that I needed 10 minutes alone, and I was able to calm down a bit.

Family vacations are not really vacations.

For our summer vacation we spent a week in Williamsburg, Virginia. I love intellectual, culture things and eating great food and walking around. My kids prefer the pool, amusement parks, and plain pasta from chain Italian restaurants. Guess who had the better vacation?

Remember: Accept that I’m not going to experience the vacation I would want if I didn’t have kids. That’s why I’m taking a staycation this week. Home is not exotic, but I’ve been the boss of my own schedule.

Privacy, Please.

FullSizeRenderSometimes when I’ve lost the will to parent, I pretend that I have to poop.

“I need to go to the bathroom!” I’ll announce loudly grabbing a magazine and pounding upstairs to the bathroom my husband and I share.

Not 30 seconds into the New Yorker—which I read back to front, first reading the cartoons, next making a mental note of the articles I want to read but in all likelihood won’t read—I see shadows move beneath the door, like a shark lurking beneath the water’s surface.

“Mama, what are you doing?” my four-year-old son Jasper asks.

“Pooping!” I lie. Will he believe me? He leaves, then returns a moment later and parks himself in front of the door. Then I hear the familiar rattle and crash of Legos landing on the floor. Sigh.

One time when my need to use the bathroom was genuine, my daughter Zora slipped a note under the door.

“I miss you,” it said.

Of course, when they’re really in dire need of attention, the kids barge right in. My daughter did this last week and immediately regretted her actions.

“It smells in here,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

“Hmm, I wonder why?!” I replied sarcastically.

Kids aren’t the only ones who ignore the closed door. Once when my sister-in-law was visiting our family, my husband and I took the opportunity to sneak upstairs for a quickie. Five minutes into our tryst, my sister-in-law opened the door to ask something. “Hey!…Oh, my God!” she muttered, blue eyes widened, her jaw dropped, and she quickly slammed the door.

Five years after moving into our condo and after countless interruptions, we decided enough was enough and bought and installed three doorknobs with locks.

Not long afterward, we enjoyed a lazy Sunday afternoon at home. The kids sprawled on Zora’s bed engrossed in Minecraft videos, and my husband and I stretched on the couch reading. My husband removed the book How To Manage Your Strong-Willed Child out of my hands, placed his head in my lap, and grinned expectantly at me. I tried to deflect by asking him if he thought that Jasper was regular kid who thrived on routine, but I may as well have been speaking Tagalog to him. He placed his hand behind my head and pulled me down for a meaningful kiss. Deciding to go along for the ride, I let myself be led upstairs into our bedroom. We locked the door and undressed and jumped under the covers. The bright afternoon light fell across our bodies. As I traced my finger down his breastbone, I heard the familiar, “Mommy?!” Then the door rattled. Ha! Locked!

“Go away!” Rodney barked.

“Mommy? What are you doing?” Jasper asked.

“Snuggling with Daddy,” I yelled.

“Why?” he asked.

“Go away,” Rodney barked again.

A pair of small feet padded down the hall. Spell broken, I looked at my husband and rolled my eyes. At least we have privacy.


The Power of Touch: When Mom Braided My Hair

Daily Prompt: The Power of Touch

Textures are everywhere: The rough edges of a stone wall. The smooth innocence of a baby’s cheek. The sense of touch brings back memories for us. What texture is particularly evocative to you?

I did not come from a physically affectionate family. Oh sure, as a child each night I would give my dad peck on his plump, stubbly cheek and received my fair share of hugs from Grandma, but there were never great tickle wars or hamster piles that I witnessed in other families. We’d bump, separate, and move on.

My mother, by the nature of her schizophrenia, rarely demonstrated any affection. Instead she lived alongside of my father, my grandparents, and I as if in an impenetrable bubble. Whenever I DID try to embrace her, her arms and body remained rigid. She acted like a robot executing a hug command, going through the motions without any feeling, letting her arms fall away from me after a prescribed number of seconds.

The only time she would maintain physical contact with me was when she brushed or braided my hair. Then, I could take a chance brushing my back or elbow against the soft heft of her body without her pulling away. I savored the feel of her gently raking her nails across my scalp, gathering hanks of hair, and the slight tug as she wove my hair into braids, the stacks of costume rings and bracelets, clinking close to my ear. For those brief moments, she was a regular mom.

She’s Leaving Home

Daily Prompt: Come Fly with Me

Share a story about the furthest you’ve ever traveled from home.

“Are we on Mars?” I remember thinking to myself as we drove through an area of construction on Route 29S in central Virginia. Large yellow bulldozers and nudged the terra cotta-colored dirt into heaps along the side of the narrow highway. The dirt wasn’t the only unfamiliar sight. Big box stores with names like Rose’s, Belk, and Food Lion flashed by. There were cows and fields and barns falling in on themselves. The loamy, pungent scent of manure filled my nose as I stepped out of the car at the gas station.

I had traveled farther away than this from my home in Connecticut, a bedroom community of New York City, or “The City” as we called it. Even though my family was of modest means, my blue-collar dad made sure we explored the country. I’d been Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and Florida. The difference between this trip and those trips was that my parents would be depositing me at Lynchburg College and leaving me behind.

“If I don’t like college,” I remember asking, “can I come back home?”

 I don’t remember my father’s reply. Probably some generic  reassurance about feeling better once I got into the swing of things. He could acknowledge my anxiety, but he floundered when it came helping me talk through difficult emotions.

After the lugging my junk to my dorm room and quick tearful goodbye, he and my mom left me alone to sort out my feelings . Far from home.

Bacon for Dinner: Stepping Toward a More Equitable Marriage

When I first read this week’s Modern Love column, “Honey, Let’s Get a Little Divorced,” I admit to feeling a bit smug and self righteous. In the piece, author Rachel Zucker concludes that “I’m going to try to follow my version of the Zen admonition to live as if you have already died by trying to be married as if I had already been divorced.” Why should you have to pretend to be divorced in your mind to recover the autonomy and egalitarianism you possessed before diving into a serious relationship or marriage? Shouldn’t a partnership already value these traits?

In theory, yes. In practice, not so much. As much as I want my husband to take on more of the household tasks, part of me is reluctant to cede control, making me complicit in my own unhappiness. If I’m not the one to pay the bills, go grocery shopping, and pack my daughter’s lunch, then what is my role in this partnership? Oddly enough, contemplating this question jars me more than resenting my husband’s inattention to household stuff.

Since I’ve noticed that women tend to write more about the experience of marriage, I asked my husband to read Zucker’s piece. Here’s his thoughtful response:

It’s interesting, although I think the “let’s act divorced” is more of a device and a hook than something seriously considered. I say that because what she is really talking about, and does a good job of explaining, is that marriage tends to assign men and women roles that are customary — perhaps determined by culture or tradition — even today, when men and women earn roughly the same and both bring home the bacon. Mmm. Bacon.

Perhaps we are still adjusting to the changes in workplace demographics that have occurred so quickly over the last 20-50 years. Then again there also could be legitimate desires on both men and women’s parts to hold some of those customary roles. They gave definition to one’s place and mission in life, even as they were restrictive and stifling. Remember the movie with George Clooney [Up in the Air]? His job is to fire people, and he has an affair with that married women, although he doesn’t know she is married at the time? The themes in that movie were all about reversal of roles, and increasing anomie in the traditional male role. And the woman seems to be doing what men used to do when they felt constricted by their home life and needed to “feel alive”…have an affair. Complete with separating the worlds so that they would never collide.

The thing is these days we will never be able to go back to tradition. First, socially we have all moved past that. Second, financially we cannot afford to. Very few people would make enough money with only one income. So instead we need to adjust to a new world and find ways to make everyone happier while finding your own role. The responsibility for doing so has shifted more than ever to the individual, which can also be empowering. I think that is more or less her conclusion, as well.

I think I’ll make bacon for dinner tonight. Mmm. Bacon.

If a more egalitarian marriage means bacon for dinner, then I suppose I can step away from my more traditional role and embrace a brave, new marriage.

Negotiations About Moving on Up

We bought our 2 bedroom 1 bath condo in S. Arlington at the height of the real estate boom in 2004. Eight hundred square feet wasn’t posh, but it was enough for me and my husband. If he was watching a movie, I could go into the Study (our second bedroom) to read or surf the Web.

When Sweetpea arrived in 2007, friends and family asked us if we’d be moving to something bigger. Nah, we said. How much space can a baby take up? One kindly old lady even said we could let Sweetpea sleep in a bureau drawer. We splurged on a crib.

But that crib meant no more study. And then where to put the Rainforest Jumperoo? And the stroller? And the high chair? Baby accoutrement seemed to be designed for 2,000 square foot homes, not pint-sized pads.

I started fantasizing about the type of home that would’ve made me shudder in my early twenties. You know, the kind with a yard, a driveway, no assigned parking, and maybe, just maybe, more than one bathroom. When I was feeling especially extravagant, my dream bathroom would feature two sinks. Crazy! I know!

“So what do you think about getting a bigger place?” I asked my husband.

He looked concerned. He wondered aloud about having enough for retirement, and Sweetpea’s college fund, and that three to six months of living expenses that Suze Orman told us that we needed. All reasonable concerns. Instead, he said, “I think we can make this place work. I’d like to try a live below our means.”

A reasonable response. A green response. People in Manhattan raise children in small apartments. People in Hong Kong live in 100 ft X 100 ft spaces. Maybe I was falling prey to the American ideal that bigger is better.

I reminded myself of these things when I lugged my groceries from the parking lot to the front of my condo, and then up a flight of stairs, while trying to make sure Sweetpea didn’t run into the road. I reminded myself of this when I tried to drown out the sound of my husband’s sci-fi t.v. show while typing in the bedroom with the laptop in my knees. I reminded myself of this when trolling for a parking place at 10 o’clock at night, because there wasn’t a single spot in my lot.

My husband tossed out inventive storage solutions: hang our bikes in the stairwell, and use a pulley system to lower them down (I imagined him coming home to find me squashed underneath my hybrid bike); spend extra money on closet organization (we did and what a difference!).

But there were some things we couldn’t get around: We could never have more than one friend over because of the lack of parking. My in-laws couldn’t stay with us because there was no where to sleep except the couch, and no one wants to sleep on a couch once they’re over the age of 25.

We endured. And then one day last month, my husband agreed to consider moving if we could get the numbers right. Since we download our finances on Mint.com, determining our monthly expenses was a snap. Once we did that, we figured out where to cut back (Coffee, Books, Eating Out, Target), so that we could handle a larger mortgage. We tapped an uncle for a loan, and through a realtor learned that we may be able to make a little money on the condo.

Suddenly, that shining 3BR, 2BA home shifted from “would-be-nice” to “possible,” all because my husband and I sat down and had a conversation about (gasp!) money.