‘You Should’ve Asked!’ How Carrying The ‘Mental Load’ Of The Household Is Exhausting Women

Women often find themselves the 'project manager' of the home. How can we change this?

Emma Clit

In her 2017 comic You Should’ve Asked, French artist Emma Clit manages to illustrate a very common, very specific feeling of frustration. The cartoon shows Emma visiting a colleague’s house for dinner – she finds the woman cooking the meal and feeding her young children at the same time. Emma chats to her colleague’s partner while they wait for the food, but the woman is distracted by the kids, and the dinner ends up ruined. Her partner runs into the kitchen, crying “What a disaster! What did you do?”

“What do you mean what did I do? I did everything, that’s what I did,” the woman says exasperatedly. “But you should’ve asked! I would have helped!” replies her partner.

Emma’s artwork neatly portrays how women often find themselves the de facto ‘project managers’ of their households. It’s up to them to know what needs to be done and when, but also execute a large portion of all that work, while delegating certain tasks to another member of the household. (“Why didn’t you put on the wash? The basket is full!” “You never asked!” “Well, would you please do the laundry?”) This job of running the house, of organising and scheduling and keeping stock, has come to be known as the ‘mental load’ – but the thing is, most women don’t even know they’re carrying it.

“I realised that almost every woman I know bore this mental load,” Emma said in an interview with the BBC after her comic went viral.

“But when we spoke about it, we spoke about it in anecdotes, not as a concept. When I learned that the mental load had a name, I felt so relieved, and I thought that if I felt like this, other women would be relieved to hear about it too.”

While the mental load can refer to physical chores, it’s also very much concerned with emotional labour – like how it often falls to women to keep track of travel arrangements, birthdays, shopping lists, and anything else that could be considered ‘life admin’. As Gemma Hartley points out in her book Fed Up, even if the domestic chores are split 50/50, women are still doing more of the invisible work that goes into getting stuff done. “For every task that produces a physically visible result, there are many mental steps behind it that remain unseen,” she writes. “Those steps are largely noticed, tracked, and executed by women.”

We tend to shrug it all off and say “Ah, what are they like”, but men aren’t physically unable to take these things on, just as women aren’t born with an innate knowledge of running a household. We’re socially conditioned to do this from an early age.

Think about your own family – have you ever seen your father pack the family suitcases for a holiday, or buy all the bits required for back to school? Is it always up to your mother to send birthday cards? Did your grandad sit in his chair as your granny cooked a full roast dinner, set the table, and cleaned up afterwards (with some help from other female members of the family)?

The idea of the woman as the caretaker of the home is as old as the patriarchy itself, and still firmly baked into the Irish Constitution. A 2017 report from the European Institute for Gender Equality found that women spend a disproportionate amount of time carrying out unpaid care and housework, even though more of us than ever are working outside the home. In Ireland, this particular gender gap is cavernous – almost 90% of Irish women do housework, compared to less than 50% of men.

Article 41.2 in the Irish Constitution

But let’s give them a bit of credit. Just as women are socialised to be caretakers, men have been raised in a society that discourages them from pursuing so-called ‘womanly’ activities or roles. Whatever way you slice it, the imbalance is testing relationships.

Advice boards on Reddit are filled with women at breaking point over husbands who can’t or won’t pick up after themselves, relying on their partners to keep everything on an even keel. “Just stop doing it for them,” the response always goes. But leaving the toilet unscrubbed or the groceries to spoil on the kitchen table can feel more like self-punishment, rather than the other way round. What you want instead is for them to notice these things, somehow. To not have to point it out. For it to be a reflex for them, just like it is for you.

“I was the one who cared about the details, so it felt natural that I should be the one in control,” writes Gemma Hartley. “But being the only person who cares about these things can lead to a damaging and harmful imbalance.

“For my husband, the work that fell under the larger umbrella of emotional labour had become a favour he performed for me. His efforts weren’t linked to carefully curating a life or having a deep sense of responsibility… It was an act that required praise and gratitude that I could not expect in return for the same work.”

That’s why when we argue about dishes left unwashed or dirty socks on the floor, we’re not really arguing about dishes and socks. Women don’t adore micromanaging men, despite what they might think. It’s about acknowledgement and respect, something recognised by writer Matthew Fray in his essay ‘She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes By The Sink’. He writes:

“I will never care about a glass sitting by the sink. Ever. But there is only one reason I will ever stop leaving that glass by the sink. A lesson I learned much too late: Because I love and respect my partner, and it really matters to her. I understand that when I leave that glass there, it hurts her, because it feels to her like I just said, ‘Hey, I don’t respect you or value your thoughts or opinions. Not taking four seconds to put my glass in the dishwasher is more important to me than you are’.”

The ironic thing is that even having a conversation about sharing the mental load requires emotional labour. (“You feel totally burned out from anticipating the needs of the household? You could’ve just asked!”) But how else can we force the pendulum back in the other direction, even a little bit?

The problem is systemic, but the solution, for now at least, may be personal. Gemma Hartley found balance by letting go of her perfectionism and establishing a shared standard with her husband. “We can’t keep holding tightly to control and expecting everyone around to adapt to us,” she says. “We need to work together, to find a new way to harness the power of emotional labour for men and women alike.”