During the past year, the “mental load” has been a constant topic on various news platforms and social media as wives and husbands seek to find gender equity among mountains of household and familial duties. One of the items that ignited this conversation came in the form of a feminist comic called “You Should Have Asked,” penned by a woman named “Emma” and published by The Guardian.
It begins with a very common situation, where the mom is cooking dinner and trying to feed the kids when it all descends into chaos, and the meal is ruined. The husband’s immediate response was, “You should’ve asked for help!” Emma goes on to explain that when a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he’s viewing her as the manager of the household. This renders her as the boss of these sorts of situations, a title that was neither officially given or asked for by the woman, while the husband assumes a more subservient position out of indifference. We believe TLC refer to this underlying status as being a “scrub.”
In addition to not saying “you should’ve asked,” the “mental load” also means having to remember. Remember that your child’s dentist appointment is at four-o’clock tomorrow, remembering all of the recipes you have planned for the week and all of the ingredients needed so that you don’t have to make multiple trips to the store for a simple home cooked meal, and even constantly checking what household items you are running low on. These tasks are more often than not borne by women, going unnoticed and unappreciated, while continuously being a major source of stress.
Any manager knows that the organization and delegating of tasks can and usually will take more time and effort than the actual execution. These essential responsibilities in your family are no exception. We aren’t saying that all men are guilty of allowing this to happen, and we acknowledge that more men are becoming the main caregivers for their children, but this allocation of the domestic and familial workload is disproportionately taken care of by the female of the house.
This is something that dads, especially young dads like myself, were never taught about, especially if you were like me and topics like gender dynamics didn’t exist at your dinner table growing up. Patience, sensitivity, and sharing the emotional workload of family life are more important than ever. We could be angry that these trending topics on gender relations being spread across social media have ruined our manly monopoly on weightless free time, or we could step up and accept these responsibilities for the purpose strengthening our relationships and setting a positive example for our children. These issues aren’t just going to fade into the distance, and what’s more, as parents we have the privilege of nipping these sexist constructs of what is women’s work in the bud once and for all.
As a new dad that’s determined to be on the right side of history, these issues being raised about the “mental load” have reverberated in my mind and have continued to be something that I think back on when I feel like I could be doing more. Society could also be doing more to advocate for equality. Is it possible that some aspects of living in China are holding us back from enforcing this progress?
In 2017 when the World Economic Forum released its Global Gender Gap Report, it placed China in 100th place out of 144 countries and territories. That’s one spot lower from the previous year and well below the world average. This was the first year that the ranking had seen a decline after a decade of progress, and it had also found that the global parity gap across health, education, politics, and the workplace was widening for the first time since the rankings began in 2006.
There has recently also been a big, controversial campaign by Chinese state media that the household is the most important job that women can have. This is likely linked to reasons connected to the 2015 change to a two-child policy, which has also led to some discrimination against women in the workplace as big companies are more likely to hire men who won’t take a lengthy maternity leave.
While my home country of America is not a shining example of parity either, if our wives, Chinese or foreign, aren’t getting equal treatment in the workplace, or in other areas we really shouldn’t be depriving them of this at home as well. The beautiful thing about our homes is that they are free from political agendas and have the potential to be philosophically whatever we desire them to be. I don’t need to mansplain feminism to my wife, as she is a very progressive lady who like me works full time, but I did want to make clear that I was ready to help in every way possible to make our home a place of balance. A sanctuary if you will. I’m cheesy like that.
So in order to pull my weight, I’m cooking more, improving my Mandarin skills, and my ability to shop online for things that we need. I’m pretty much limited to niche items like sourdough bread, cheese, or cured meats and steak. With each mention I make about wanting to assume the responsibility of buying things online for the house, she reassures me that this is fun for her because she loves finding deals wherever they exist. So, I was still left twiddling my thumbs a bit, scheming up another area where I could help.
What came next was learning that daily chores are just surface level obligations that exist in our day to day lives. What about planning for the future (education, travel, or the unpredictable), helping to streamline or delegate responsibilities to our ayi, and finally making sure that these tasks are being completed?
This is what gave me the idea to dive deeper into what happens in our household every day and see where we could make improvements. After all, I couldn’t be a proponent of helping to alleviate the “mental load” by not doing anything. This is where Emma’s statement about learning to anticipate a need came in handy.
I think by anticipating, and being aware of everything that is going on I’ll be able to at least initiate the conversation and discover areas that might be problematic in the future through constructive feedback. Ultimately I hope that the words “You should’ve asked” will never come out of my mouth again. So, I think this is a great first step in this direction.
Most of what has been mentioned above can also apply to expat couples. This move to Beijing can present a huge amount of added strain for a family or marriage. Rather than conveniences automatically revealing themselves, they are often only gradually discovered, and it is usually left to the less busy trailing spouse to handle these chores. But the responsibilities of both parents to achieve equity in the domestic workload remains the same.
Here are some of the steps that I’ve been taking, on this journey towards developing a domestic sanctuary, focused on designing family parity with a slight China spin. I couldn’t think of a better Mother’s Day gift to give, though jewelry and Louis Vuitton handbags are always an acceptable option.
Most people can list out everything they do on a daily basis, but they aren’t always able to list out everything that their partner does throughout the week or month. This is the first step to splitting it up evenly. This includes everything from household chores, grocery lists, to plans for the future. Spend some time to figure out the essentials like your next vacation, summer camp options, or even retirement, as it’s never too early to start making a glamorous escape plan. List each item, and really take your time with it, but realize that no list is set in stone. As life changes so does the list.
Choose chores strategically
Divvy out the chores that you are most comfortable with, keeping in mind your natural talents. My wife doesn’t like cleaning the bathroom, which is my job, but is excellent at folding clothes and linens. Often, you’ll find that your preferences are in line with each other. It also might be more convenient for one of you to do the shopping. In my home, my wife does a majority of the shopping online for the essentials, while I might buy ingredients for whatever I am cooking throughout the week. If you want to try something completely wild you can occasionally completely swap tasks with your partner so that you can experience each other’s workload to make sure they are equal. Sounds insane I know, but it could be fun.
“Siri, listen up! Make a reminder that I need to pick up the dry cleaning this evening.” One of the beauties of having a smart device is that it’s never been easier to organize your life. You probably do this with work anyway, so it shouldn’t be new to you, and it will help out a lot. There are even a variety of apps that will allow you to share these to-do lists or other scheduling details with your partner, like Trello or Cozi, so that you are always connected and feeling the satisfaction of checking off each item. We couldn’t think of a more romantic use for your smart devices.
This is an area where living in China is the bee’s knees. Like many families, we have an ayi. I made sure to complete our search for this invaluable member of our household before our first child came on the scene, and haven’t looked back since. Now that our child is 18-months old, we couldn’t be more pleased with the help this wonderful woman has given us while we settled into parenthood. She definitely alleviates some of the stress that would otherwise be put upon my wife or myself, but her primary role is a daytime caregiver, so we try not to overload her with too many household chores. This allows her to focus on playing, feeding, and singing songs with our boy. Most importantly, she makes it possible for my wife and me to have at least one date night every month.
Never stop learning
One of the most important things you can do in life is never to stop learning. Whoever came up with that saying “old dogs can’t learn new tricks,” must have been the most boring person to have ever existed. There is so much to learn in life, and so much of this can be used to improve your quality of life. One thing I love about living in China is that every day if you put yourself out there, you can learn something new. A new word, a new cultural factoid, or a new skill are only an arm’s reach away. How does this relate to the “mental load?” Well, for expat couples, it is essential for one but ideally both of you to make some effort in learning Chinese to simplify life in the capital, where navigating a food menu or opening a bank account requires mad skills that only can be achieved by hitting the books with a certain degree of diligence.
Learn to anticipate
This is probably the most essential part of the “mental load”: learning to know what needs to be done without being micromanaged. Don’t just “do the laundry,” also monitor the hamper and take the initiative to run a load. Examine when your tasks usually need to be done and plan ahead for them. Another component of this is being able to be proactive and determining independently when there is another duty that needs to assimilated into the daily routine to maintain equity. Some men might say they are not mind readers, but what they are really saying is that they can’t be bothered. Do all of these things and your matrimonial relationship in China will find some much-needed balance, here or anywhere your journey may take you.
Photo: Adobe Stock Photo
This article appeared on p54-56 ofbeijingkids May 2018 issue