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Getting practical about sharing the mental load

When I started How Do You Do It 12 years ago, there is no doubt that men did less of the childcare and less unpaid work at home than their partners and the expectation was that women would probably take a step back in their career to spend more time with their children. Fast forward 12 years and although this is changing, the statistics still tell us that women do considerably more of the unpaid work – domestic and child care, with men still doing more of the full-time paid work.

However, some progress has been made, assumptions that it will always be a mother who leaves work early to pick up the kids and raised eyebrows from colleagues when a father does are thankfully starting to disappear. More women have successful careers that they aren’t willing to give up, more men see the huge benefits of being actively involved in the day to day practicalities of raising children and, importantly many organisations are embracing the flexible working practices that are vital to helping most career families succeed.

In addition, the divide that opens at the point of having a child, where women tend to take complete ownership of the life of the child and men stagger back to work after two sleep-deprived weeks is (very) slowly starting to change. Advances in legislation in markets like the UK around shared parental leave, mean genuinely sharing the experience of caring for a very young child is beginning to become a possibility for some families.

What we don’t see changing so fast though is the shift towards more balance in the ‘thinking’ around unpaid work – the ‘mental load’ still very much rests with women. Fathers tend to take the role of willing assistant, operating from a list of instructions rather than being an active decision maker.  Time and time again in our coaching sessions we hear of frustration amongst mothers who feel the burden of being the default for unpaid work, organising all aspects of their family lives (and part of what we challenge them on is the expectation they have of themselves that they “have to”)

Fathers, on the other hand, tell us they feel excluded and that any contribution they make is likely to be criticised for not being ‘right’, when, in reality, what it is, is just not the way their partner would have done something.  Is it any wonder that the Fatherhood Institute has found that arguments between couples go up five-fold after having kids?

The reasons why this happen are complex, but entrenched attitudes about who leads on the seemingly unending unpaid domestic work that accompanies life as a working parent tend to be exacerbated by the way that men and women’s roles diverge at the point at which they announce they are expecting a child.  What starts out as pragmatic temporary solutions because a mother is on maternity leave and therefore more able to lead on the organisation of home life, easily become default positions that remain unchallenged as she returns to work.

As Professor Laura Radcliffe points out in her excellent podcast on the subject, the impact of hundreds of small choices about who does what, cumulatively build up to create segregated roles for men and women that impact career success for mothers and time with their children for men.

So how do we as individuals start to shift this in our own families? Well, imagine being involved in a project at work that ran along these lines; Everyone working on the project already has another job, there is no plan or if there is a plan often only half the team is party to it. Little discussion occurs about how things might get done and a prevailing feeling of blind faith exists that it will all sort itself out.  Preferences and skillsets are largely ignored, only one style of working is valued, and a blame culture often exists if things don’t go quite right. Contingency planning is usually done in a panic and the person leading the project suffers a significant drop in salary and career prospects as a result of their involvement.

And there you have both the challenge and the solution. That is how many of us who successfully manage complex paid careers are choosing to organise the complex unpaid project of managing family life. When put in the admittedly exaggerated terms above, the answers are actually alarming simple. Between you and your partner, start treating the planning of how your home life is organised with the thought that you would give to something in your professional life.  Think about your strengths, your preferences, and your capacity and start to design a plan that takes into account all the ‘jobs’ that need to get done.

Work and society are changing to accommodate career families but unless you both actively take a role in managing the balance between paid an unpaid work, the default seems to be a natural drift towards traditional gender roles, which over the course of time impact the career progression of women and the ability of men to be fully involved in the unpaid life of having a family.

Virginia Herlihy

CEO, How Do You Do It

For more detailed practical tips about sharing the mental load, you can watch Virginia at the Career Mastery Kickstart Summit, a free online summit offering tips and advice from 50 industry experts to kickstart your career in 2019.

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