Make An Emotional Labour To-Do List With Your Partner

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Biz Ellis on the One Bad Mother podcast calls it being “president of everything.” In a two-parent household, it is very common for one partner to take on the responsibility of all the little invisible tasks that can bog you down in the day-to-day.

If you’re the partner who carries the bulk of the family’s “mental load,” you know that it’s not just about who will cook dinner and who will clean up. It’s who will do the meal planning, check to see which ingredients are needed, write up the grocery list, bring the slow cooker up from the basement—and then realise you’re low on one ingredient so now you have to Google what kind of substitution might work. Oh, and how can you alter it slightly so that your kids will actually eat it, too?

All of those steps are not necessarily things you would traditionally write down on a to-do list or bother to take the time to ask your partner to do for you (because by the time I ask you to check whether we have enough chicken broth and explain how much we need and what for, I could have just done it myself). But these invisible tasks add up over time and can lead to one partner—often the woman in a heterosexual couple but not always—feeling overwhelmed.

Britni de la Cretaz writes for the New York Times that we actually should write these things down, though:

Similar to a household chore list, this task list can divide the most contentious emotional labour between partners for clearly defined roles. Maybe one partner unloads the dishwasher, oversees homework time and writes thank-you notes, while the other pays the bills, tackles bedtime and reminds the kids to call their grandparents.

Being in charge of buying all the gifts for family and friends is just as important and time-consuming as being the one who does all the laundry. Gift-buying is not really a household chore, and yet it takes time and effort—you have to keep track of things the receiver has mentioned they like or want or need, you have to search out ideas, read reviews, buy it, wrap it, get a card, etc.

And when, on top of all of that, your partner also expects you to delegate (i.e., act as the household project manager), that’s not at all helpful. Delegation is just One More Thing You Have To Do.

But it’s not enough to simply tell your partner you need help with the emotional labour. You have to get specific by taking stock of the mental load you’re each carrying, writing down all the on-going invisible tasks you do and rebalancing the labour between you. Here is a basic list to get you started:

  • Meal planning. Who will plan the meals, write the grocery shopping list, go to the store, prepare the meals and clean up after the meals? Who will make the school lunches?

  • Pet care. Beyond the obvious “feed the dog” chore, who will make the pet’s regular check-up appointments and grooming or boarding reservations? Who will make sure Fido gets his monthly heartworm prevention medicine and that he doesn’t run out of food?

  • Family medical appointments. Who will make the annual physical, dental and eye appointments for the kids? Who will notify the school of early pick-ups on appointment days or be in charge of making sure you don’t run out of any necessary on-going medication?

  • Gifts. Who is keeping track of upcoming birthdays, holidays and special events among family and friends and actively shopping for, buying and wrapping any associated gifts?

  • Homework. Someone has to either be available to help with it when the kids get stuck or at least check that it’s being done.

  • Classroom communication. Often also the “homework parent,” this parent is the primary person keeping track of all school- and classroom-related activities or announcements: the Scholastic Book order forms, the spirit week themes, the snack sign-up list for the class’s Valentine’s Day party, the rain date change for the end-of-school-year picnic. This person knows that Tuesday is gym day, so the kids have to wear sneakers. This is probably also the point person for any discipline-related conversations.

  • Extra curricular activities. Who will keep track of all the ballet practices and maths club meetings? Who will figure out how to get this kid to her soccer game and that one to Girl Scouts (with snacks, drinks and any applicable uniforms or gear ready to go)?

  • Home maintenance. Who is in charge of planning for regular home maintenance tasks that fall outside of the usually weekly chores? These would include things like getting the vents cleaned, the carpets and rugs shampoo’d, ridding the gutters of their seasonal debris, or calling an electrician to figure out why the damn doorbell isn’t working. (Apparently no one in my home is in charge of that last one if the past two years are any indication.)

  • Vehicle maintenance. Who is scheduling the oil changes, changing the wiper blades before they are rendered useless, checking the tires’ air pressure, vacuuming the floorboards and swinging the cars through the car wash now and then?

  • Finances. Who pays the bills, makes sure the checking account doesn’t get overdrafted, schedules the Roth IRA contributions and calculates whether your kids will ever have enough money in their 529 accounts to pay for four years of college?

  • Travel. Who is in charge of planning for trips (big or small), booking the hotel rooms, buying the tickets, notifying the kids’ schools of their absences, packing the suitcases, stashing enough activities and snacks in the kids’ backpacks, and making sure you have whatever travel documents or confirmation emails you might need?

Once you start to see the larger topics form, it should be fairly easy and natural to divide them up. One person might be in charge of all the day-to-day school items while the other is in charge of the pets and the medical appointments. You take home maintenance, I’ll handle the cars. Assuming you’re both willing and able to divide it up—and stay on top of it—this should reduce how overwhelmed one partner feels and how nagged the other one feels.

One last note: Most of this applies to two-parent families, but I see you out there, single parents, and I know you’re carrying all the load, all the time. Although you don’t have the luxury of rebalancing things with a partner, I would still suggest writing down all the “invisible” tasks you manage over the course of a day/week/month to see if there is any outsourcing or automating you can do so you don’t have to be thinking about everything every day.

And even if nothing can be outsourced or automated, it’s a chance for you to take note of how much you are managing and give yourself credit for the ridiculously long list of things you do on your own.


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