By Warwick Smith
Another article published at 10daily last year that I want to keep a record of in case the site gets taken down. (Note: I didn’t choose to use the word “househusband” in the title, that was the editor). Update: the 10daily site has since been taken down so the above link is broken.
My wife and I have recently switched back and forth in our roles at work and home, and the lessons I’ve learnt have been profound.
Only about a month into the new arrangement of me as lead parent and my wife, Cass, as breadwinner, we found ourselves sitting at the kitchen table on a Saturday morning. I had a list of things that needed doing around the house, shopping and various kids activities, and Cass had the newspaper and a cup of coffee just wanting to chill out and relax.
This was a total reversal from only a month earlier.
Of course, we knew that our roles would affect our behaviour and the way we related, but the extent that our role reversal resulted in a behavioural and personality reversal was shocking, even for a couple who have been fairly equitable for most of our relationship.
Cass has historically been a bit of a cranky morning person, balancing logistics of her day and self-care with getting kids off to school, while I tend to be pretty cheerful in the morning.
This flipped when our roles flipped. I was always amazed by how much time Cass spent texting in the evenings — and then suddenly I was doing it to organise all kinds of things to do with school and kids’ activities. There are too many other similar reversals to possibly list them all here.
The biggest realisation for me has been about the ‘mental load’ of running a household. I understood this in theory but, like becoming a parent, it’s not something you can fully understand until you do it.
Keeping track of what’s going on and what needs to happen in a complex household (i.e. one with kids or other dependents) requires substantial mental time and energy. This mental load falls disproportionately on women, even when both partners are working equally, often simply as a hangover from when women take leave from work in the early years of child rearing or simply due to gender role expectations.
Even during periods when Cass and I were sharing the parenting 50/50 we were not sharing the mental load. She knew it but I only kind of knew it and, I have to painfully confess, had partly dismissed it as gender related — she just cared more about some household things than I did.
What’s been equally striking is that, as I approached my return to work, I shed the mental load as my brain started to return to work mode. Things at home fell apart a bit; we didn’t have enough food in the house for school lunches, the bald car tyres haven’t been changed even though they were dangerously bald, a bike got left at a repair shop for a week after it was ready to pick up — the list goes on.
It may be tempting to draw on another broadly accepted gender stereotype; that women are better at multitasking than men. The multitasking skill difference may be real, I don’t know, but, if it is I reckon there’s a fair chance it’s just to do with practice. So many employed women have to do the balancing of cognitive load for work and home and, as a result, they become better at it.
Perhaps with practice I’ll become good at it too, but I have absolutely no doubt that there is only so much cognitive load we can carry and that carrying a job-related mental load and a household mental load is tiring and isn’t without costs.
I’ve returned to work, but only three days per week. The plan now is that we both work three days per week, once again dividing the parenting and housekeeping right down the middle. The big challenge is going to be how to divide the mental load right down the middle.
At least now I genuinely understand what that challenge involves, which I’m not sure I ever would have if I hadn’t had this time of being a full-time househusband.