By now, many people have seen the “Mental Load” comic that has sparked a great deal of dialogue around gender roles in heterosexual partnerships. Our current generation is one in which both men and women in a partnership tend to work outside of the home. However, much of the burden of home and childcare still fall on the woman’s shoulders. Though women are very much in the work force, we still do not enjoy equal pay, nor do we enjoy equal division of labor at home. We took on jobs and added responsibilities but maintained the same responsibilities as far as the daily workings of the home and of child-rearing.
If you have not seen the comic yet, I highly urge you to take a look! I know I could relate the first time I read it, and though my spouse helps out a great deal, I still feel that mental load quite a bit (i.e. when I have to remind and ask for things to be done/purchased/replaced/washed/folded/you name it, rather than knowing that my spouse will carry the mental load like I do and complete tasks without being asked). As the female half of a partnership, I can get frustrated when I wake up on a weekend and have a long list of to-dos running in my mind that take a great deal of energy to remember and accomplish in the short span of two days. For those without kids but who are planning on having kids, I suggest making a thorough list of all of the things that need to be done on a routine basis (e.g. laundry, dishes, cleaning, car maintenance, bill paying, grocery shopping, meal planning/prepping, lawn care, replacing toiletries/other essentials, etc.) and dividing them equitably between you and your spouse. If one spouse stays at home, then it’s likely that most of these tasks will fall to that person, but it should not be that ALL of them fall to one person. Divvying things up before having children will help to ensure that a fair division of labor exists and continues to exist once kids enter the picture.
Let’s face it, women taken on most of the burden of raising kids, no matter how much the husband helps. I always say that if men could breastfeed, breast pumps would be obsolete because no man would commit that much of their lives to pumping. Women are constantly thinking about the next diaper change, the next feeding, how much baby ate, what baby should wear that day, what supplies they need to restock, and so on. This mental list is a large portion of that mental load in a marriage. Part of it is that it’s a mother’s nurturing nature that draws her attention to the needs of the children at all times. But part of this is still that women remain the “project managers” of the home and family. Between working full time, breastfeeding, pumping, and managing the household needs, women can (and do!) become frustrated. Thankfully, open communication helps to remedy a lot of the stress and dissatisfaction. If you’re going through something like this right now, know you are not alone!
In thinking about the mental load, another major burden that women bear is managing contraception. I never considered this before reading this article relating birth control to health care ethics last year. The article points out that there are 11 different methods of contraception for women to choose from (including oral contraceptive pills, patches, IUDs, rings, tubal ligation, etc.), but men only have two options: barrier contraceptives (condoms) and vasectomy. It has historically fallen on women to manage contraception, in my opinion leading to a power differential that actually favors men. For one, men don’t need to think about birth control. It takes the responsibility off of them because they assume the woman will deal with it. If a couple is not married or in a committed relationship, and the woman gets pregnant, it’s really her problem more than the man’s problem. He could wash his hands of the whole thing and split. It leaves the woman to decide whether and how to proceed with the pregnancy, and goodness knows (American) society does not look on her favorably if she chooses anything but carrying that baby to term. Never mind her social and financial situation; she just has to find a way.
Not only do men not have to worry about preventing pregnancy, they don’t have to worry about complication rates because vasectomies are safer and easier than tubal ligations. Such procedures may not even be offered if the hospital is a Catholic hospital. At one local Catholic hospital where I live, for instance, physicians are not permitted to perform tubal ligations at the time of a C-section. A woman who wishes to have a tubal ligation needs to be referred to an outside hospital to have the procedure at a later date. So ladies, after you heal from your C-section, figure out breastfeeding/pumping, go back to work, manage your household, and try to find time to sleep and eat with a newborn, you’ll have to find yourself another doctor and set up another surgery date to get the tubal ligation you wanted. To me, this places these women at higher risk of complications (such as bleeding, infection, adhesions, pain) and is not standard of care. However, because this hospital is funded by the Catholic church which opposes birth control, a woman needs to go through all of these extra steps to get the tubal ligation (that the Catholic church was trying to prevent) anyway. Mind blowing.
Another point is that female contraceptive methods can be expensive. We all know that not all insurances (many provided by a woman’s employer) will cover birth control. Then when a woman gets pregnant, her employer don’t provide adequate (if any) maternity leave. Excuse my French, but women in the American work force are just shit on constantly. Moreover, female contraceptives often cause side effects that lead to discontinuation. Many of the side effects are related to hormonal disruptions, which are an entirely different topic that I won’t delve into here (some examples of side effects: potential cancer risks, blood pressure, cholesterol, depression, anxiety, blood clot risk, etc.). Also, I feel that birth control pills are often prescribed as a panacea for female reproductive issues without assessing other potential root causes of those issues. A normal healthy woman should have a regular period. If she doesn’t, throwing a script for birth control her way simply masks the issue and doesn’t really help her in the long run. In my case, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism as an adult, but had irregular cycles since puberty. It was not until my thyroid was regulated that my cycles finally normalized (without the aid of birth control).
This is not to say that no men care about family planning and birth control. Since their options are limited, they are somewhat forces to rely on women to make the choices. Research has been largely focused on female contraceptive methods due to several historical factors. Also, female contraceptives have a very low failure rate compared to that of condoms. In society, men are expected to be financially and legally responsible for their offspring (in theory), so it is also in men’s best interests to participate in decisions about birth control. Now there is a pervasive assumption that men don’t want to make decisions about birth control or be responsible for it. However, “one study revealed that more than 70 percent of men think men should take more responsibility for contraception. Furthermore, there is evidence that men are not only interested in using current male contraceptives, but also that between 44 and 83 percent of men would use hormonal methods.” Whether men would reliably take contraceptives is another question, especially when considering the mental load discussed above. Even if new male contraceptives are created and enter the market, huge shifts in gender norms and stereotypes still need to occur before they become as popular and effective as female contraceptives. This will take time, but I believe such an intervention would enhance social justice, reproductive justice, and women’s rights around the world.