We Need to Teach Our Sons to Share the Mental Load (No, Chores Aren’t Enough)

teaching our sons the mental load cat

A popular squabble in my household stems from the fact that I bear the bulk of the mental load. My spouse—who’s a very involved and participatory partner—is still the guy that will make a plan to go to the playground with our kid, but won’t always remember to pack the sunscreen or a snack. (He’s working on it!)

If I go, I’ve packed for every potential scenario. This anecdote isn’t meant to shame him; it’s more meant to illuminate a distinction about the way we—and most of my generation—were raised. Women were taught to take on invisible labor; men were not.

Dr. Robyn Miller, an expert on how to navigate and share the mental load, credits baby boomers with championing their daughters while keeping things status quo with their sons. “Growing up in the 80s and 90s, girls were taught that they can ‘do anything,’” she says. “There were stickers and posters advertising that slogan. They were encouraged to take any subject in school and enter whatever university program they desired, too.” As a result, the number of women graduating from college is higher than ever. In Miller’s field—medicine—there are more women graduating from medical school than men in many countries and that has been true for the last decade.

But while girls were encouraged to plan and imagine a life and career for themselves beyond the domestic sphere, the way boys were raised and the messages they were told didn’t change. “Boys grew up observing their fathers going to work and their mothers—who were likely also working—still being the ones who would be able to answer all the questions of ‘Where is my…?’ and ‘What’s for dinner?’ and ‘What’s the plan for this?’” Miller explains.

There was an effort to equalize men and women at the office, but never an effort to equalize the mental load.  

So, how can we change this for the future, so that we continue to impress upon our sons (and daughters) the need for balanced division of invisible labor at home?

1. We need to model shared responsibility. I mentioned my spouse earlier, but his efforts to anticipate instead of always leaning on me make a difference—and should help our son’s ability to automatically pick up some of this behavior and for his future life and relationships, Miller says.

2. Practice non-gendered chore equality. Per Miller, we need to make sure the expectations we have for our sons and daughters is fair. “Consider ages and abilities, of course, but try to avoid giving your sons the once-in-a-while tasks like ‘mow the lawn’ while your daughters get ‘set the table’—something they have to think about daily.” (One way to guarantee that chores are evenly divvied up is to swap the jobs around every month or two.)

3. Physical chores aren’t enough—you need to assign planning, too. “For example, let’s say your child is responsible for feeding the dog. Get them to pay attention to how much dog food is left in the packet and ask them to write ‘dog food’ on the household shopping list when it’s getting low,” says Miller. By incorporating the responsibility of thinking and planning the task, it helps them appreciate the mental load that comes along with any job.

Bottom line: If girls should have equal opportunities in the workplace, boys should have equal opportunities to contribute meaningfully in the home.

Why Women Have an Invisible Workload (and Men Don’t) and How to Balance the Scales

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Royal family expert, a cappella alum, mom

Rachel Bowie is Senior Director of Special Projects & Royals at PureWow, where she covers parenting, fashion, wellness and money in addition to overseeing initiatives within...