Dear Dads: Sorry, but 'Helping' Isn't Good Enough

man doing laundry
iStock.com/RyanJLane

You, to your wife: Come sit with me and relax a minute, you seem really stressed.

Your Wife: I can't! There are a million things that need to be done before tomorrow.

You: Why? What's so pressing?

Your Wife: *Rolls eyes and sighs, barely containing inner rage*

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You keep telling your wife to ask you for help, so why is she so frustrated? A concept getting attention lately is that of the "mental load" women carry, even if their partners are willing to share chores and child rearing. 

This mental load is the thought-work that goes into the everyday life of a family, the invisible baggage most women carry around every minute of the day.

What It Feels Like

You've probably heard the analogy of having a mind like a browser with 40 tabs open. It's like that, but add in an emotional component: This is the busy-ness of caring for the most precious people in our life.

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As a result, moms keep dozens of to-dos whirling around in our head, scared to ever really stop thinking about them, because then the baby won't have diapers, or the toddler won't have a present for that birthday party coming up, or our husband won't have a clean shirt. We're constantly cycling through the calendar, the chores, and what each person needs, trying to make sure we remember everything.

Meanwhile, an inner voice is chastising us for every little thing we forget or can't find the time to do.

Hidden Work

Here's an example of what women think about before and after a task needs to be done:

- Groceries: inventory, meal planning (sometimes for each family member), shopping, storing, cooking, dealing with leftovers

- Laundry: ensuring each family member has clothes that fit for every season, planning coordinating pieces, cycling old things out of closets, remembering events that need special outfits, and making sure they're clean

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- Scheduling: school, extracurriculars, haircuts, dentist and doctor appointments, daily schedules for each family member

- Social: managing relationship opportunities such as play groups, church, and neighborhood groups; buying gifts, packing lunch/snacks/change of clothes, coordinating transportation

The Problem With Making Her the Manager

So why doesn't your wife ask for your help more often? Because the "ask" adds one more thing to her plate. More explaining, more planning. She doesn't need one more person or thing to manage. In other words, she doesn't need you to just help, she needs you to take responsibility. It's not only your job to co-parent, it's also your job to think about co-parenting.

It is entirely possible that this has never occurred to you. You may never have looked at the long, invisible series of events that comes before a task. But this is where she needs your help. If there's a chore you often do, like going to the supermarket, take a look at everything leading up to it; this is the whole task, the whole responsibility. You, too, can carry this mental load, and lord, will she love you for it!

How to Offer Help That Really Helps

With 2-year-old twins, my husband and I have started trading our least favorite chores. I dislike dishes and bath time. Now R.J. happily does those things. Totally. Loading and unloading the dishwasher, washing pots, procuring detergent pods and sponges. Bath time is the same, completely crossed off my list. I don't touch a towel or buy baby shampoo. Not my load. If you're wondering, my areas of expertise are cooking, clothing, and slurping gin and tonics while the girls are in the bath. I added that last one myself, but I am reliably good at it.

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While there are tech tools to help you make this load-sharing work, such as calendar reminders and password vaults, it's important to figure out a system that works for your family.

To all the dads out there: If you can take on some of the invisible thought-work involved in caring for your family, you'll truly be sharing the chores -- and you'll connect more fully with the most important people in your life. And that's worth the work. It's certainly worth a killer G&T that I'm sure your wife will be happy to make you while you're doing her most hated chore. 

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