Saturday, January 19, 2019

Mommy rules

It was around 2 years ago that I came across the concept of 'mental load' when this comic strip by French cartoonist Emma was going viral. Something clicked into place. Mental load! That was it. There was such a thing as mental load. Suddenly things started making sense. Why, in spite of Viv being very particular about sharing all chores relating to the household or Xena, sometimes I felt exhausted, but not in a physical way.

I had taken on all of the mental load, you see.

Without us realising there was such a thing, there was no way I could split that with him. I viewed myself as the ultra-efficient manager of job, house, husband, and child. I had a plan, you see. Everyone knew what they had to do. It was all divided equally. Of course, I did all the thinking and planning, but that was not actual work now, was it?

It was. In a big way.

Like Emma says, "The mental load is almost completely borne by women. It's permanent and exhausting and invisible work."

So then I started to look at things a little differently. I realised that the fact that I LOVE planning and getting stuff done was sometimes getting in the way of my own sanity. When you have a kid around the house, it becomes infinitely more difficult to keep things tidy. You can give your husband or kid chores to do on an ad-hoc basis to help you, but what needs to be done is to be able to shift not just the physical chore itself, but some of the mental load as well. (See this.) Instead of telling Xena to refill the hand soap when I was busy, I needed to get her to do it whenever it was time to refill it. the last person to use up the last drop of soap refills it. That's it. But of course, that is not as straightforward as it seems. If soap-refilling became everyone's job, I would have no idea when it was time to buy the next batch of soap. Because I'm always the refiller, I have a clear idea of when to add it to the shopping list. And we would suddenly have a situation of no hand soap in the whole house!! You see what I mean? So it just seems like the easier path is to do it all myself... that of taking on the physical load (refilling the hand soap) and the mental load (remembering to add it to the shopping list). Now multiply this tiny example by ALL the 238748926589624085734 things that need to get done in a typical household. It's a lot more work than what you would associate with a typical works-half-day-from-home mother-of-one-kid who also happens to have 3827483947 hobbies. But I did it anyway. Because I was the girl who wanted to do everything, and did it. (Ooh, cool phrase for my epitaph!)

Last year, when I was in discussions with my publisher about taking up the full-time position, I had many many other things to consider. What would we do about breakfast? When would I go to the gym? How would I do laundry, considering I'd totally miss the sunlight hours? How would we keep the house tidy? I used to make an elaborate breakfast every day, a different item daily. And cook and pack two boxes for Xena's recess and snack break. And go to the gym before I started work. And do laundry and drying and folding and ironing almost every day. And when taking breaks from work, because I had no colleagues to chat with at the water cooler, I'd go around the house tidying up. Though we have generally taught Xena to be tidy, we have probably not done a great job at enforcing it. She may remember to put her uniform in the laundry hamper after school, but she would read books all over the house and I'd find a Tintin in pretty much every room. Sometimes I'd wait till she was back from school to get her to tidy up, but sometimes I'd just do it myself. After all, I was the one spending most of the time in the house and I needed it to be moderately tidy at least. I'd be amazed at how, in spite of my daily clearing up, every table in the house would disappear under stuff. Every single day. It didn't happen all that much when it was just Viv and me, but ballooned to crazy proportions once Xena was old enough to carry and leave stuff around. And doing all those things was no longer making me feel efficient; it was making me feel exhausted.

A lot of the time, I would sacrifice my me-time to do it. I'd think of catching a Koffee with Karan episode over lunch, but there'd be something that needed my attention more so I'd have a quick 5-minute lunch and get on with the task. I always told myself that I was only forgoing stupid Bollywood nonsense, but you know what? Sometimes you badly need some stupid Bollywood nonsense in your life. I know I do.

Once I signed the contract with my employer, I knew we had to start doing things differently. It might take a while to find a way to split the mental load equally, but with me being away at work all day, at least the random physical loads had to be readdressed. We had to learn to do things without being told to. Some things had to be a given, like putting things back from where you took them.

So I came up with two rules/resolutions for the family -- the 5% rule and the black box rule.

The 5% rule
The 5% rule involves completing each task 100%, and not leaving the first 5% (Mama, can you give me a glue stick for my craft project?) or/and the last 5% (putting the glue stick back in the craft drawer, where everyone knows it belongs). Or removing only enough dry laundry to make space for the exact load you're currently washing, but not removing the rest. Or folding all the clothes but leaving them folded on the bed. Or tackling a messy room but leaving some items on the floor because you didn't know where to put them. Or taking something from the wardrobe but not sliding the door back. I want to ask, "So who is supposed to do this last 5% and why can't/didn't you do it?" So according to the resolution, Viv and Xena now have to make sure that anything they do is done 100%. No, I will not be the one bringing them the tool and no, I will not be the one putting it back. When we renovated the house a few years ago, we Konmarie-d the hell out of it -- enough to make sure everything has a proper place that everyone is aware of.

The black box rule
The biggest hindrance to a tidy home is all the stuff that doesn't make its way back to its original resting place. So now I have a black box in the storeroom where anything not in its correct place will be put away and not returned for a week. If it's something unsuitable for the box (dirty clothes left on the chair, for example, will of course not be put in the black box (omg!) but something valuable to the offender (say, one Tintin comic for Xena) will be taken in lieu. And it's not just for Xena's stuff (though to be honest, it mainly is); she has also been given the right to 'black box' any of Mama's or Daddy's items that have not been put back in their correct place.

When I first introduced this, Viv was all up for it, but I did get some groans from Xena who, as I mentioned before, likes to keep one Tintin in each room of the house (for easy access?). So we gave her a grace period of 2 weeks where we would point out her black box candidates but not implement the rule. Last week, the grace period ended, and now I've fully gone into evil mode. The first day itself, I black-boxed 7 (let me say that again...  SEVEN!) Tintin books. I haven't seen an out-of-place Tintin book since then.

Let's see how these rules work out for us. I am giving all of us a year to reach the stage where we will not need these rules anymore because they would have become second nature to us. Fingers crossed.

And then maybe my epitaph phrase could be changed to 'The girl who did everything she wanted to.'

PS: Sharing Emma's comic strip once again, because that's how important it is. Whether you read my post or scrolled through, whether you're a guy or a girl, do read what she says about mental load. It will change you. 


Argentyne said...

I have a black garbage bag just for this. Unfortunately, since we've been back from vacation I've become lazy about this. Also, I probably need someone to threaten ME with a black bag/box. 😅

Even though I'm a SAHM, I've decided not to do laundry everyday but just couple of loads of necessary items and do all the rest at the laundromat where they dry immediately and can be folded and put away immediately.

Colorful said...

You are so inspiring Sayesha. I struggle everyday to keep my house tidy. Blame game starts & I end up getting hurt.

Anubhuti said...

Saysesha.. I have been following your blog for 12 years and I relate to you so much!!! The issue of mental load, which you have articulated so well, has been a topic of discussion in our household too. It felt as if I was reading my own thoughts :). I had shared Emma's comic with my better half earlier too and I will show it to him today again, just for fun because I know, nothing is going to change in our household :). Wish you much luck for your rules and for your second innings!!!

Mythili said...

I relate to this so much on so many levels, mental fatigue is my #1 exhauster (if there is such a thing). I am going to start some rules around the home - thanks for blogging about this.

S Happy said...

Nice post. It is really interesting. Thanks for sharing.
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