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On August 19th, we will pause to honor humanitarian aid workers and reflect on the role that they play in helping communities recover from natural disasters, political turmoil, structural violence, and social injustice. It’s hard work. And this year, special recognition is being given to women, in all the ways that they manage, implement, and contribute to the evolution of this work.
I’ve been thinking of some of the dedicated women that I have come to know through my role in supporting aid workers. One of the things that deserves special notice is the way that these women are masters at balancing competing demands. A French cartoonist Emma illustrates this particular struggle for women in her comic, "You Should Have Asked". Research (read more here and here) confirms Emma’s observations: that women tend to carry the primary responsibility for household needs and childcare, regardless of their professional status. As more women have seized (or created their own) opportunities for higher education and professional job roles, there has not been a complementary reduction in old household-oriented expectations.
Many working women can identify with feelings of fatigue because they do their professional work, and then they come home to more work: buying food, preparing meals, laundry, cleanup, childcare, calling parents, and planning the next vacation. But more than the physical fatigue related to doing these tasks, I have found the concept of mental load to be most clinically relevant.
Mental load is the managerial or organizational burden of household work, or noticing what needs to be done now, remembering the things that need to be done soon, and planning the things that need to be done later. Emma makes the point that, even in households where partners or children help with household tasks when asked, this doesn’t remove the burden of mental load from the person who is doing the noticing and the asking. Additionally, there are many different kinds of couples and households, even if you don't fit the most traditional relationship model, you may still find that one or both partners are struggling with mental load.
We all differ on what types of things deplete our energy versus give us energy, what personal needs we have versus what we choose to sacrifice, and how we go about negotiating who does what with the people we live with. I had a supervisor years ago who seemed to thrive off of what she called “work life integration.” With two kids and a full-time job, she would sometimes interrupt a meeting with me to take a call from her kid’s school. And sometimes I would get emails in the morning that she had sent at eleven o’clock at night. At first I viewed her as a “workaholic” and just thought she was wired to love work. But with more careful observation, I saw how good she was at boundaries, and in working exclusively in areas where she knew she could contribute something valuable and get properly recognized for it. She didn't pack her schedule, and she had excellent relationships with others on her team so that she knew who to delegate for which types of tasks. She did a version of this at home as well. Her partner didn’t just do the chores she asked him to do; he was completely responsible for key things, and at certain times of the day he was the primary caregiver for their kids.
Reducing mental load for women at home has to start with the awareness of what it is. In most of the places that I see it as a therapist, the topic comes up because the woman has reached a point of total exhaustion and frustration. Some of these women would be the first to admit that they contribute to their own mental load, by having high expectations for how much they should be responsible for, or how perfectly certain tasks should be done. But more often than not, there is a partner in the relationship who just isn’t aware of all the things the woman is noticing, remembering, and planning on a daily basis.
As we celebrate women humanitarians this year, I encourage all of us to consider how mental load may be affecting you or women you know. Does your team currently discuss how mental load affects the group? The recognition of these subtle but pervasive forces helps us to experience the balance in “work-life balance.” It also helps humanitarian aid teams work together more collaboratively.
Learn more about World Humanitarin Day on the UN Website, or search #WomenHumanitarians on your social media platform.
Photo Credit: ©UNHCR/James Jamba Charles
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