Do you feel mentally overwhelmed with everything you need to do to take care of your family? With all of the activities, and the doctor’s appointments, and the school calendars, not to mention dinner, it gets overwhelming. The answer isn’t to “say no more” or “you’re doing too much.” But what is the answer? Listen to this episode as we talk about how to lighten your load so that you have time to have the wonderful sex life you deserve.
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References for this episode:
Hey Guys: This is What Mental Load Means to Women
The Burden We Never Knew We Carried: The Sexual Mental Load
The Mental Load that F*&$ with My Sex Life
Do you overthink? Do you have a million things swirling around in your brain at all times? It’s worth asking the question “Do you feel overburdened by all the details of the household that you have to remember and keep track of? Do you feel mentally exhausted by family life?” If you do, the answer isn’t always to just “say no” and “you’re doing too much.” The answer may be that you are carrying too much of the load.
For most women the never ending to do list (usually things we have to do for others) is a permanent fixture in our brains. And guess what…this is affecting your sex life! But, I’m sure you’ve figured that out already.
Women really struggle to be sexual when our brains are so full of all of the things. All of the million little things that we have to do, remember, and take care of. When we’re thinking about what needs to go on the to-do list, what am I going to make for dinner tonight, I need to make a dentist appointment for this kid and run that kid to soccer practice, and I’m feeling bad about the weight that I’ve gained, and I forgot to do this for my Sunday school class. Oh, and you want to have sex right now? Let me put that all aside and lay there for 45 minutes doing nothing productive…. And now I’m thinking about what a bad wife I am for not having sex with you again. Ugh!
Sometimes it’s really tough being a woman. I’m sure it’s hard (in different ways) for men too. Basically being human, being an adult, is hard! But being a woman with all of our hormones, bodily functions, abilities, massive social, cultural, religious, and familial expectations is super hard. All of that expectation doesn’t turn us on. Doesn’t make us feel sexy. It feels like a huge, heavy weight. An unbearable load that compresses our brain and sneaks its way down into our genitals.
Melanie Brown says “Sure, mind-blowing sex will increase the chances of her wanting to have sex again. But you can’t get to mind-blown without blowing the crap out of her mind first.”
So what is the mental load? It’s the clear division of roles inherited from firmly established patriarchal dynamics. It’s the “you take care of everything at home and I’ll go out and work and earn the money.” It’s when women feel as if they have to keep all the details of the household/kids/family in their head at all times, because otherwise things won’t get done. And it’s exhausting and doesn’t seem like it can be switched off. And if you can’t switch it off, it’s hard to turn the libido switch on.
So if you don’t understand what I’m talking about, I want to share with you an example I got from ToLoveHonorAndVacuum.
It’s a lovely Friday afternoon, and the weather looks great for tomorrow. Donny knows the kids are sick of being stuck inside, and the beaches are beginning to open up again after COVID. So he says to Marcia, “Hey, honey, let’s take the kids to the beach tomorrow!”
Marcia puts a smile on her face, and says, “Sure, sounds great.” But she looks perplexed. And for the rest of the evening she’s pulling things out of drawers, rummaging in the fridge, and basically snapping at everybody. Donny goes and gets the bathing suits and towels and puts them into a backpack, and is bothered that Marcia is still running around after everything.
Donny says, “Hon, I just wanted to have fun with the family, and you’re turning this into a big production. Calm down. We’re going to have FUN! It doesn’t need to be a huge deal. Just relax with us. Come and watch a movie instead.”
Marcia says, “I’m not making it into a big production, Donny! But we can’t just “go to the beach.” It’s not that easy. If you want to go to the beach, then why aren’t you helping?”
“I’d be glad to help! Just tell me what to do.” Donny says.
“That’s the problem! You make all these plans, and you never think about how it’s going to affect me, because you never consider how much work goes into this. You just sit back and let me figure it all out!” And she’s close to tears.
What happened to Marcia? Why is having fun with the kids such a big deal, Donny wonders? Why is his wife no fun anymore?
That’s a question that many men have: Why is my wife no fun anymore? She’s always making lists. She’s always worrying about stuff. She can’t just relax.
But let’s figure out what’s actually going on Marcia’s head:
What goes into “going to the beach”, for Marcia:
- She has to pack snacks and lunches for everybody to eat.
- She has to pack diapers and changes of clothes for the baby
- She has to find all the sand pails, shovels, and noodles. She thinks they’re in the bottom of the basement closet in a Rubbermaid container, but she’s not sure, and she has to move the Christmas decorations to find them.
- They have that water mattress thing in the garage that the kids love, but she’s worried it may have a hole in it. They also have a bunch of water rings. She wants to find the tape that can repair them in case they take them and then they don’t work.
- Janie, their middle child, burns easily and needs SPF 60 for her body and SPF 100 for her face. She also needs a rash shirt and pants. Marcia isn’t sure they have enough sunscreen, and she may have to run to the drugstore to get it.
- The baby will need to nap in the early afternoon, and will have to keep shaded. They have a little baby beach tent, but she lent it to her friend Emily two weeks ago. She has to phone Emily to see if she can pick it up.
- The picnic, water toys, and everything will take up a lot of space in the trunk, but right now, the trunk is filled with donations to the thrift store. Marcia has spent this week cleaning out the kids’ closets and weeding down their toys, figuring out which ones she wants to keep for the baby, and before they can fit everything in the trunk, they have to go drop off the donations. She’s trying to figure out if the place is open in the evening so she can go after dinner, or if someone really needs to go right now.
- They just had a new tree planted in the front yard a few days ago, and the nursery told them that every morning for the next two weeks the tree has to be watered. She’s wondering who is going to get up and do that tomorrow morning if they’re rushing off to the beach.
- Marcia’s period started today, which means tomorrow will be her heaviest day. She’s wondering if there are good bathrooms to change tampons in, and with COVID, she actually doesn’t want to use the bathrooms that much. She’s thinking about Lysol wipes, and wondering how many she has. She’s also wondering if she still has a bathing suit wrap she can wear so she doesn’t have to be so self-conscious.
- Her maternity bathing suit won’t fit anymore, but she’s worried about fitting into her pre-pregnancy bathing suits. Her bust has gotten a lot bigger with nursing the baby, and she’s worried too much may “hang out” and there may be a LOT of cleavage in her old bathing suits. Does she have to run out to get another one? And will breastfeeding work? She’s wondering if she can find the beach umbrella and tilt it properly, and she realizes she’ll definitely need to wear a wrap if she doesn’t make it to the store tonight.
- She would absolutely LOVE to read a book on the beach and just relax. She’s hoping she may have time. So she wants to pick out a novel for her kindle and take it with her.
When Donny announces he wants to “go to the beach”, then, these are all the things that start going through Marcia’s head.
It is a luxury to be able to just have fun.
Donny’s reaction is that Marcia is getting upset and worried and frazzled because she is making too big a production out of this.
However, if you look at that list, is there anything that shouldn’t be on there?
Yes, they could go to the beach without sand pails and shovels, but would the kids have as much fun? They could go without the baby tent, but then where would the baby nap? In Marcia’s arms? In the car seat? And what protects the baby from the sun and sand while napping? They could just empty the trunk of all the donations and leave it all in the front hall, and then fill up the trunk again when they get back from the beach, but that just doubles up on work.
They could just buy food at the beach, but that gets really expensive.
In order to “go to the beach”, Marcia has to think of all of these things. It’s not that Marcia doesn’t want to go to the beach–she does!
But Marcia would have a much easier time “going to the beach” if it were Donny’s job to think about all the toys and beach accessories they were going to need, locate them, and set them out, so that Marcia could just concentrate on the food and clothing.
Asking for a list, too, means that all of these details are in Marcia’s head. And she has to make sure she’s not forgetting anything.
And that’s what’s so important to understand:
What Marcia is upset about is not having to unload the trunk or go to the donation site; it’s not having to locate the pails and shovels; it’s not having to pack lunches and clothes and all of that.
It’s that she’s the one who has to think of all of these things and remember all of these things.
Not just that, but Marcia is often the one to bear the consequences if things go wrong.
If something is forgotten, everyone will ask Mom why it isn’t there. Even if Marcia makes a list, if she forgets something on it, then that, too, is her fault. Or if she doesn’t communicate properly to Donny what she needs, then it is her fault for writing it down wrong. By having to be the one to remember all of this, she bears the blame if the day goes badly.
And she also bears the brunt of the negative consequences. If they don’t have sunscreen and Janie gets burned, then Marcia will be the one who has to deal with a toddler who has a hard time sleeping for the next few nights because she’s sore.
If the baby doesn’t nap and his schedule is thrown off, then Marcia will be the one who is up in the middle of the night with him, and will have to deal with a very cranky baby for the next few days.
That is why Marcia can’t just “let this go” and “not make a big production” out of it. She is ALSO thinking of all the things that can go wrong if she doesn’t manage all of this right, and she wants to save herself (and her kids) stress and problems later.
Marcia wants to be a fun wife, too.
Marcia doesn’t want to act like a Tasmanian devil, running around with all of these details every time they want to go anywhere, “making a big production” out of it. Marcia wants to have fun, too. Marcia would love to just pick up and go to the beach! Marcia doesn’t want to be a spoilsport. But Marcia resents the fact that her husband blames her for being a party pooper and assumes that her motives are somehow bad, when really, she’s just trying to do this right, and he’s not bothering to even think about what work needs to be done. She knows that he is busy at work and stressed at work, and she’s glad that he wants to spend time with the family.
But why is it that every time he wants to spend time with the family to relax, it makes more work for her? It just doesn’t seem fair, even though she wants to have fun and spend time together, too.
Why Marcia’s work becomes invisible
Why is it that does Donny not recognize what needs to be done?
Because in the past, when they’ve gone to the beach, the kids have had fun. The picnic has been great. The pails and shovels have magically appeared. And because everything has gone off without a hitch in the past, Donny thinks “going to the beach is easy.” If he hasn’t carried the mental load of “going to the beach”, then he doesn’t realize how big a production this actually is.
And that’s the problem. When one spouse has carried most of the mental load of the household, the other spouse rarely realizes how big a load this is, because everything seems to “go off without a hitch”. If life is that easy, why is she always so stressed? But what may not be obvious is that life is only easy because she’s carrying the mental load of it. She’s making sure things don’t go wrong and things are prepared.
There’s also the mental load of the sexual relationship. Just like the never-ending to-do list for the home/family/kids, there’s one for the sexual relationship as well. It’s managing sex drives, anticipating their spouse’s desire, anxiety about their spouse’s emotions around sex, worrying about the frequency or absence of intercourse, lower libidos, and all the feelings of guilt and shame they generate. And when I tell women the things they need to do to get in the mood (take care of yourself, fantasize, create points of emotional connection throughout the day, etc.) it often feels like even more that they HAVE to do.
In Episode 182, I talked about sexual brakes and accelerators. The mental load is definitely a sexual brake. It is really hard to do the “work” of getting in the mood when you’ve got so much else going on in your brain. Let alone, lay there, not working, not being productive, and trying to keep your mind engaged on what is happening between the two of you.
This all sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? No wonder so many women are struggling. So with this huge weight getting in the way of sex, what helps? Besides reframing how you think about sex, and that it can actually be a wonderful break from everything you have to do, it can be rejuvenating and nourishing to your mind, body, soul, and relationship, and it can absolutely be more about you and not just him, the thing that helps the most is being seen, being heard, and being understood by our spouse. That is the real turn-on. If sex is going to happen, you need help with the mental load. And not just listening, but him being willing to be present and allow you to vent and feel what you need to feel, without trying to fix you. You need help with this load, but not because you are broken or you are inadequate because you can’t carry this huge weight. But because he is your partner and marriage is about both of you putting in 100%. And you don’t need help just so he can get more sex. Women are really good at seeing the underlying motivations that men have. If he’s only helping around the house so that he can get more sex, that’s not sexy.
So how can the two of you work together to create a more equal distribution of the mental load? A visual that I really like is thinking about oxen yolked together. It doesn’t work if one is doing more or less than the other. In a marriage you are yolked together and each of you need to be contributing.
To figure out how to have more balance of the mental load in your relationship, I recommend the Fair Play Card System. The system is made up of 100 cards, with tasks and responsibilities from these 6 areas:
Home: Everything that goes into running the home, including meals, cleaning, organizing, paying bills, etc.
Out: Everything related to leaving home and interacting with the outside world, including school notes and communication, keeping the calendar, extracurricular activities, social plans, and more
Caregiving: Everything related to caregiving for kids, pets, and each other, including grooming, supervising homework, medical appointments, and more.
Magic: The things that make life meaningful and interesting, including church, extended family, friendships, family fun, and more.
Wild: The things that can’t be planned, like a washing machine being broken or a child getting sick at school, plus all the unexpected or difficult life events like handling aging parents, job loss, or accidents.
Unicorn Space: Time to develop passion and purpose for each person.
Each card is also noted to be either a “daily grind” task that needs to be done regularly and at fairly specific times, like doing the dishes, packing lunches, or getting kids to the bus, or regular tasks that can be done at your chosen time. The deck contains 30 daily grind tasks and 70 regular tasks.
There are also worksheets online that do similar things, but most don’t seem to be as comprehensive.
Once you’ve figured out how to reduce the mental load, hopefully you will have more brain space to help you get in the mood more often. Hopefully you’ll see it as something that is as much for you as it is for him and a way to rejuvenate and nourish yourself and your relationship. Even though it might involve some work, it’s definitely work worth doing.