Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Reflection On Mental Labor

My friend Scot Moore on his blog 21st Century men started a conversation about “Mental Labor” and the stress its disproportionate distribution on women adds into a marriage. As a divorced man man myself, who was very surprised when my “good marriage” ended this post has really had the wheels churching in my head today as I processed his post and my thoughts resulting from the post.

At that time I honestly thought I was an extremely good husband. I worked a full time job and made a comfortable income. I made sure the kids got to their extra-curricular activities. I did my share of chores. I honestly always thought I was emotionally supportive and loving. I was a good man with a good marriage; if you asked me my wife was doing alright.

This was not her perspective however. In the tense conversations that occour when a relationship is ending I was both called controlling and also accused of ignoring of our family’s needs. Understandably, by a person who feels controlled and ignored, she found the freedom and attention she was desiring in the affections of an old flame. We tried counseling, tried polyamory, tried everything we could to save our “good marriage.” In the end it was too late.


I have spent many hours in self reflection over these three years, looking for that golden arrow that would slice through and explain her, myself, and our breakdown in such a way where I would not repeat the same mistakes. I want to be a good male partner, and that means honest acknowledgement of my failures so that I can be intentional about my actions in future relationships.

There is an oddity in our culture. When you separate from a relationship encouraging friends want to assure you that it is all your partner’s fault. You become surrounded by people, all of whom assure you that you are the victim. I was never one to entertain these platitudes. Yes, my ex played her part in our split, but I also played my part. The principle goal of my self reflection has been on understanding that role I played.

Social scientist talk about the four forms of labor present in a bonded pair relationship. These labors consist of economic, physical, mental, and emotional. Although we were never anything above comfortable middle class I always provide it sufficiently in the economic labor.

Emotional vulnerability was definitely a skill I desperately lacked early in our relationship, it was also something I was progressively working on in the years we were together. Though I struggled to be open about my own emotional needs, I was very responsive to listening and responding to her emotional needs. If I were attempting to be as self actualized as possible about my role in bearing be emotional labor of our relationship I would not paint myself as a shining knight, but I do believe it is fair to say I bore a near equal role in this load.

The physical labor of our relationship was never equal. Do not get me wrong, I did my part when my part came up. I was never the kind of guy who sat on the couch and expected my dinner and beer after work. I helped prepare meals and assisted with other chores when those chores needed my assistance. Laundry, dishes, picking up, dirty diapers, and shopping were rarely ever performed by me while the children were small. Naturally, I could defensively explain that in those years I was working outside the family and my wife was working within the family; therefore the discrepancy in physical labor was to be expected.

That arrangement worked very well for our family until the youngest child was starting school and my ex wife was returning to the workforce. At this same time, she was going back to work out side the family my work situation had changed and I was working from home the majority of the time. Working from home I picked up more of the chore load. and if you had asked me at the time, I would have swore I was performing an equal contribution to the chores.
It is three years later now. I have been the custodial parent since our split. It is only in these couple years as a single custodial parent that I realize what a minimal portion of the household labor I was performing.

Which brings me back to my friend Scot’s blog post this morning on “mental labor.” Perhaps more accurately to the comic by French feminist comic artist Emma. Please, stop reading this post now and return after you have read all the panels of Emma’s comic on mental labor. This comic strip is my Golden arrow. I never in our 16 years together carried any more than the most negligible portion of the mental labor.

I have learned about mental labor in the years since our break up just from the practical results of having to learn to effectively manage a household of children. We have implemented systems together to make sure people have the food and other shopping needs they require. I have learned to recognize what tasks need to be completed and assign them out to the best family member for completion. I laughed out loud at the portion of the comic strip where the female partner started to complete one chore, which led to stumbling across and needing to complete the other fifteen chores: as this is now a regular occurrence in my life.

My complete lack of an acknowledgment of an entire quadrant of household management was the ticking time bomb of our relationship. This ignored quadrant was acceptably balanced when my ex was a stay at home parent and neither of us felt the impending strain of roles which would eventually be our undoing. However after her return to the workforce the strain increased till the bough broke and the unravelling multiplied exponentially.

This week has been an interesting primer for me to be open to hearing this lesson. I have recently finished two novels by Meg Elison which each took place in a dystopian future where a plague had killed well moire than 90% of the world's women. This week, I have been reading Stephen and Owen King’s new book "Sleeping Beauties" which is a fantasy moral story about a world where all the women have fallen asleep. On Monday, when the #metoo hash tag was trending I also read a short story by author Carmen Maria Machado about the unrelenting demands of being a woman in the world. That same day a female friend posted a meme asking men for one tangible step they would take to end rape culture. Tuesday, I read another article about the rising phenomenon of the female midlife crisis. All of this prepared me to see and understand the answer I have been looking for,. Women are feeling scared, broken, and trapped in our culture primarily because men are not bearing their load of the work in changing the world for the better.

I leave this with two concluding thoughts for myself going forward. Thought one, in my possibly future existing pair bonded relationship I will be intentional to take regular inventory to ensure all four quadrants of household maintenance our shared equitably. More currently actionable, is I will work to bear my load of mental labor to seeing the practical work of crushing misogyny and patriarchy.

I recognize that this has been a rambling self reflective post. However, my hope is that it will inspire the same kind of rambling reflective journey in your thoughts as well. My wish for my fellow males is that we will together commit to bearing the economic, emotional, physical, and mental loads of both our relationships and also our society within the spheres of influence that we live within.

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