2021年8月25日 星期三

How Same-Sex Parents Share the Mental Load

For many couples, it's less about a perfectly equal division of tasks, and more about communication and respect.

How Same-Sex Parents Share the Mental Load

Lydia Ortiz

Before Eva Goodwin and her wife became parents, it was Ms. Goodwin who was mainly responsible for the thinking, planning and problem-solving that would prevent their home from devolving into chaos.

Her tasks included planning the meals, remembering to fill out paperwork and keeping track of the bills and when they needed more cleaning supplies, work that psychologists refer to as "cognitive labor," also known as the mental load.

"I was definitely 'the tracker,'" she said. "I think that there's an element of just slipping into gendered roles, even in a queer partnership. I'm the more feminine and she's the more masculine."

But then Ms. Goodwin's wife gave birth to their first child. Her wife started breastfeeding, then took ownership of the baby's medical appointments and other things, too. Gradually, their partnership started to feel more equal, said Ms. Goodwin, 34, who lives in Oakland, Calif.

"I have my moments of feeling irritated that I'm the only one who does things like wipe down the counter or clean the sink," she said. "But then 20 minutes later when she's outside mowing the lawn or on the phone with the vet to get our dog's meds ordered, any irritation totally fizzles."

The couple recently welcomed a second child into their family, and this time Ms. Goodwin was the birth mother. Now, she added, "I'm totally reliant on her tracking most things since I'm so sleep deprived."

While there is little research on how same-sex couples negotiate the mental load, studies have shown that they tend to divide up household labor — including child care — more equally than heterosexual couples, and are often more communicative about their needs. But they do not necessarily have a perfectly even distribution of tasks, said Abbie Goldberg, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who has been studying L.G.B.T.Q. parenting for more than two decades.


Oftentimes, the partner who has the more flexible schedule, works fewer hours, has more parental leave or makes less money performs more cognitive labor, she said. In families with a birth mother, factors like breastfeeding can also create divisions. And each person's individual strengths and weaknesses play a role as well.

"I birthed the children, and I'm definitely the one who carries more of the mental load," said Anne Meade, 39, who is married to a woman and lives in Lexington, Mass. "But I actually think it comes down to personality because I'm more of the planner, I'm more of the list-maker. And it's not that my wife is bad at any of those or that she's against it, it's just that's where my head has always gone."

For same-sex parents, having children can be logistically challenging and financially draining, said Rick Miller, a psychotherapist in Boston who works with gay couples.

"What I'm seeing in my office is there is a lot of conversations in advance about what life will be like," he added. "It's a joy and a relief not to have to do things a certain way."


Studies have shown that same-sex couples aren't necessarily guided by gendered ideas about who ought to do what. But, as many gay couples already know, that doesn't mean gender is inconsequential. People in the L.G.B.T.Q. community have been subjected to many of the same gendered expectations as straight people, said Haley Swenson, the deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America, a nonpartisan think tank.

Joe Zagame, 38, a licensed clinical social worker, and his husband, Jim Marrocco, 36, who live in New York City with their 17-month-old son, have regular family meetings to discuss which household tasks need to get done.

With regard to child care, Mr. Marrocco, a financial planner, tends to do more because his schedule is more flexible, which came in handy this month when they had a last-minute nanny cancellation. But "because we're communicating about it, we don't tend to be resentful or hold tension," he said.

That communication isn't just about who will do what, Mr. Zagame added, it's also about expressing appreciation for one another and acknowledging each other's efforts. And sometimes, he said, it's as simple as asking: "How could I be more helpful later?"


As is the case with heterosexual couples, socioeconomic status can also influence the degree of conflict over the mental load, Dr. Goldberg said. Couples with the extra money to hire a housekeeper or pay for child care, for example, might argue less over those responsibilities. But even among these couples, there is a lot to manage.

"We're like, 'Wow, this is intense work,'" said Mr. Marrocco, whose family relies on a part-time nanny. "In many ways, our own work is so much easier than being a parent."

Dr. Swenson at New America helps families experiment with ways to better divide the mental load of running a household. One method, called the "kitchen buddy" experiment, requires the couple to pair up for certain tasks; for example, one person always loads the dishwasher and the other unloads it. Unless each person fulfills their role, the dishes cannot get done.

Creating a built-in nudge system can also work, she added, because it does not require a "C.E.O. of the household" to issue commands. In her own home, Dr. Swenson, who is married to a woman, uses fridge magnets to remind everyone whose turn it is to clean out the litter box.

Dr. Swenson, who is bisexual, said that in her relationships with men, she "wore the cruise director and quality-control hats" and "was the textbook example of a woman who was carrying mental load."

"I wore it almost like a silent feminist badge of honor," she said.

When she eventually married a woman, the tables turned. Her wife, who is part Cuban, had been raised in a spotless household where cleanliness was prized and an important part of her culture. She had a "strict make-your-bed-every-morning" routine, Dr. Swenson said. And right after they ate, the dishes were cleared and loaded in the dishwasher.

"For the first time, I felt like the dude," said Dr. Swenson, who had been raised in a family where if things were "clean enough," that was OK.

By discussing their different backgrounds, they were able to have a less charged and more purpose-driven conversation.

"We've talked a lot with each other about that — what a clean house meant when we were kids, and to what extent it fits with what we want and what we do now," Dr. Swenson said. "It helps us both take it less personally when our standards aren't identical."

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