How to Minimize “Emotional Labor” and “Mental Load”: A Guide for Frazzled Women

A comic strip in the Guardian recently alerted me to the fact that many women are exhausted from the “Mental Load” of thinking about things and need their husbands to pitch in and help. Go ahead and read it.

Whew. There’s a lot to unpack here:

  1. Yes, you have to talk to men. DO NOT EXPECT OTHER PEOPLE TO KNOW WHAT YOU ARE THINKING. Look, if I can get my husband to help me when I need it, you certainly can too. That or you married the wrong man.
  2. Get a dayplanner and write things like “grocery lists” and doctors appointments in it. There’s probably one built into your phone.

There, I solved your problems.

That said, female anxiety (at least in our modern world) appears to be a real thing:

(though American Indians are the real untold story in this graph.)

According to the America’s State of Mind Report (PDF):

Medco data shows that antidepressants are the most commonly used mental health medications and that women have the highest utilization rates.  In 2010, 21 percent of women ages 20 and older were using an antidepressant.  … Men’s use of antidepressants is almost half that of women, but has also been on the rise with a 28 percent increase over the past decade. …

Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses affecting children and adults. … Although anxiety disorders are highly treatable, only about one‐third of sufferers receive treatment. …

Medco data shows that women have the highest utilization rate of anti‐anxiety medications; in
fact, 11 percent of middle‐aged women (ages 45‐64) were on an anti‐anxiety drug treatment in
2010, nearly twice the rate of their male counterparts (5.7 percent).

And based on the age group data, women in their prime working years (but waning childbearing years) have even higher rates of mental illness. (Adult women even take ADHD medicine at slightly higher rates than adult men.)

What causes this? Surely 20% of us–one in 5–can’t actually be mentally ill, can we? Is it biology or culture? Or perhaps a mismatch between biology and culture?

Or perhaps we should just scale back a little, and when we have friends over for dinner, just order a pizza instead of trying to cook two separate meals?

But if you think that berating your husband for merely taking a bottle out of the dishwasher when you asked him to get a bottle out of the dishwasher (instead of realizing this was code for “empty the entire dishwasher”) will make you happier, think again. “Couples who share the workload are more likely to divorce, study finds“:

Divorce rates are far higher among “modern” couples who share the housework than in those where the woman does the lion’s share of the chores, a Norwegian study has found. …

Norway has a long tradition of gender equality and childrearing is shared equally between mothers and fathers in 70 per cent of cases.But when it comes to housework, women in Norway still account for most of it in seven out of 10 couples. The study emphasised women who did most of the chores did so of their own volition and were found to be as “happy” those in “modern” couples. …

The researchers expected to find that where men shouldered more of the burden, women’s happiness levels were higher. In fact they found that it was the men who were happier while their wives and girlfriends appeared to be largely unmoved.

Those men who did more housework generally reported less work-life conflict and were scored slightly higher for wellbeing overall.

Theory: well-adjusted people who love each other are happy to do what it takes to keep the household running and don’t waste time passive-aggressively trying to convince their spouse that he’s a bad person for not reading her mind.

Now let’s talk about biology. The author claims,

Of course, there’s nothing genetic or innate about this behavior. We’re not born with an all-consuming passion for clearing tables, just like boys aren’t born with an utter disinterest for thing lying around.

Of course, the author doesn’t cite any papers from the fields of genetics or behavior psychology to back up her claims–just like she feels entitled to claim that other people should read her mind and absurdly thinks that a good project manager at work doesn’t bother to tell their team what needs to be done, she doesn’t feel any compulsion to cite any proof of her claims. Science says s. We know because some cartoonist on the internet claimed it did.

Over in reality-land, when we make scientific claims about things like genetics, we cite our sources. And women absolutely have an instinct for cleaning things: the Nesting Instinct. No, it isn’t present when we’re born. It kicks in when we’re pregnant–often shortly before going into labor. Here’s an actual scientific paper on the Nesting Instinct published in the scientific journal Evolution and Human Behavior:

In altricial mammals, “nesting” refers to a suite of primarily maternal behaviours including nest-site selection, nest building and nest defense, and the many ways that nonhuman animals prepare themselves for parturition are well studied. In contrast, little research has considered pre-parturient preparation behaviours in women from a functional perspective.

According to the university’s press release about the study:

The overwhelming urge that drives many pregnant women to clean, organize and get life in order—otherwise known  as nesting—is not irrational, but an adaptive behaviour stemming from humans’ evolutionary past.

Researchers from McMaster University suggest that these behaviours—characterized by unusual bursts of energy and a compulsion to organize the household—are a result of a mechanism to protect and prepare for the unborn baby.

Women also become more selective about the company they keep, preferring to spend time only with people they trust, say researchers.

In short, having control over the environment is a key feature of preparing for childbirth, including decisions about where the birth will take place and who will be welcome.

“Nesting is not a frivolous activity,” says Marla Anderson, lead author of the study and a graduate student in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour.  “We have found that it peaks in the third trimester as the birth of the baby draws near and is an important task that probably serves the same purpose in women as it does in other animals.”

Even Wikipeidia cites a number of sources on the subject:

Nesting behaviour refers to an instinct or urge in pregnant animals caused by the increase of estradiol (E2) [1] to prepare a home for the upcoming newborn(s). It is found in a variety of animals such as birds, fish, squirrels, mice and pigs as well as humans.[2][3]

Nesting is pretty much impossible to miss if you’ve ever been pregnant or around pregnant women.

Of course, this doesn’t prove the instinct persists (though in my personal case it definitely did.)

By the way, estradiol is a fancy name for estrogen, which is found in much higher levels in women than men. (Just to be rigorous, here’s data on estrogen levels in normal men and women.)

So if high estradiol levels make a variety of mammals–including humans–want to clean things, and women between puberty and menopause consistently have higher levels of estrogen than men, then it seems fairly likely that women actually do have, on average, a higher innate, biological, instinctual, even genetic urge to clean and organize their homes than men do.

But returning to the comic, the author claims:

But we’re born into a society in which very early on, we’re given dolls and miniature vacuum cleaners, and in which it seems shameful for boys to like those same toys.

What bollocks. I used to work at a toystore. Yes, we stocked toy vacuum cleaners and the like in a “Little Helpers” set. We never sold a single one, and I worked there over Christmas. (Great times.)

I am always on the lookout for toys my kids would enjoy and receive constant feedback on whether they like my choices. (“A book? Why did Santa bring me a book? Books are boring!”)

I don’t spend money getting more of stuff my kids aren’t interested in. A child who doesn’t like dolls isn’t going to get a bunch of dolls and be ordered to sit and play with them and nothing else. A child who doesn’t like trucks isn’t going to get a bunch of trucks.

Assuming that other parents are neither stupid (unable to tell which toys their children like) nor evil (forcing their children to play with specific toys even though they know they don’t like them,) I conclude that children’s toys reflect the children’s actual preferences, not the parents’ (for goodness’s sakes, it if it were up to me, I’d socialize my children to be super-geniuses who spend all of their time reading textbooks and whose toys are all science and math manipulatives, not toy dump trucks!)

Even young rhesus monkeys–who cannot talk and obviously have not been socialized into human gender norms–have the same gendered toy preferences as humans:

We compared the interactions of 34 rhesus monkeys, living within a 135 monkey troop, with human wheeled toys and plush toys. Male monkeys, like boys, showed consistent and strong preferences for wheeled toys, while female monkeys, like girls, showed greater variability in preferences. Thus, the magnitude of preference for wheeled over plush toys differed significantly between males and females. The similarities to human findings demonstrate that such preferences can develop without explicit gendered socialization.

Young female chimps also make their own dolls:

Now new research suggests that such gender-driven desires are also seen in young female chimpanzees in the wild—a behavior that possibly evolved to make the animals better mothers, experts say.

Young females of the Kanyawara chimpanzee community in Kibale National Park, Uganda, use sticks as rudimentary dolls and care for them like the group’s mother chimps tend to their real offspring. The behavior, which was very rarely observed in males, has been witnessed more than a hundred times over 14 years of study.

In Jane Goodall’s revolutionary research on the Gombe Chimps, she noted the behavior of young females who often played with or held their infant siblings, in contrast to young males who generally preferred not to.

And just as estradiol levels have an effect on how much cleaning women want to do, so androgen levels have an effect on which toys children prefer to play with:

Gonadal hormones, particularly androgens, direct certain aspects of brain development and exert permanent influences on sex-typical behavior in nonhuman mammals. Androgens also influence human behavioral development, with the most convincing evidence coming from studies of sex-typical play. Girls exposed to unusually high levels of androgens prenatally, because they have the genetic disorder, congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), show increased preferences for toys and activities usually preferred by boys, and for male playmates, and decreased preferences for toys and activities usually preferred by girls. Normal variability in androgen prenatally also has been related to subsequent sex-typed play behavior in girls, and nonhuman primates have been observed to show sex-typed preferences for human toys. These findings suggest that androgen during early development influences childhood play behavior in humans at least in part by altering brain development.

But the author of the comic strip would like us to believe that gender roles are a result of watching the wrong stuff on TV:

And in which culture and media essentially portray women as mothers and wives, while men are heroes who go on fascinating adventures away from home.

I don’t know about you, but I grew up in the Bad Old Days of the 80s when She-Ra, Princess of Power, was kicking butt on TV; little girls were being magically transported to Ponyland to fight evil monsters: and Rainbow Bright defeated the evil King of Shadows and saved the Color Kids.

 

If you’re older than me, perhaps you grew up watching Wonder Woman (first invented in 1941) and Leia Skywalker; and if you’re younger, Dora the Explorer and Katniss Everdeen.

If you can’t find adventurous female characters in movies or TV, YOU AREN’T LOOKING.

I mentioned this recently: it’s like the Left has no idea what the past–anytime before last Tuesday–actually contained. Somehow the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s have entirely disappeared, and they live in a timewarp where we are connected directly to the media and gender norms of over half a century ago.

Enough. The Guardian comic is a load of entitled whining from someone who actually thinks that other people are morally obligated to try to read her mind. She has the maturity of a bratty teenager (“You should have known I hate this band!”) and needs to learn how to actually communicate with others instead of complaining that it’s everyone else who has a problem.

/fin.

Princesses all the way Down

Doing my Chanukah/Christmas/Festivus/whateverthefuck I’m celebrating shopping. [Note: I wrote this post a while back.] Looking at the toys. Thinking about what the kids would like. Remembering my own childhood. Reflecting on Barbies, Lammily, Bratz, Princesses; Ninjago, Thomas, Super Mario Bros.

Once upon a time, I was the kind of person who stressed out a lot about the kinds of messages society sends kids, the way parents force their kids into particular molds, etc.

Then I actually had kids, didn’t get enough sleep for about 8 years and counting, and mellowed the fuck out because my priorities became things like, “What do you mean you didn’t eat lunch?” and “oh no there are no wipes in the diaper bag” and “GO TO BED IT IS PAST YOUR BEDTIME.”

I have also learned some things like, “Even though we own tons of dolls, the boys never touch them,” and “the girl likes to do everything her brothers do, but always seems to append ‘princess’ to it.”

I’m going to go out on a very sturdy limb and say that gender roles are part socialization, and part innate. Some things do appeal more to boys, on average, than to girls, on average, and vice versa. Some activities appeal more, too. And in my limited observations of my small-N and their companions, girls and boys do seem to have different basic, instinctual ways of moving and relating to the world. (Basically, boys fling themselves into action, ignore you, and get in trouble more. Girls move smoothly and thoughtfully, are responsive, and generally only need gentle reprimands because they actually seem to desire to be good.)

For the past god knows however many decades, at least two as far as I’ve been aware, there’s been a fairly constant discussion, especially on the left, about the terrible terrible ways things like Barbies and Princesses and the genderization of toys socialize girls into feminine roles and give them eating disorders and generally perpetuate all of the ills of Patriarchy. Some of these arguments have been valid; many have been very silly. (You think Barbie’s bad? Seriously? Have you visited a toy aisle lately? Let me show you some Monster High Dolls’ dimensions. Or Bratz or a half-dozen other lines that are even less realistic and skinnier than Barbie.)

Despite this, these views have gotten very popular. Take the recent success (so far) of the Lammily doll, marketed as the “realistic Barbie”. You can even buy, I shit you not, stickers to simulate stretch marks, cellulite, and acne for your kid’s doll.

(You know what I suspect kids don’t really want in their toys? Realism. That’s why bright purple ponies sell better than realistic looking toy horses. The whole point of play is that it’s imaginary.)

Despite how this might sound, this is not actually progress. (Let’s assume that we want progress, where progress = fixing all of the stuff feminists complain about.) Why? Because Lammily is a single blip in the ocean of dolls that have become even less realistic than Barbie over the past 20 years.

Once upon a time, Legos were marketed (and sold) as a basically gender neutral toy. I had Legos; you probably did, too. Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, all sorts of toys featured girls and boys on the packaging and were bought by parents of all genders. Sure, girls liked dolls and boys liked trains, but there was a lot of stuff in between. Even Disney movies aimed to be gender neutral, with such exciting flops as The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under.

Disney animation almost shut down completely under the weight of such crappy movies, until the release, in 1989, of The Little Mermaid, the first modern “princess movie” and the movie that saved Disney animation. Since then, they’ve released the occasional “Lion King”, with cross-gender appeal, (and the occasional dud, like The Hunchback of Nortre Dame, Jesus, what the hell were they thinking?) but their core success has revolved entirely around the Princesses.

Little girls love princesses. I don’t know why. I think it’s because princesses get awesome clothes and look pretty.

Lammily gets boring ass clothes and stretch marks.

When I was a kid, “princesses” were not a thing. There was She-Ra, Princess of Power, but she was a very different phenomenon. Today, it is totally normal for little girls to wear sparkly princess tutus literally everywhere. Ballet and dress-up clothes have become completely normal.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, Lego released its Star Wars lines, Ninjago, etc., until finally I suspect someone looked at the shelves and said, “Gee, all of this is explicitly marketed to boys.” So to make it up, they started a line explicitly aimed at girls, the Lego Friends.

Tinkertoys comes in pink. So do Lincoln Logs. But rare is the successful Disney animation with a male lead.

My theories:
1. Little kids don’t give a crap what grownups argue about online, and marketers have figured out some successful marketing scheme.
2. The people who complain about kids’ toys aren’t generally the people with kids. People with kids don’t care, and will buy their kids whatever.
3. People who tend to complain about kids’ toys have also chosen to have very few children compared to people who are explicitly anti-feminist and pro-genderizing of toys. As a result, the current crop of kids may actually have a tendency (socially and/or genetically induced) to want to be more gendered and play with more explicitly gendered items than previous generations.

The one exception is masculine toys linked to conservative culture, like b.b. guns. Those are probably way less popular.