On Monday morning of this week, two things occurred that made me reflect on the concept of the mental load of women, especially mothers. First, I got into a discussion on Twitter about gendered roles in parenting with Timothy O’Malley from Notre Dame. Second, a colleague commented that I seemed “subdued” that morning. I explained that this was because I was tired, having been up late the night before trying to pull together my husband’s and my tax materials. My colleague said that luckily his wife takes care of that. (And, apparently, so does Bernie Sanders’s wife.) My thought in response to that was: of course she does! The mental load of women is a universal experience, so universal, in fact, that I see it in the spiritual autobiographies of Dorothy Day and even Mother Angélique Arnauld.

The mental load refers to the burden of keeping track of the management of the household, a burden that is most often carried by women. For an introduction to this concept, you should read this comic, “You should’ve asked,” which illustrates it very well. It highlights the way in which society has trained both men and women to view women as the project managers of the household who delegate responsibilities or tasks to their husband. It’s not that husbands don’t do things around the house, of course, but the woman is the one who is meant to tell them what they need to do. The refrain, “You should’ve asked,” illustrates this. In terms of the mental load, as the comic states, “It’s permanent and exhausting work. And it’s invisible.”

A similar argument is made in this article by Gemma Hartley, “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up,” where she discusses the concept of emotional labor. Trigger warning: this article may cause anxiety in women because the experiences she describes with her husband are so common. I wanted to pull out a good quote from this article that would summarize the important points that she makes, but as I scrolled through I found myself wanting to just quote the whole thing. Maybe the best thing to remember is: “Bearing the brunt of all this emotional labor in a household is frustrating. It’s the word I hear most commonly when talking to friends about the subject of all the behind-the-scenes work they do. It’s frustrating to be saddled with all of these responsibilities, no one to acknowledge the work you are doing, and no way to change it without a major confrontation.”

Of course, this work is even more exhausting that we live in a society where two incomes are necessary. I recently read Alissa Quart’s Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America (HarperCollins, 2018) which provides an eye-opening illustration into this problem using both statistics and personal testimonies (a good review is here). Interestingly, many of the examples that she cites have a gendered component to them, involving the way in which the workplace does not support having children and the astronomical costs of childcare. Despite this necessity of having two incomes in a family today, we—as a society, culture, and church—still fall into gender roles that put this mental load on women. The Twitter discussion with Timothy O’Malley started with a Tweet where he questions why mothers are mentioned in discussions of protecting children from sex abuse, as if fathers do not care about this. As I pointed out in response, it is our cultural expectation for women to bear more responsibility for children and this is a cultural responsibility that (a) doesn’t fit our modern society which necessitates two income households and (b) prevents us from implementing real pro-family and pro-life policies (e.g., parental leave, daycare support) that would give real support to struggling parents. The societal expectations of women and our reluctance to give families the support that would make it easier for both parents to work are interrelated.

Although this problem is particularly apparent in the modern world, especially since it’s become the norm for women to work outside the home, I see echoes of this struggle for women in the autobiographies of Dorothy Day and Mother Angélique Arnauld in relation to their male collaborators. In The Long Loneliness (HarperCollins, 1997), Dorothy Day illustrated this early in her collaboration with Peter Maurin. She writes:

Since I came from a newspaper family, with my two older brothers working on newspapers at that time, and my father still a writer through no longer an editor, I could see the need for such a paper as Peter described.

But how were we going to start it?

Peter did not pretend to be practical along those lines. “I enunciate the principles,” he declared grandly.

“But where do we get the money?” I asked him, clinging to the “we,” though he was making clear his role as theorist.

“In the history of the saints, capital was raised by prayer. God sends you what you need when you need it. You will be able to pay the printer. Just read the lives of the saints.” (Day, 173, emphasis is my own)

Now, theologically, there is a message here of overall trust in God to take care of what they need in the work that they are going to do, but I would suggest that you reread the text more closely with the idea of the mental load in mind. Peter Maurin basically refused to take on his portion of the mental load. Dorothy Day agreed with the need for a newspaper and immediately started planning the practical steps, including paying the printer for the paper, in order to get it done. Although she tried to keep the two of them as partners in this responsibility, he abdicated all practical responsibility to her. The result of this, of course, was that Dorothy Day figured out how she could make sacrifices in order to implement Peter Maurin’s vision.

My mind turned to printers. Finding that I could have twenty-five hundred copies of an eight-page tabloid printed for fifty-seven dollars by the Paulist Press, I decided to use two small checks I had just received for articles for the first printing bill, rather than for the rent or gas and electric. We would sell the paper, I decided, for a cent a copy, to make it so cheap that anyone could afford to buy. (Day, 174)

She reflected after explaining how she implemented the start of the paper on the differences between her and Peter:

It was amazing how little we understood each other at first. But Peter was patient. He wanted to call the paper The Catholic Radical, but with my Communist background, I insisted on calling it The Catholic Worker. Peter said, “Man proposes, but woman disposes.” It was always with humor, never with bitterness or malice, that we differed.

I did not fully realize why this was until much later, when I finally could pin him down to talking about himself. He was a Frenchman; I was an American. He was a man twenty years older than I and infinitely wiser. He was a man, I was a woman. We looked at things differently. He was a peasant; I was a city product. He knew the soil; I the city. When he spoke of workers, he spoke of men who worked at agriculture, building, at tools and machines which were the extension of the hand of man. When I spoke of workers, I thought of factories, the machine, and man the proletariat and slum dweller, and so often the unemployed. (Day, 175, emphasis is my own)

There is a way in which the relationship between Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, although not a household or family in the way in which we traditionally think of those terms, reflected the gendered differences of society and reinforced the way in which the mental load of managing the Catholic Worker household fell onto Dorothy Day in the same way it falls on women today. There is a bit of deference on the part of Dorothy Day in the way she talks about Peter Maurin but given what I know of the mental load of women, I wonder what their relationship really was like.

I see echoes of this mental load as well in the example of Mother Angélique Arnauld and her reform of the convent of Port-Royal. In this case, the “household” is entirely different due to the presence of the cloister (though this was not enforced prior to her reform) but some of the same dynamics were present. When she wrote about her conversion experience, she described the way it was entirely due to visiting preachers who came through and inspired her, and then left her, ultimately, to do the real work of reform in the convent. In reading her account, the fatigue she had in trying to implement reform shows, such that—when initially opposed by one of her religious sisters—she decided that she did not have what was needed in order to implement reform. “I found that [the prioress] was right to not have faith in me, and that I was not reasonable enough to direct a house and to make a reform, that I would be much better to leave the responsibility and to go make myself a nun in some good, well-regulated house.” Angélique’s desire to leave Port-Royal and become a simple nun is an important part of the history of the convent and the Jansenist movement. She, in fact, discussed possibly becoming a Visitation sister, which appears in her letters to Francis de Sales and Jeanne de Chantal.

Angélique’s description of her early efforts of reform parallel the relationship between Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. What we have in Angélique’s situation, however, was a male priest who came to preach and give direction, ultimately leaving the implementation of the reform up to her. She explained:

A few days later, this Capuchin returned and brought with him another holy man, named Fr. Pacifique, very aged, who was not a preacher and who had already visited us several times. He came first to the parlor. And he had said to me that Fr. Bernard (thus was named the one to whom I had revealed myself) had told him that he had won over all here and that reform was going to be established. After which I told him that this was not so advanced and the discourse that the prioress made that I found very reasonable, and that this made me resolve to think only of my salvation and to retire myself to be a simple nun. This good Father approved my plan and—the other arriving in the parlor at that moment—he told him my resolution. At which Fr. Bernard got very angry and threatened me that he was going to find my father, who would well prevent me from leaving. I had a such great fear about it and believed also that I needed to obey this Father, so I promised to do only what would please him. He continued to come frequently here from Pentecost until the month of September. He was preaching and speaking to five or six of our sisters, who immediately came over to my side wanting all that I was wanting. … But this Father wanted absolutely to make regulations, good to the truth, but which were not proportioned to the disposition of the girls.

I read this and, to be honest, who can blame Angélique for wanting to leave her role as abbess, abdicating responsibility for implementing reform, in this situation? She had this priest, Fr. Bernard, who grasped on to her initial desire for reform and pushed for a grand vision of a reformed convent, leaving Angélique to be the one to implement the reform. It is interesting that she wrote that Fr. Bernard claimed that he had won over all the nuns to reform, when it was Angélique’s role to actually do this while she was still only a teenager. This is similar to the way in which Peter Marin proposed the grand vision for the paper, leaving Dorothy Day to ultimately figure out how to make it happen. Again, I see echoes in all of this of the mental load of women. Even in seventeenth-century France, where the dynamics of gender roles were different from today, we have women taking on the burden of the mental load. The practical steps of managing the project—in this case the reform of the convent along the lines of the Tridentine directives—were borne entirely by the women.

Writing this, I’m thinking back to a previous post that I made which talked about theological partnerships between men and women. Now I wonder how many of those partnerships reflected this mental load of women.

I suspect that our cultural and theological foundation for the mental load of women rests on an idea of gender complementarity, such as that of John Paul II. I’m thinking about this in part because I recently reviewed Prudence Allen’s The Concept of Woman: Volume III, The Search for a Communion of Persons, 1500–2015 (Eerdmans, 2016). This book is an apology for the theology of integral gender complementarity as John Paul II expressed it, namely how men and women are equal in dignity, but distinguished by a propensity to act in either a maternal way or a paternal way—the source of feminine or masculine genius, respectively. In this theological anthropology, both men and women equally express what it means to be human, but in different and complementary ways. As Allen explains:

In summary: a woman has the disposition to receive and foster the growth of particular persons in her sphere of activity; a man has the disposition, after accepting responsibility for particular persons in his sphere of activity, to protect and provide for them. These are the two complementary roots of femininity and masculinity in a woman and a man respectively. (Allen, 478)

Receiving and fostering the growth of people sounds much more hands-on and burdensome than protecting and providing. In John Paul II’s theology, the feminine genius comes from “that women have a particular gift of ‘paying attention to the human person’ in their areas of activity” (Allen, 476). Nothing sums up the mental load of women as well as that statement.

3 thoughts

  1. I’m not crazy about Meyers-Briggs profiles because that methodology tends to box people in, but since I have always been a female INTJ whose best friends tend to be ENTJ’s, I can tell you that I am less attuned to the emotional valents of social situations and relationships, and it is less burdensome for me than it is for them. However, I understand that female INTJ’s are very rare (3 or 6 percent of the pop, I think) and that women more commonly have the “E” type. So perhaps we’re just wired differently. In any case, I’ve found that certain responsibilities (“burdens”) are deeply satisfying, whether or not you get noticed for your background work. I became Catholic is large part because of the recognition of the holiness and deep theological meaning of the supporting role (say, Mary & Joseph.)

    But gosh, to say that Mother Angelique was left to implement someone else’s idea of reform–what a burden! is really a stretch. Teresa of Avila’s reform of the Carmelites was a product of her life of prayer for which she was named a Doctor of the Church. So, come on. Even I had heard of Mother Angelique but had never heard of the Big Idea guy. In any case, I’m sure she was aware that her efforts were for eternal, not temporal judgment.

    1. Well, of course it was someone else’s idea of reform in that it was the reforms that had been mandated by the Council of Trent.

  2. Much of what you say here resonates both with what I have observed and with different experiences I have had as a woman religious, and it is very helpful to name and put words on this experience as you do. I am currently living and working in central Africa, where I recently heard the familial definition of “sister” as the one who is always ready to help and solve the problems of the family. This definition was placed on a particular community of sisters by a priest in his homily, as a well-intentioned affirmation of their presence in the parish: “Whenever we need something here in the parish, we know we can always call the sisters and they immediately come to help with whatever we ask them.” The priests are the idea guys and the sisters (and women in general) are the on-the-ground problem-solvers and implementers. Even just looking at the running of households between female and male religious congregations, the men almost always have cooks and housekeepers (women, of course) and the women almost always juggle full-time ministry along with all of the household tasks, in addition to learning along the way how to do minor repairs and other things that might fall into society´s expectations of the realm of men (not to mention the financial imbalance between the genders, with men having more possibilities to support themselves by celebrating Eucharist and women often taking on unpaid volunteer or part-time work). In collaboration with my religious brothers, I often wonder if they perceive this mental load that we carry and how the imbalance in household responsibilities can influence possibilities for ministry. I have to say though, I often stop in my tracks in amazement of so many women who work full-time and carry the mental load alone in their households–in community, there is at least more of a chance that it´s shared around a bit! Anyway, just wanted to offer a small add-on to second your helpful insights and offer further evidence of how this spans across cultures. Thank you for this!

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