March 30, 2017 — The best day of my life (so far) was not giving birth to my kids (even though I loved seeing their smooshy faces after each long nine-month pregnancy). It was not graduating with honors from law school. It wasn’t landing that big firm job (despite the $$$). It wasn’t starting my own firm when, years later, I was desperate to exit Biglaw. It was not even when the love of my life proposed (although that was a great day)!
The best day of my life was when my ex-husband said to me: “I never realized how much work you were doing. I didn’t realize how hard this is — work, kids, housework — you’ve been doing it all. I’m sorry.”
I still get teary-eyed when I think about that conversation. We were newly separated. My ex-husband Jake had just started taking our then-2-year-old and 4-year-old boys on Saturdays for overnights. He was handling them both alone on Saturdays and bringing them back to me for Sundays. It was just easier for us to share weekends that way so we could both have time with them outside of work.
Jake finally understood my struggle: work, kids, cleaning, grocery, doctor’s appointments, etc., and “mental load” that goes with it (because I no longer was there to “nag” him about planning for the kids’ every need).
The level of physical work involved in child-raising and house-keeping is often talked about. But now the “mental work” is starting to get attention in the media. Recently, Alice Williams, a Melbourne writer, wrote about the “mental load” that many women carry in managing the household:
The mental load is the running commentary that plays in the minds of (mostly) women, of all the things that need doing that no one else sees but you. And the mental load doesn’t respect downtime. You may be snuggling with your partner in front of the TV, but you’re actually wondering if it will rain on the laundry overnight because the kids are down to their last socks.
Another blog-post that really hit me a while back was one man’s admission that his wife divorced him because he left dishes by the sink (no, not really – it was the mental load!) The divorced blogger Matthew Fray wrote:
“I always reasoned: “If you just tell me what you want me to do, I’ll gladly do it.” But she didn’t want to be my mother. She wanted to be my partner, and she wanted me to apply all of my intelligence and learning capabilities to the logistics of managing our lives and household.”
For me, the mental load — as well as the unacknowledged housework, grocery shopping, cooking, doctor scheduling, school prep, etc., that women more often than not perform after they get home from their paid jobs in the workforce — it resulted in building my anger and resentment. By the time my ex- broke my trust, my anger was at a peak. Perhaps we could have saved our marriage, but for my anger — once that dam broke I couldn’t forgive any of his transgressions. I was too pissed.
As I’m thinking about this, I sit in the Family Court watching a guy lug a Minnie Mouse Power-Wheels into the court to try and give it to his child’s mother for their daughter’s birthday. I feel so sad: I understand how that anger at the other person can drive you to court. You look for understanding and validation. You want the court to make him understand how hard it is to do all this work. But no one can force that understanding. Especially not a court — that is only a place to cement anger and mistrust in a divorce.
There are so many reasons to stay angry in a break-up or divorce. Maybe your spouse cheated (such a horrible pain that inflicts not just from the broken trust, but the self-doubt that remains is difficult to overcome). Maybe your spouse stopped participating and communicating (feeling abandoned when you are living with someone is extremely lonely). Maybe your spouse ruined the finances and you face bankruptcy (where do you turn for that feeling of security when everything is debt and bill-collectors?). But holding on to that hurt will never let you be free once the marriage is over.
When Jake told me that he wasn’t aware of how much I was doing to make everything work — to feed the kids, keep them happy, work 60-hours a week as a lawyer, stock the fridge, do laundry — in that moment my anger vanished. He got it. Even though it was too late to salvage our marriage, he salvaged our friendship that day.
But more than that, his acknowledgement allowed me to free myself of my own anger and hurt. I am so lucky that my ex- gave me that gift. It allowed me to look forward to the future, instead of continuing to look at the past wrongs.