It was grocery day— again. I was planning our dinners for the week— again. I love to eat, so I’ve learned to love to cook, but slowly, over the past few years, grocery day has begun filling me with dread. Not because I have some sort of problem with the actual grocery shopping. I like the shopping part. It’s figuring out what to have for dinner that exhausts me. Planning a menu is a creative enterprise. At first, it was fun. Then it got stale. Then I lost it.
I was sitting on the couch, agonizing over what we should eat, trying to come up with a list of 5 dinners: 3 dinners I cook, and 2 dinners Tony would cook. Different flavor profiles. Nutritionally balanced. 5 home-cooked dinners, assuming we’ll have leftovers or takeout on the remaining nights. It shouldn’t be that hard.
“If it’s too much, just tell me what to do. I’m happy to grocery shop. I don’t mind. Just tell me what to get, and it’s done,” he said.
He wants to help. He just doesn’t know where to start, and that’s exactly what had me so exhausted.
The hard part isn’t the shopping, it’s the planning. It’s the mental load of organizing our lives, week after week that had really taken its toll.
On any given day, I’m keeping track of the following things to keep our lives running: What’s in the fridge; what we need more of; what we’re going to eat; if it’s anybody’s birthday; if we have a present for that somebody; what in the house needs to be repaired; if we have money for that; if I’ve called somebody to complete that repair and if they’ve called me back; oh! How much money is in the checking account; what our credit card balance is; if we have enough money in the checking account to cover our credit card balance; whether or not the dog ate his breakfast; when the dog last went outside to pee; and maybe, just maybe, then, I’ll start thinking about work.
It’s an ordinary list— all the stuff of a typical adult life. It’s not that I’ve got some unusual burden. But it’s a lot to keep track of, and before we got married, my husband kept track of a list like this one, too. Once we got married, and there was only one grocery list, one dinner menu, somehow, that became mine almost by default. Somebody needs to be keeping track, and in my family— in most families— that falls to one person, and in heterosexual couples, that person is usually the woman. It’s called the second shift, the unpaid work of maintaining a household that takes place after a woman has done her job.
It’s not that he’s unwilling or unhelpful. He offered to do the shopping for me. To me, that’s the easy part.
Part of what makes the second shift so taxing isn’t the work itself. It’s the planning, and it’s invisible. It looks, from the outside, like I’m overwhelmed by something easy: an errand. Groceries. How hard can that be? But it’s not that it’s hard. It’s that it’s never-ending. I’m in a constant state of making lists and keeping track and as much as I would like to be able to share that mental load with him: I have no idea where to start.
The best I’ve come up with is a shared grocery list in the cloud. He’s supposed to put any foods he wants for the week on that list, and if he hasn’t done it by grocery day: he has to go get that food for himself. The day I’m going grocery shopping, just as he’s putting on his shoes and coat to leave for the office, I say, “Hey, name 2 dinners.” He does.
Still, I remind him to put things on the list.
I still have to remember to ask him to name two dinners.
So really, I haven’t done much to relieve the mental burden beyond that I now only have to choose 3 dinners for the week.
And it only works out sometimes.
This is, really and truly, one small example. If this were my only family responsibility, it would not be a mental strain. If I weren’t balancing household management with a Pilates business and (on my best days) a writing life, it would be great. I’d probably plan dinners by poring over Pinterest and Bon Appetit and find new and exciting recipes each week. That’s not my reality. I’m balancing. I’m spinning plates. And Tony wants to help me. He offers to help me. He doesn’t know what it is that’s worn me out, and I’m so tangled in all of it, that I don’t know how to let him.
And that, if you ask me, is really where the problem lies.