Last week I wrote about teaching in relation to the gendered mental load – the experience, all too common among women, of both doing the work and managing the work, at home but also in the classroom. Of carrying more than their fair share of the burden, often invisibly, because of the subtle cognitive and emotional responsibilities that accrue to both domestic and pedagogical labour – and which for a variety of reasons are still assumed, even if largely unconsciously, by most people in our culture to be “women’s work.”
After reading that post, I bet a few of you were thinking: gosh, yes. I see some of that in my experience. But, Kim: what’s the solution?
If I had the solution, of course, I would be rich and famous – and probably hiding out on a remote island trying to stave off the angry, anti-feminist internet trolls.
So no, answers have I none. I do, however, have some ideas about how we might do better at redistributing the mental load. And these come from my own recent experiences – on holiday, believe it or not.
From 1-11 July I was hiking and cycling in the Calder valley in West Yorkshire. (Calder is the ancestral home of the Brontë sisters, btw; these amazing women were POSTER CHICKS for the mental load, thanks to their arsehole, alcoholic brother Branwell. And Branwell, dammit! You would not be enjoying all this weird posterior fame if it were not for your shockingly talented and enterprising sisters. Jackass.)
Anne, Emile, and Charlotte (right) vs Branwell (left) – as per the BBC, in the 2016 biopic To Walk Invisible. Great fun – check it out.
Anyway, back to my holiday. I had put my out-of-office message on my work email and disabled it on my phone (which was along with me for navigation purposes); on my computer, I funnelled work emails into a holiday inbox (my computer was along with me because I’d planned to do some free writing toward a new book, between hikes and rides). I decided to check my personal email once a day, largely to get rid of spam and finalize some plans with friends post-holiday.
Things did not start smoothly. I was full of anxiety those first few days away. It was the come-down after two long weeks of teaching Western’s study-abroad class in London, England, during which time I’d been responsible for 12 Canadian students pretty much 24/7. Some of those students presented challenges for me – let’s just say they were struggling with their own mental loads, and as the prof-in-residence their loads were necessarily mine, too.
As I’d been teaching all day, every day in London I’d been managing other stuff, too – research projects in the air, a journal issue about to be released, two graduate students nearing completion. I’d worked through the day on my final Friday before vacation to tidy up as many loose ends as possible, but as I tried to settle into holiday rhythm I felt convinced I couldn’t just leave it all to be on vacation for 10 days. Too many people were counting on me!
Of course I’d done everything I could to clear my inbox; still, I felt nervous and uneasy.
On my fourth day away, overcome by this unease and against my self-imposed rule, I checked my work email’s holiday inbox. I reasoned with myself that I could delete the spam and would feel better for it not overflowing. (Spam is evil. EVIL EVIL EVIL.)
You can guess what happened next. I found an urgent email from a colleague, writing on behalf of one of my graduate students; that student had not received the work I’d sent back to them before my break, owing to an email glitch. The tone of my colleague’s message was polite, but it read to me like they assumed I’d dropped the ball on my student and left a mess for someone else to clean up.
So what did I do? Did I sigh, roll my eyes, and then say to myself: “damn! How annoying! Let’s shoot the work back again, with a copy to the colleague, and remind everyone of my holiday dates. Then let’s forget about it until the holiday ends”?
Nope. Of course not.
What I did was, I lost my shit.
First, I panicked. Then I emailed my colleague with details (let’s say excessive details) of all the work I’d been doing to support the student in question, while also teaching my study abroad course. I then re-sent all the work to the student, with copies to my colleague and another member of our admin team. I sent separate notes to the admin team member involved. I made a full evening’s work for myself, while on holiday, and produced in the backwash almost 48 hours’ worth of fretting to follow.
What happened in the end? My student replied with thanks, apologized for the email mishap, and my colleague replied supportively, too. Sensing my mood, on about my sixth or seventh email, they also reminded me to forget about all of this not-actually-big-deal, not-really-world-ending stuff and just enjoy my holiday.
Since this minor but telling email meltdown, I’ve been thinking a lot about it.
What does it say about my mental load at work?
What does it say about my own expectations of myself in relation to that load?
What does it say about the systemic issues that shape both that load and my relationship with it?
Things about which to lose one’s shit: maybe this. Maybe not email. (An image of an actual cobbled climb in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Really.)
Lesson number one for me was this: I made extra work for myself where I did not need to. I overreacted to a simple situation and created both stress and labour where none was required. I made extra work for myself by checking my email on holiday. I did not need to do that! I SHOULD NOT have done that! The world would not have ended had I not looked at my colleague’s email until my break was over. Armageddon was not even in sight.
So that’s it, right? I created my own mental load problem. The solution? Just say no! Simples, ja?
Not so fast. Lesson number two: I did what I did because I live inside a work structure that creates an onerous mental load for me on a regular basis, to which I’ve become slowly and unknowingly accustomed.
I understand my responsibility, as a teacher, to be to tend that load at all times. And more: I have learned to peg my self worth to my tending of that load at all times.
After two weeks of supporting 12 young women in a huge, foreign city, my pastoral care radar was at its max. I was utterly drained.
Maybe I checked my email because my body thought that experience wasn’t yet over. Maybe I checked my email because I’d created some destructive muscle memory that needed satisfying.
Most likely I checked my email because, unconsciously, I believe that’s what “good teachers” do: they make themselves available to their students 24/7. They never let their students down. They bend over backwards. They sacrifice their breaks. They martyr themselves.
To say this is destructive, wrong-headed, and awful is both true and not helpful. Remember what I argued in my last post, when I cited research into student responses on course evaluations: as a rule, women need to work harder to be perceived as caring and supportive teachers at university level. Whether that scenario holds true in every classroom or not doesn’t really matter: women are by and large socialized to over-care. And we do it at our own expense, more often than not. (We are socialized to do that, too.)
How do we begin to fix this?
Let’s start with what we – women in situations similar to the ones I’ve been describing – can do to help ourselves unload some of that mental load. In my own case, step #1 would have been for me to leave my computer behind on my holiday. (Free writing? Who cares! Just take the holiday. THEN write.)
Step #2 would have been for me to delete my work email completely from my phone.
Step #3, upon finally receiving my colleague’s email, would have been to take a deep breath and go for a walk. Then after some reflection to reply as I suggested above: briefly, calmly, unapologetically, and with the missing work attached.
(I might also, at the same time, have noted to my colleague – a kind and sympathetic human who would have heard the message! – some ways that the tone of their email might have been adjusted to help me feel less burdened by the situation.)
How could I have gotten to a mental place where steps 1-3 might have been conceivable for me? That would have involved me, in the first instance, asking for more support during my study abroad labour: being extremely clear to the colleagues around me what I needed, and asking for those things, frankly and kindly and, again, without apology.
But of course, there’s a catch. Academics in general, and women (among other non-white-male) academics in particular, rely for their status and security upon appearing to be shit-together-don’t-need-no-help types; asking for help reveals weakness, which places us, potentially, at risk.
Now, some of you (just like me, as I just wrote that sentence) are likely thinking: but there’s lots of help available at my school. And my male (among other) colleagues are super kind and supportive.
Yup, sure, true. But guess what else? Our mental loads are learned, ingrained; they are systemic and they are tenacious, regardless of the objective realities of our work situations, and regardless of the kindness of our male (among other) colleagues. (They sneak in. They aren’t so immediately easy to see as a colleague’s gesture of kindness.)
Which means that it’s not just down to us to get a grip and take a holiday and ask for help.
It’s actually down to our colleagues, our line managers, our chairs and deans and others in positions of power at our institutions to help change the culture of the mental load.
The key thing to remember about the mental load is that it is often invisible. We have to work, sometimes very hard, to bring it into focus.
So: those of us who carry a lot of load need to look straight at it, and question whether or not we should be carrying it. We need to ask ourselves why we are carrying it: who benefits from that carriage? At whose expense does it happen? Then, we need to take some action based on our responses.
This might be as small an action as speaking out about it, candidly, to loved ones and colleagues who can help. It might even involve speaking openly with our students about the mental load. (I’m a big advocate for that: students, once invited to see teachers as human beings, often do so, and do so with real empathy.)
Just as crucially, those who do not carry as much load need to look with nuance at the others around them, and question how much mental load those others are carrying – and on whose behalf. For some of us, in fact the first job might be to look at the load itself, maybe to see it for the first time. To consider carefully the labour behind the stuff that just magically, somehow, gets done. And to ask who the hell is doing it, if we are not.
And again, the imperative to take action pertains: to ask questions, to imagine alternatives. Maybe just to make fewer assumptions.
Finally, at the level of structure – department level, faculty level – we need to do this work, and officially. How about a wellness task force (gender-balanced) to look at mental load specifically, to parse carefully the inequities in certain kinds of labour in our immediate environments, and to recommend action toward redress?
Or, even simpler – and with fewer risks of offloading the work of thinking about mental load onto those already burdened with mental load – how about some informal but curated discussions about how our local loads are distributed? (For this purpose, I’m a huge fan of Lois Weaver’s Long Table format. It is amazing because nobody leads; everyone must invest and hold a stake. Try it.)
When I started my academic job I got two excellent but flawed pieces of advice. The first was: keep your head down and publish, publish, publish. The second was: do not make yourself invaluable, or you will be placed on every committee ever.
The first problem with this advice is not that it’s bad; it’s that it is systemically naive. It assumes I can live with appearing both selfish and not quite good enough. For a woman like me in the academy, both of those prospects are social, and emotional, poison. Unbearable.
The second problem with this advice is that it expects me to adjust myself to a flawed system; it does not expect the system to open its eyes to me.
But here’s the thing: it’s not that hard to see what others are doing, going through – and what each of us is not actually doing about it. You just have to look a bit harder, more carefully, at greater depth. As academics, isn’t that what we are trained to do?
To end, and in the spirit of lightening the mental load, some snaps from Yorkshire – after I finally threw the email out the window. Enjoy and feel free.