Creating a life that optimizes the comfort and happiness of those around you is not an easy task, though women may make it look that way. It’s not a simple matter of the physical labor needed to keep a household running.
It is a lot of mental work, especially when it comes to making choices for others. We are given a wealth of options when it comes to building our lives, and while that may seem like a positive – the option to customize to the point of perfection – it can become overwhelming in a hurry.
This constant dialogue of “What should I do to keep everyone happy?” drains a lot of mental energy that could otherwise be used in more productive or creative ways.Credit:Virginia Star
Barry Schwartz describes this overwhelm in his book The Paradox of Choice. When we are given so many options, the process of choosing is not liberating, it’s paralyzing. This is especially true when we are making choices not only for ourselves but also for those around us. “More choice may not always mean more control,” Schwartz writes.
“There comes a point at which opportunities become so numerous that we feel overwhelmed. Instead of feeling in control, we feel unable to cope . . . [and] figuring out which choice to make becomes a grave burden.”
Schwartz approaches his book from the viewpoint of a singular consumer, but for women, our job isn’t simply to choose the best- fitting pair of pants or the salad dressing we like the most. We are often choosing for the whole family, weighing competing preferences against one another and trying to find the option that will lead to household harmony. We have to find the right doctor and make the appointments for everyone.
(Schwartz notes in his research that the burden of choice related to healthcare falls overwhelmingly to women, who are typically the guardians of not only their own health but that of their partners and children.) We help guide decisions on what sports everyone should partake in and arrange the schedules accordingly.
At the end of the day, I had nothing left in my mind to give.
We decide when the best time to do homework is. We decide which chores to take on ourselves and which ones to delegate. We make choices constantly, and those choices often don’t take into account our own well- being, because we are so outwardly focused.
This is why it’s frustrating when someone deviates from the choices we have made regarding the running of a household. When I ask my husband to bring home a certain type of cheese and he comes home with a different type, it is up to me to do the mental work of deciding whether to change our dinner plans or go back out to the store myself, and that choice often comes down to which option will cause the least strife.
Were the kids’ hearts set on lasagna? Yes. Will it taste the same with sharp cheddar? No. Would asking Rob to return to the store seem too critical? Maybe. Is it easier to transition him into taking over the dinner prep I’m doing or to delegate the store duty back to him?
This constant dialogue of "What should I do to keep everyone happy?" drains a lot of mental energy that could otherwise be used in more productive or creative ways.
For years I wondered what had happened to me after college, when I had my first child. Why was it that I could no longer muster up the ability to write fiction, even when I had the free time? Why was I choosing to plop down in front of the TV at the end of the day, wasting my evenings watching reruns of The Office instead of feeding my soul with creative work? I wasn’t even doing that much.
When friends asked me what I was up to, I never had an answer. I was at home, deciding what to do with my baby—what the best choice of clothing and food and activities was for us. Worrying over whether he was gaining enough weight, or whether he had died from SIDS every time he was down for a nap.
Do I take him to the store or go out later, after my husband gets home? Will the baby be unhappy if I take him out? (Will he poop up the back of his onesie? Almost definitely.) Will my husband feel neglected if I steal off to the store during our precious alone time? Should I breastfeed now or should I try to pump?
My mind is full all the time. I am still constantly making choices for everyone around me.
Should I put the baby in a cute outfit or keep him comfy in pajamas? Even when my days appeared uneventful, I was in my head all the time but rarely thinking about myself in that bigger, deeper way that used to make my life feel meaningful. What consumed most of my mental effort had minimal emotional rewards. It simply left me feeling drained.
I finally understood why so many women said they lost themselves after becoming mothers. I no longer had the mental and emotional capacity to tend to my interior life, my creative life, my meaning-driven life. At the end of the day, I had nothing left in my mind to give.
Eventually, I did find a rhythm within motherhood, but it wasn’t strictly intuitive. I had to work hard to carve out mental space for my work as a writer, and it’s something I still struggle with today.
‘Fed Up’ author, Gemma Hartley.
My mind is full all the time. I am still constantly making choices for everyone around me. Worse yet, as my children grow older I am creating choices for them to maintain their sense of autonomy and freedom.
If I don’t want to fight with my daughter about the outfit I pick out for her, I must instead choose two equally appealing options and allow her to decide which makes her happy. (If I let her pick her own clothes, she’ll put on a tutu when it’s snowing outside.)
I can’t simply plop breakfast down in front of everyone without protest so I have to present (and be prepared to execute) multiple options: should we have French toast or oatmeal or scrambled eggs with bacon?
My husband likes to goad me for being indecisive when I don’t want to pick where we go to eat on date night, but the truth is, I don’t care. I simply want to be relieved of choice for the moment. When he won’t let up, it usually comes down to this: “Where can we go that doesn’t have a long menu?” or “Where do I already know what I’m ordering?”
“I no longer had the mental and emotional capacity to tend to my interior life, my creative life, my meaning-driven life. At the end of the day, I had nothing left in my mind to give.Credit:Stocksy
Of course the paradox of choice is not an entirely female phenomenon. In the age of endless options, we are all bombarded with choices every day. On average, we make about thirty- five thousand conscious choices per day, two hundred of which involve food.
Choices drag down our mental energy. It’s the reason that President Obama chose to wear the same suit every day or why Mark Zuckerberg sticks to jeans and a plain T-shirt. Automating certain
areas of our lives leads to greater mental capacity. “To derive the benefits and avoid the burden of choice, we must learn to be selective in exercising our choices,” Schwartz writes.
We run on the assumption all of our choices are important, not realizing that we can … let go of some of the details that matter less.
“We must decide, individually, when choice really matters and focus our energies there.”
For women, that’s a tall order. We run on the assumption that all of our choices are important, not realizing that we can be selective and perhaps let go of some of the details that matter less. That type of prioritizing is exactly what we need if we are going to reclaim enough mental space to make emotional labor work for us, instead of it working us into the ground.
This extract is from Fed Up: Navigating and redefining emotional labour for good by Gemma Hartley. Published by Hachette Australia RRP $29.99
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