The Editor’s Desk: You should’ve asked

A comic about what a French author calls the ‘mental load’ strikes a chord

Have you ever come across a word or phrase that you had not previously heard of, which perfectly describes something you understand completely but didn’t even know had a name?

It happened to me recently, when I read an article that pointed me to a comic by a French cartoonist named Emma, called “You Should’ve Asked”. It describes the situation of many heterosexual women who are married or have partners, and who usually have children, who bear what Emma calls the “mental load” in the family.

The mental load is that unseen, unacknowledged, but omnipresent list that many women (and probably some men, but in my experience it’s mostly a woman’s responsibility) carry around with them all the time. It’s an ever-changing list, but a typical one might look like this:

“I need to check and see when the cat is due for his shots, and sign off on the form for Emily’s field trip. And it’s my sister-in-law’s birthday next week, so I better get a card and send it off. Oh, right, we’re almost out of laundry detergent, which reminds me that the sheets need to be washed in the next couple of days. There’s a non-instructional day next Friday, so that might be a good time to see if we can get Jackson into the dentist for a check-up. And I better check the fridge to see what vegetables we have if we’re going to have stew tonight.”

I am not saying men don’t carry a mental load around with them, but I suspect that when it comes to households it’s the woman who bears the brunt, perpetually thinking of all those things that keep families ticking along. And of course most men are probably fine with sending off that birthday card or making a dentist appointment, but since they’re not the ones with these things as part of their mental load, they don’t think of it until/unless they’re asked to do it.

(As an aside, here’s where women often do themselves no favours. The stereotypical women who expects her husband/partner to read her mind, then gets annoyed when he fails to do so, is a cliché, but like most clichés it has gained that status because it’s true.)

This situation—the woman carrying the mental load and then having to ask for things on it to be done—makes the woman, in Emma’s words, the “household management team leader”, with her husband/partner an underling who has to be asked/directed to do things. She notes that one problem with that is that planning and organizing things is already a full-time job, adding that when she began organizing projects at work she stopped participating in them; she didn’t have the time.

In the comic, a woman is pictured at a sink full of dirty dishes. Looking at them in despair, she asks “You didn’t do the dishes?” Her husband replies “Well you never asked.” Another example she cites is a friend who had recently had a baby asking her husband, before she went to bed, to get the baby’s bottle out of the dishwasher when the load was done.

When she got up for the first feed of the night, she found the bottle on the counter, as requested, and the rest of the clean dishes still in the dishwasher.

We don’t learn the follow-up to that, but I suspect that if the wife had inquired why her husband hadn’t emptied the entire dishwasher, the reply would have been along the lines of “You didn’t ask me to.” Perhaps she should have, but on the other hand, she shouldn’t have had to.

Knowing the term “mental load” doesn’t make it go away, but it does explain a good deal. And there’s a simple solution, or rather two. Women: don’t expect the man in your life to read your mind. Men: don’t wait to be asked. Everyone’s life will be much happier (and the entire dishwasher might get emptied).

Read “You Should’ve Asked” at

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