Sharing the mental workload: Sow the seeds early

In my last blog, I talked about how my mother taught us to share the mental workload. Here are a few things we have done in our family of four, to share the workload and enlist everyone.

Family meetings

We hold a family meeting once a week or once a fortnight. During the meeting, the previous week is reviewed, the following week is discussed and any issues/topics that need attention are deliberated upon. Tasks are noted and assignments are made. It is an open forum for the family to share information and make decisions. Assignments are not based on gender but based on knowledge, ability, passion, availability or based on the need to learn. Responsibilities are rotated so is the responsibility for chairing the meeting and thinking through the agenda. Meetings are not always fun. Sometimes there is tension, there are arguments. But always a sense of working things out together and a sense of ownership. An expansion of awareness. Not just sharing the context but creating the common context.

Do not underestimate children’s ability to plan and run a meeting after they have observed one or two. Our children called the meeting chair as President. It was considered a prominent position. President’s tenure lasted a month. Once, the children insisted that our dog Ritzy be the president for the month, as she was also part of the family. Our daughter became Ritzy’s spokesperson in the meetings. Ritzy also had her tasks. Which included the usual dog duties and in addition, fetching the ball during cricket games (After a few weeks, Ritzy was relieved of her ball fetching duty, as she used to enjoy running away with the ball).

Scheduled family meetings are a great vehicle to expand the context, inculcate sense of responsibility and deal with areas that can get ignored.

Using situations to share the mental workload

We created menus for every week. This happened because our children would say “I don’t like this dish” or “I want to eat that”. So, a new task and an opportunity to share the workload was born. One person became responsible to create the menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Another person to create the shopping list based on the menu. The first menu created by our children was oozing cholesterol. The menu had fried chicken, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, sloppy joe, lasagne and more. Our children don’t eat fish. My wife and I enjoy fish. No fish was on the menu. The menu provided an opportunity to raise awareness about how to balance a meal, make it nutritious, make them interesting, make sure all have food they enjoy, not repeat the same things, pay attention to time it takes to prepare, what is seasonal, how to create variety etc.  As I cook most of the dinners at home, I wanted to make sure they were aware of the effort involved.

The person creating the shopping list needed to find out about the ingredients that go into a dish. She/he is also required to see whether we have the ingredients, how much quantity is available, what needs to be bought in what quantity etc. She/he are also supposed to inform whoever is assigned to do the shopping.

Slowly shifts began to happen. When we would be out in the evening for something, our son or daughter would say, “we need to stop at the vegetable store to buy spinach or tomatoes. We will be out of onions soon. Or we have guests tomorrow, what shall we have for dinner?”

Planning for meals can be complex, keeping in mind the nutrition, personal preferences, seasons and availability etc. It also can become tedious and overwhelming when only one person in the household is responsible for it. By rotating the task within the family, one can spread the caring dynamic.

Planning and learning to anticipate

Every weekend our son or daughter were required to sit down and look at the following week’s curriculum and decide what books are needed and when. Leave the books at home, if not required. I know many mothers who do this for their children.

Likewise packing for holiday. They had to decide what to take – how many sets of clothes, based on what we were going to do on a holiday and for how long.

When they wanted a pet, a dog, we asked both our son and daughter (they were 8 and 4 years old), to sit down and write all the tasks involved in taking care of a dog. They met with our neighbour who had two dogs. Then decided how between them they would take care of all the tasks of caring for the dog.

Even the task of naming the dog had to be managed by them. Our son took charge of that process. We all had to write the names we wanted on a small piece of paper, one per chit. Any number of entries were allowed. All the entries were neatly folded and dropped in a box. Slowly they were drawn from the box. He disqualified all the names that were drawn, on some ground or the other, till the name he had proposed popped up!

One day it was our daughter’s turn to take the new puppy out for a walk. We were fortunate to have a park right behind our home. Since she was small, standing in the balcony of our first- floor apartment I decided to keep an eye on her. To my surprise and delight, I saw her walking in the park, and the puppy happily nestled in her arms enjoying the “walk”, the tiny leash dangling from her neck.

As a parent, it was fun to watch them grow up learning to manoeuvre through the workings of the adult world. It prepared them to become independent individuals with ease when they moved out of home to study and later work.

There are many opportunities to share the mental workload. It is a slow process. But it must be done to create a more equitable world and a world where we begin to wipe out centuries old gender rooted determinations. I continue to see young boys, youth and men who walk around, as if everyone around them, particularly their sisters, mothers and spouses are there to serve their needs. This pains me.

Sharing mental workload is not just about assigning daily chores. It is getting all to take larger responsibility. I want to stress the need for this, particularly when we have boys (sons) in the family.

I will be keen to know what you do to shift the mental workload at your home.

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