I wanted to be a better husband. So I planned my kid’s birthday party.

As a psychologist, I knew men did less “mental labor,” but I didn’t see my own shortcomings.

James Firnhaber for the Washington Post

When I pledged to be a better husband and father, offering to plan our youngest’s 4th birthday party seemed like a good place to start. But as I squinted at the computer screen, trying to assemble a threadbare online invitation and wondering how to find email addresses for all her classmates’ parents, I realized it was going to be a lot harder than I’d anticipated.

The truth is, although I have been a dad for eight years, I’d never taken the lead in planning a birthday party for any of my three kids. I’d never even given these parties much thought. It was always my wife who sent the invitations, ordered the food, decided on the themes (and then redecided when a kid changed their mind a week later). She would sometimes enlist my help on the day of the party — at which point, being the dutiful, feminist husband I believe myself to be, I would gladly help out and feel good about contributing equally to the cause.

The pandemic changed that perception of myself. Yes, I did my share of dishes and laundry. I even cut down my work hours to be home more and helped the kids get set up for distance learning. But I soon realized that even though we both worked full-time outside the home, my wife was doing immensely more “mental labor” — the invisible, logistical tasks that make a household run smoothly, such as scheduling doctor’s visits and making plans for summer child care.

As a clinical psychologist, I was already familiar with this concept in the abstract. Research has shown that in heterosexual, dual-income households, women spend more time thinking about unpaid, family-related matters than men do. Women are also significantly more likely to keep tabs on tasks that need to be completed by both partners and are more likely to issue reminders than men are — a phenomenon I frequently discussed with couples in therapy that was perceived by men to be “nagging” and by women to be necessary because their husbands could not be counted on to do these tasks unless reminded. These roles develop not because of biological predisposition, but rather because women face heightened societal scrutiny and are usually the ones others blame if family tasks are overlooked.

The pandemic exposed these underlying inequities. In my practice, I noticed an uptick in parents who were struggling with the massive changes that the closure of so much of society created in their families. In particular, mothers shared feeling completely overwhelmed and unsupported by their employers — and sometimes their partners. Multiple women told me it primarily fell on them to adapt to closed child-care centers, to compete over the precious few Instacart slots available each day and to keep abreast of the latest coronavirus infection rates. I advised each of these women to discuss their concerns with their husbands, and I heard many times how much they wished that their husbands would just think about these things without needing to be asked.

Confident that I wasn’t one of those unsupportive husbands, I shared my observations with my wife one night while I was eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s on the couch after putting the kids to bed (all by myself, no less!). She burst out laughing, marveling that I was lecturing my clients on mental loads when I didn’t understand how the concept played out in our own household. She rattled off a list of things that hadn’t crossed my mind even once over the course of the year, like acquiring masks for the children and figuring out child care for yet another pandemic summer.

I was dumbstruck. While I thought I was seeing so much that needed to be done, I was missing a whole swath of my family’s needs. I had improved in completing tasks immediately set before me, but I never anticipated chores before my wife noted them. And I realized that, also unfairly, she constantly had to choose between just doing all the mental labor herself or continuing to try to help me see what I simply do not see, which is incredibly laborious in and of itself.

With this insight, we decided that I would share one small piece of the mental load by planning our daughter Simone’s party.

“Wait a minute, who all is in her class?” I asked as I assembled the online invitation. I thought I’d be able to send it a week or so ahead of time, but then I learned that party-throwers typically give at least a month’s notice to ensure that the event doesn’t clash with another party.

“I’m not 100 percent sure,” my wife replied. “You should ask her.”

Simone knew everyone’s first names, but last names were just not happening. I tried cross-checking previous emails from the preschool, but of course they were all sent bcc. Because of my work, I certainly understand the importance and value of privacy — but wow, did I wish Simone’s school wasn’t so fastidious right now. I decided I should just send the invitation to the parents I already knew and get the rest of the emails from my daughter’s teacher later. I hoped the rest of the planning process wouldn’t be so frustrating.

But it was. I had envisioned a small backyard gathering with a borrowed bounce house and a newly purchased Slip ’N Slide. Then in the week leading up to the party, I watched anxiously as the chance of thunderstorms rose and fell. Maybe we can reschedule for Sunday, I told myself. But what if that clashed with another party? Would all those 4-year-olds keep their masks on if we moved inside? Maybe we can huddle under the carport? I spent a whole evening figuring out where to buy supplies, at first trying to be budget-conscious but quickly realizing that I would gladly pay a few bucks more for the convenience of a one-stop shop like Party City, rather than traipsing around the county to get the best deals on juice boxes, helium balloons and cellophane bags.

By the day of the party, the rain held off and eight of my daughter’s friends showed up for an hour and a half of water play. (I abandoned the bounce house idea.) Each kid got individually wrapped, covid-safe snacks of apple slices, grapes and Pirate’s Booty cheese puffs. They played pin-the-horn-on-the-unicorn. When it was time for cupcakes, Simone was having so much fun that she didn’t even notice that the wind blew out her candles.

Families eventually left one by one, being sure to thank my wife for a party she had no hand in planning. But as we cleaned up, I thought about all the parties my wife had planned on her own. So instead of being jealous, I decided I would continue to pick up more of the mental load in our family — not because I want Brownie points, but because it is the just and equitable thing to do. And because I believe that equity is not a destination to arrive at but a process of continual growth and discovery, even if that discovery is something as basic as how stressful it can be to plan a birthday party for eight 4-year-olds. Here’s hoping it’s easier next year.

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