Mind Blown: Mind/Cognitive Loads at Home and Work

You know those days when something becomes so clear to you that it is like when the eye doctor switches those lenses and everything that was previously blurry and dark becomes perfectly clear and strikingly bright?  Yeah, that just happened to me in a way that makes both my personal and professional life so much more clear and bright that I had to share. It seems especially poignant in my year of “making a home,” since it focuses on how much mental effort is really expended (mostly invisibly) in making a home.

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So, the first thing that popped up in my Facebook feed earlier today is this Real Simple article, shared by Working Moms Against Guilt.  The article focuses on the “invisible workload” that women carry in their brains:

Walzer found that women do more of the intellectual, mental, and emotional work of childcare and household maintenance. They do more of the learning and information processing (like researching pediatricians).

They do more worrying (like wondering if their child is hitting his developmental milestones). And they do more organizing and delegating (like deciding when the mattress needs to be flipped or what to cook for dinner).

Even when their male partners “helped out” by doing their fair share of chores and errands, it was the women who noticed what needed to be done.

The article struck a chord with me, not only because it quoted a poem written by a favorite blogger of mine from back when I first realized what having a chronically ill child was going to mean to my life, Ellen Seidman at Love That Max.  My daughter is not in any way comparable to Max in all that he (and therefore his family) has to deal with on the medical front, but she had a way of making me feel better about myself as a mother and she offered guidance for how to deal with all of the doctor’s appointments and anxiety and hospital stays and so much more.  But, back to the article…I recognized our own family, where my husband often asks me to “give him a list of two or three things to do” as if he can’t see the laundry piling up or the dishes sitting dirty in the sink or the garbage that needs taking out, etc., etc.  I make and record all the medical appointments.  I deal with most of the pharmacy issues for medication.  I schedule babysitters and dog sitters.  Now that our dryer isn’t working, I do loads of wash and then pile them in the car and take them to the laundromat to dry.  I then bring them home and fold them and put them away.  I keep our calendar.  In the day-to-day, it doesn’t seem like much, but as the article indicates, it takes its toll.  And as the author of the article includes, it isn’t just all the household management that we are having to think about:

It’s about housework, yes, but it extends to having to consider what neckline, hemline, height of heel, and lipstick shade is appropriate for that job interview, afternoon wedding, or somber funeral, instead of relying on an all-purpose suit; it’s about thinking carefully about how to ask for a raise in a way that sounds both assertive and nice; it’s about worrying whether it’s safe at night and how to get home; for some of us, it involves feeling compelled to learn feminist theory so as to understand our own lives and, then, to spend mental energy explaining to others that the revolution is unfinished.

I must admit that I’m not one for changing my neckline or hemline or heel height.  I am lucky to work in academia where I am not going to be the best-dressed faculty member, but I’m also never going to be the worst dressed faculty member.  But, as a female debate coach, I know what it is like to have to think about how to approach a conversation with others.  And yes, the revolution is unfinished, although now I figure I can just show this cover of Washington Post’s Express in response to anyone who challenges that notion:

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So, I can’t say I feel “good” about the article’s findings, but I do feel somewhat vindicated in feeling overwhelmed and exhausted much of the time and a bit frustrated some of the time.

But, it didn’t end there.  That was me noticing my own pain and suffering.  The real turning point came when I then read “Enhancing Learning through Zest, Grit and Sweat,” in Faculty Focus and I came to this last advice under the “sweat” section:

Mind cognitive load. Complex assignment instructions, confusing website navigation, and disorganized course materials increase unproductive cognitive load. Cognitive load should focus energy on the subject, not on the periphery.

And I thought about my prior classes.  I thought about how I have now realized how poor some of my navigation was designed on our Learning Management System.  I realized how at times, the course materials were disorganized and sometimes late being delivered.  I realized that, in the same way that I am suffering from a heavy mind cognitive load at home, I am placing my students in a situation where they are suffering a heavy mind cognitive load because of ME!  And I realize now how important it is to relieve that load.  I realize that, in the past, I have expected my students to “let things go” or I have told them to “remind me to post materials because I might forget” and that, my friends, is really not fair to them.

So, although I have already done quite a bit of reorganization and increased the clarity and focus in my classes and the assignment instructions, etc. I have a new understanding of the WHY.  I have a personal connection to my students’ frustration.  I am able to see like I have not been able to see before.

To conclude, thinking is hard work.  I am sure that I will continue to carry the load of thinking jobs at home.  But, I can now be more aware of when it is starting to wear on me and I can be more able to voice my concerns about it.  I will also work at ensuring I do what I can to allow my students to focus on their learning of the subject matter and not the peripheral “unproductive” cognition caused by my lack of preparation or awareness.  In the end, I hope that we will all have a year with less of a mind/cognitive load.