I’d like to start off this post about weaponized incompetence and the mental load by crediting important content creators who started a dialog about these terms. These influencers do a great job talking about something and naming it so that we can continue this conversation: @ebonie_qt, @thatdarnchat, @jessica_jo_xo, @chrystheauthor, and @professorneil are just a few of the Tik Tok creators to watch.
This topic created so much buzz that it even made it to mainstream media in this well-written article in InStyle.
As these sources all point out, weaponized incompetence is a new term to describe a notion of “male ineptitude” about house-related and child-centered tasks. This comes up ALL the time in my work with predominantly moms in therapy. Essentially, the mom is viewed as the only competent member of the heterosexual parent dyad, and therefore she is given all the tasks related to home and family. This is regardless of her working status.
But worse still, not only is she given all the tasks, but dad will also display purposeful or unconscious ineptitude when asked to participate equally. This ineptitude is then weaponized and reused to get out of doing these types of tasks altogether.
Examples of Weaponized Incompetence:
Dad acts like he doesn’t know how to take care of a new baby. So he fumbles the job or constantly checks in with mom, which creates a sense of insecurity in leaving the baby with dad and therefore mom “rescues” dad from this task and takes it back over to avoid significant errors or safety concerns.
Mom asks dad to watch the baby while she does a basic task like showering, cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, etc. Dad then gets the bare minimum done of keeping baby alive, but the baby’s routine is off. Or the baby is fussy and dad acts like he has no idea how to console baby (even though he likely has the same tools at his disposal that mom does). Or he falls asleep on the job, or he props baby up to stare at a screen instead of interacting with them to accomplish the bare minimum possible.
As the kids get older, this comes up in more functionally impactful ways. Dad now doesn’t learn the kids’ schedules or who their teachers are or what assignments are due at school or when important events are or who the kids friends are, and need I go on? Then, the kids learn to only come to mom for their care needs and dad gets out of the job of most child-related tasks.
The outcome of all these examples of weaponized incompetence is that mom gets no break from these types of childcare tasks.
That’s because every time she asks dad to do them, he does them so poorly that she can no longer rely on him, and she must now take back the task that she unloaded. And the kids learn an unspoken rule that mom is the reliable caretaker so why bother going to dad for their needs.
Then you get the memes of a kid asking mom for something basic in a room where dad is sitting doing nothing because the kid learns that dad isn’t the person to go and only mom will get stuff done.
We use the term weaponize because, whether or not dad knows he’s doing this, he will use this tactic to get out of things that are hard.
And since these tasks still need to be done, mom is the only one left to do them. So she becomes the person who steps in…all the time. Dad is absolved of the tasks and we have a huge problem in the balance of labor within the home.
Which brings me to the concept of the mental load.
This article linked here clearly explains this concept in more depth. The mental load is the emotional and cognitive labor that goes on behind the scenes to keep everything working as it should. It is the near constant awareness of what is currently happening and what will need to happen in the future to keep everyone in the family functioning optimally.
It’s all of the things that need to be thought of (what to make for dinner, what to buy at the store, what time practice is tonight), what needs to be done (when is that birthday party, when are parent teacher conferences, when do I need to make a pediatrician appointment), and what needs to be set up in the future (plans for next week, next month, next year, etc.) to make sure everything goes well for everyone in the family.
This is happening inside the brains of moms almost continuously, and it contributes to increased anxiety and depression because there is no relief.
Even more insidious is that men seem to be immune to the mental load.
There is debate about whether or not there is a gender-specific biological factor going on within the brain that makes women more attuned to the mental load. But I find this to be a cop-out and a function of the ineptitude that men get away with.
The problem is with our societal expectations.
Men are simply not taught to care about these details, so they never learn to attend to them. And women have been forced to care about them through decades of socialization. And if someone doesn’t care about them, the whole ship sinks.
If moms stopped caring about the mental load, the kids suffer.
The juggled balls all come crashing down and many things stop functioning. The temporary fix is to delegate tasks to dad so that moms don’t have to think about them anymore. But due to this weaponized incompetence, there is a good chance that the task won’t get done well and/or dad will check in with mom repeatedly to make sure it is done well, which really doesn’t take it off her plate at all.
And the problem now becomes that mom is the project manager of the household and dad is a subordinate secondary player. This doesn’t relieve mom’s mental load because she still must keep track of the tasks needing to be delegated.
As you can see, these two concepts of weaponized incompetence and the mental load are intimately linked are bred from the same source.
Our society is still stuck in gender roles whereby women are perceived as caretakers and men are not. Therefore, men are not taught to engage in these “domestic” tasks in the same way that women are. They aren’t given opportunities to build confidence in household work, and they are not taught by society to necessarily care as much about child-related work. And moms are conditioned to believe that this is just part of their expected job. They don’t have a choice in the matter.
Until we start to remove these tropes from an earlier time, we won’t be able to climb out of these artifacts of a traditional gendered society.