In late April, when she heard that schools will remain closed for the duration, Sylvia locked herself in the bathroom and screamed. A few minutes later she was back at the dining room table, making sure the two younger kids were on their screens doing school work, cleaning up breakfast, unloading and loading the dishwasher, starting laundry, and sorting yesterday’s mail. Then she powered up her laptop and got to work. Right. I get it. She’s been working all morning, just not the paid kind of work. And now, in July, chances are good that schools may not re-open for the foreseeable future.
As Americans continue to “shelter-in-place” (some places more than others) I’ve grown increasingly curious about how families are faring when it comes to household management. I’ve been waiting for studies, polls, any kind of data to help me understand what I assumed would be a new dynamic when it comes to partnering on routine household tasks.
I imagined seismic shifts in the household division of labor. Wives and husbands now spend inordinate and unusual amounts of time together under one roof. Day in and day out, they are likely working it out together. Gender roles blur and chores become everyone’s responsibility. I assumed, now that dads are spending a lot more time with the family, they’d be blown away and “wowed” by amount of work that really went into running the home. The list of tasks and responsibilities are endless (the longest job description in ‘herstory’!). Since so many of these chores are invisible (like remembering you’re out of ketchup) and thankless (setting the dining table), I was looking forward to data supporting the “new normal” of equality and partnership in the home. Sociologist Caitlin Collins, co-author of a new Washington University in St. Louis study on the effects of the pandemic, initially thought that when the labor of caregiving became so visible, it would “will help kick-start the stalled gender revolution that scholars have been talking about for the past decade or so.”
Not so fast. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and apparently it’s going to take longer than four months in quarantine to see anything that resembles big changes in the home. In fact, recent research points to a startling and disappointing consequence of the new not normal. Not only do wives and mothers continue to perform the lion’s share of housework, they are doing it to the detriment of their paid labor. In her recent New York Times essay, Jessica Grose writes that the “pandemic is disproportionately disrupting mothers’ careers.”
Ugh. This one hurts.
Grose cites a variety of reasons for this breakdown. Mommy is the “go to” person. She’s managing the invisible and doling out the visible. In her article for The Lily, Caroline Kitchner spoke with a number of women who consider quitting, or who have already quit, their paid employment with the understanding they would return to the office once we are past the pandemic.
The study cites that between March and April, “mothers’ [paid] work hours fell four to five times as much as fathers’.” If dad worked a 40-hour-week in the office, he’s likely working at about the same rate today. These disparities are not insignificant and will likely cause significant imbalances and inequities in the paid labor force. Hence:
- Will employers be sensitive to the resumé that includes these job gaps?
- The optics of scaling back paid work are not good, especially among employers who maintain rigid or inflexible schedules as childcare demands continue to escalate.
- Pay raises and promotions for men who disproportionately maintained their work commitments through the pandemic; women will spend a part of their return catching up.
Earlier this year I launched the Emotional Labor Survey to better understand how the invisible nature of emotional labor is playing out in the American home around. When the pandemic began, I had high hopes for greater equality at home when it came to the gender division of invisible and visible labor.
I’m still not clear why the seismic shift isn’t happening. I wish I knew why the majority of husbands and dads are not shouldering at least half of the myriad tasks required to run a well-ordered home (or at least a functional one!). I am sensitive to the fact that mommy is often the “go to” parent but I’m perplexed that daddy isn’t noticing the volume of work and volunteering to take on more, and without having to be asked. I’m scratching my head over this.
So, in light of the pandemic, how do we move forward with greater equality and equanimity? Is it even possible to think that we can? Here’s one idea: without blaming or pointing fingers, play a game I call, “What have you been doing all day?!?” This is for couples who love being married, have good communication skills, and a semblance of emotional management. Here’s how to play: each person goes somewhere alone to write the list of everything they do for the family in a given day. Go crazy. Write it all down. Then return to each other and compare lists. It’ll be a good conversation starter and maybe, just maybe, you’ll experience your own seismic shift and create a true “new normal” out of what is the status quo.
Regina F. Lark, Ph.D.
Regina Lark is the principle at A Clear Path, LLC. She is the author of Psychic Debris, Crowded Closets: The Relationship Between the Stuff in Your Head and What’s Under Your Bed.(now available on Audible).