There is no doubt that the current COVID-19 pandemic and resulting quarantine presents extraordinary challenges to every household. Some of us are out of work. Some are working from home, perhaps while homeschooling children or while childcare is closed. Household responsibilities are piling up, and there may be sick or aging family members to look after. Some of us may be essential workers, still in the workplace and worrying about the impact this might have on our health and our families. While all of us are in unique situations and facing different problems, we all have experienced changes to our lives that affect our marriages and families.
The Second Shift
The pandemic has created enormous stress for families, and especially for women. Research has long identified the problem of the “second shift,” in which women who work outside the home are also responsible for the majority of the childcare and domestic work when they return home. But in the coronavirus era, the effects of the second shift are even more astounding. In a survey conducted by LeanIn.org in April, women who work full time and have a partner and kids are spending an average of seventy-one hours per week on housework and caregiving responsibilities. This burden may be especially heavy for single mothers and women of color, who research demonstrates typically earn less money, work less stable jobs, and have less support to weather times of crisis. Clearly, traditional gender roles and a traditional division of labor are inadequate to address the unique challenges of this pandemic.
In addition, women disproportionately carry the “mental load” of the family, the invisible work of conception and planning that goes into a task. During quarantine, this responsibility is even more exhausting. Someone must notice when the family is out of toilet paper and find a stocked grocery store. Someone must plan meals and snacks for the family. Someone must organize the children’s homeschooling or childcare, perhaps while working from home too. To be fair, many men are extremely competent caregivers and equal contributors in the home. But often husbands are willing to help, but may wait on their wives to take the lead and “assign” them a task. Egalitarians, with our commitment to shared leadership in the home, marriage, parenting, and the workplace, must take the lead and model an equitable division of labor and a dedication to maintaining a mutual partnership, even amid unprecedented times.
Finding Balance in Quarantine
Here are some practical tips to help you maintain an equal and shared balance in your marriages and families during coronavirus.
Communicate in Advance
Communicate about tasks and create a system for accomplishing them that works for your family. Have a nightly check-in with your spouse during which you review the schedule for the next day, as well as the week ahead. Decide what needs to be done and who is doing each task: who is cooking dinner, who is washing dishes, who is arranging video calls with the grandparents, who is helping kids with homework, and so on. Commit that you and your spouse will value all tasks and avoid assigning tasks by gender. Instead, divide them in a way that makes sense for your work schedules, your abilities, and your family’s needs. Create a division of labor based on what’s best for you, your spouse, and your family. This doesn’t always mean a perfectly equal division of labor, in which each partner takes on the same number of tasks, but an equitable one, in which both partners feel the system is fair.
Take Ownership of Your Tasks
When you offer to be in charge of a task, take full ownership of it. Own all parts of that task, so you’re not leaving the mental load to your partner. This means if the husband agrees to cover kid duty for the afternoon while the wife works, he’s in charge of brainstorming activities for that time, managing schoolwork, monitoring kids’ TV or social media use, and preparing snacks if necessary, instead of interrupting the wife to “consult” on what he should do. Likewise, if the husband is in charge of laundry for the family, the wife should not remind him, check up on him, redo his work, or otherwise interfere with the task. If we want to be equal partners, we have to respect each other’s abilities and relinquish control. Let your partner own the task from start to finish. I have found the book Fair Play by Eve Rodsky, to be a helpful resource for couples to learn how to share tasks and the mental load of running a household equitably.
Make Time for Self-Care
Many experts predict that mental health will be the next pandemic. Anxiety, grief, and worry are certainly at an all-time high. We must continue to care for our mental health at this time. Planning for exercise, video chats with friends, time alone to read or relax, or even getting out of the house to go on a drive, are just as important as finding time to work or cook dinner. Couples should communicate about their self-care needs and factor that into their system so each spouse is getting “time off.”
We are all doing the best we can right now. This is no time to argue and fight with our spouse over who is doing more in the home, or whose work is more stressful. Choose to give the gift of grace to each other and to yourself and lower your expectations as much as possible. Be flexible, because things are changing day to day with the pandemic. Be patient and allow space to grieve. Realize this is hard for all of us in different ways, and we are all grieving the loss of normalcy. We need to be extra generous with grace right now.
Acknowledging Our Difficulties
For the last couple months, my husband and I have been navigating these challenges while we both work from home full time with limited childcare for our toddler. Our system has not been perfect, and there are times we each feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and stressed. As egalitarians, we must acknowledge the extra difficulties we are currently experiencing on top of the usual challenges of working toward mutuality in a culture which seems to assume traditional gender roles. Let us not grow weary in our pursuit of shared leadership and let us seek ways to support both women and men in the home and in the workplace, even amid a global pandemic.