The novel coronavirus pandemic has upended everyone’s lives. But for many mothers, who are more likely to be full-time caregivers, work part-time, or have jobs perceived as more “flexible” than their male partners, our lives have become nearly unrecognisable overnight. Forced to take care of children, work from home, manage our children’s education, all while beating back the relentless slog of clutter, many of us feel despondent and completely burnt out. And it’s still early in this whole social distancing thing.
I have three kids, ages 7, 5 and 10 months. I work from home juggling my freelance writing with part-time university work while my baby naps or when I have a babysitter. In the Before, I was gearing up to read a slew of books as research for a book proposal, which I told my agent I would complete by mid-April. But that was Before the coronavirus and its disease, covid-19.
Now, of course, I have no time to read much of anything. I’m wiping a magically regenerating pile of crumbs from an always sticky countertop, trying to figure out home schooling programmes, trying to prevent my older kids from killing each other, trying to prevent my baby from choking on Lego bricks (which are everywhere), and trying to do it all with a relative smile so the kids don’t realise I’m depressed and get scared. When the baby naps, my older kids watch a movie and I attempt to work or just stare at Twitter. By the time I’ve finished (and usually, before I’ve finished), someone is yelling at someone else and the baby has been crying for at least five minutes.
Resentment and general misery
All the while, my husband, the primary earner in our home, is working upstairs. His physical proximity coupled with his actual unavailability is infuriating. While I know it’s not his fault, I’m resentful and jealous of his quiet space, his uninterrupted productivity.
This resentment and general misery has led to many fights, and in some of my darker moments, I’ve indulged serious fantasies about getting in the car and driving until I can’t drive any more. I know I’m not alone.
Eve Rodsky employed her background in law, family mediation, and organisational management to create a solution to the problem of unequal labour within the home, which she outlines in her book Fair Play. She recently conducted an informal survey of 100 women asking them how COVID-19 was impacting their workloads, and it’s no surprise that nearly all of them said the additional work of this new reality was disproportionately falling on their shoulders.
“My husband shuts himself in a bedroom to work all day. I work from home part-time with no childcare, but now my kids are home. As I’m not the breadwinner, it’s landed on me to take care of everything.”
Domestic labour is historically problematic because it’s often invisible and often unpaid, so Rodsky clarifies what exactly a mother’s pandemic workload looks like: “Groceries, Laundry, Home supplies (hand sanitiser and wipes), Emergency Planning, Meals, Cleaning, Dishes, Friendship and social media (Zoom calls and FaceTime play dates), Homework/homeschool, Watching (babies, toddlers, school-age kids).” And in many cases, somehow doing all of this while also working a second, paid job. From home.
When I first read this neatly compiled list of what’s making my head spin on a daily basis, I felt oddly comforted, as if the list validated my exhaustion in clear black and white.
When I sent out my own informal survey for this piece on Facebook and Twitter, I received a flood of responses within 24 hours. Freelance writer Janine Clements says: “My husband shuts himself in a bedroom to work all day. I work from home part-time with no childcare, but now my kids are home. As I’m not the breadwinner, it’s landed on me to take care of everything.”
Emily Ryan, an online marketing specialist, is “concerned for all the mums out there who simply cannot manage this. Will it lead to more drinking? Will mums be yelling at kids more, simply out of frustration and exhaustion?”
And Harmony Hobbs, a mom of three who is in recovery for alcoholism, echoes what many women said, in reporting that her husband’s life hasn’t changed at all: “It’s crazy to me how much stress I am taking on as opposed to how not affected his little routine is.” She also notes that her AA meetings and exercise, both critical to her sobriety and mental health, have come to a “screeching halt.”
So what can men do to help?
Rodsky suggests the following:
All time is equal: “Reading to a child for an hour is just as important as showing up to a business meeting,” she says. Partners should vocalise appreciation and support. Validate. A possible script: “How are you coping? You’ve got such an overwhelming workload right now. What can I do to help?”
Show that care work is important: Prioritise it alongside your other work.
Own your tasks: By keeping conception, planning and execution together. “This means that whoever is on kid duty (‘care hours’) is in charge of brainstorming the activity of the hour, getting materials ready and carrying out the plan. Think beyond, how can I help? Rather, how can I own the task from start to finish?”
Communicate: “Do a nightly check-in. Start with ‘How are you doing today? What’s on your mind? What worked today for you; what didn’t.’ And focus on your why before jumping into who has to do what.”
We’re more than a few days into this ugly COVID-19 experiment, and I’ve had a few days to put Rodsky’s advice into action. Here’s what it looks like for us: My husband, Brett, carves out an hour in the middle of the day to relieve me and is clear about what time he’ll “be home.” During week one, he was almost a half-hour late one day, and that was bad for everyone. (No one likes to end a day listening to a kid sob, “Mum! Dad! Stop fighting!”) Having clear expectations of when I can clock out as head parent is hugely helpful.
We do check-ins both morning and night, mostly going over the schedule. Brett did the bulk of care work during the weekend, while I focused on my writing and my overall sanity. By the end of week one, I was beyond fried, and having the weekend to recharge vastly improved the entire family’s well-being.
One last bit of advice for the full-time working parent. When you “come home,” realise that your partner is sapped bone-dry. She’s probably carrying some guilt for yelling/snapping/screwing up school/allowing the kids to watch some sort of Barbie fairy trash. So swoop into the domestic space with some major pep in your step. Shower your kids with attention and patience. When your partner asks you to do something, respond with red dancing lady emoji gusto. Radiate goodwill.
Last night, I reminded Brett to condition our daughter’s hair, something he absolutely doesn’t need to be reminded of. When he responded, “No prob!” without a hint of defensiveness, I felt supported. Loved. My shoulders crept down from my ears.
And most important: If your kids ask your partner, who has been taking the lead on all of this care work, for literally anything — if they so much as utter the word “Mum,” take the reins. Step in and say: “Mum’s taking a break now — she’s worked really hard today. I’ll help.”
— Sara Petersen is an essayist