As a parent of two with a career outside the home, the stay at home orders that we experienced in the spring hit my household pretty hard. I’m not pretending any situation was easy – I know empty nesters who were desperately lonely, essential workers who were separated from their loved ones, parents expecting newborn babies who were afraid to see their relatives, not to mention the many who were plunged into economic uncertainty due to lost work. All of these situations are brutal in their own ways, and I don’t want to diminish that real pain. That said, there was something about the discovery that many moms of school aged kids made during quarantine that they were, unquestionably, the default parent, that felt unique.
Most of the working women I know try our best to hide this. Our partnerships are, after all, significantly more equal than our parents enjoyed. Many of us have some kind of help beyond whatever we receive from the local school system – we have services, sometime we hire people, that help us hold it all together. So it’s not terribly obvious on any average Tuesday that one parent is reading all the school emails and making sure homework is complete and the other just doesn’t seem to think it’s their job.
Quarantine ended that. Suddenly, parenting became 24/7 and we all collectively reckoned with our expectations and whether or not the division of labor was anything approaching fair. For most of us, it wasn’t.
My somewhat unhealthy reaction was to quantify the disparity. I figured that if I was doing 30 more minutes of parenting every day, over the course of three months, that was a solid 40 hours of work. Every quarter I was working an entire week more than my partner. I presented my findings, and it resulted in some hurt feelings but no meaningful change.
I was reminded of freshman year in college. All freshmen were required to take a seminar that I jokingly called “intro to college” where we were meant to learn critical reading, writing and discussion skills all under the banner of some mutually interesting topic. My class was called “The Quest for Social Justice.” We covered a lot of topics over the course of that year, but I will never forget the unit we did on wages for housework.
Wages for housework was a part of the feminist movement in the 70’s that claimed that housework has genuine monetary value, and should, therefore, be compensated. The guys in the class were uniformly appalled. Women’s care of the family is based in love! How can you put a price on love? They wanted to argue that traditional women’s work was both invaluable and worthless at the same time.
To some degree, I get their cognitive dissonance. If you start to look at compensation based on social value, you quickly realize that there’s no way we can pay caregivers anything close to what they are actually worth to society. Raising kids that are healthy, educated, and reasonably well-adjusted is literally the most important thing we do. Without it, there’s no market, no society, no future.
And I also appreciate the sideways approach most first-wave feminists took to deal with this. The idea of actually getting adequate compensation for care-giving seemed impossible, so far better to avoid arguing about that work having value, and instead accept career advancement as the agreed-upon success marker. It’s a battle you can actually win.
But here we are, a generation or two later, realizing that while women have absolutely advanced in the workplace, the needle has shifted quite slowly at home. How do we change this?
I have two ideas –
1) Recognize the genuine value that care-giving has, not just for society, but for each of us personally. Yes, it’s work. But it’s not entirely rote or meaningless work. By staying engaged with the sense that it might not be obvious moment to moment, but care-giving is deeply important, we make the work lighter. And crucially, we make it easier to share with our partners. Instead of sharing a burden, we are sharing a valuable and meaningful project. How many stories have we heard of the men who only stop to consider in middle age that they have invested time and energy in their careers and feel genuine loss at not having spent more time with their kids growing up? Keeping that frame in mind makes it far easier to advocate for genuine partnership in the early years.
2) Do not hesitate to assign tasks. If our partners grew up with assumptions about care-giving and value, don’t assume that they will easily know how to be full partners now, no matter how much they may wish to be. Yes, I know that management is work, and yes I know that it is not fair to ask women to take on the mental load. All of that is true. But if your options are management, or not getting the help you need, there is no genuinely fair solution. So pick the better one.
For me, quarantine did not go smoothly. There was no way to quickly adjust to a fair system. Instead, I set a deadline. I would handle everything up to a date, and then I needed to fully pass the baton. It felt awful, honestly. My husband was starting sabbatical at exactly the moment I wanted to hand off. I was so conditioned over our 20 years together to privilege his work, that I struggled to feel ok requiring help when he could be writing or researching or something. That part was on me to fix. I had to remind myself every day that what I was asking for was fair and valuable for everyone.
Once he started engaging with the kids – really engaging them, not just quick conversations over dinner or whatever – their relationships bloomed. I realized that my enabling his career was part of how we had gotten to the point we were at when quarantine hit.
We both still have work to do to make our home more fair. But I’m committed to it. Because caregiving is valuable for everyone.