I can’t be the only one who refers to my life in relation to pre- and post-pandemic.
Nearly every aspect of our lives has been affected by the virus. And while I eagerly got my vaccine in the hopes of doing my part to get many things back to normal, there are some things that the past year has put into perspective. Most notably, my desire for better work-life balance.
I’m not alone. In December the Pew Research Center found that, of those who transitioned to at-home work during the pandemic, more than half would prefer to keep it that way after things return to normal.
But with more time at home there has come more housework — and women are picking up most of the slack. If the nature of work becomes centered at home, the nature of household labor needs to change, too.
I acknowledge that the pandemic has been hard on everyone — those who are single, those who are single parents, the young, the old and everyone in between. For the purposes of this article, I reflect on the changes in households with two parents who typically worked outside the home as part of the public and private workforce pre-pandemic.
During the first phase of the pandemic, the division of labor and child care in two-parent households actually appeared to see improvements. A study from the University of Toronto Mississauga found men were more likely to step up to fulfill family demands if they were at home more and work allowed flexibility.
COVID-19 showed potential as a great household equalizer in more ways than one.
Alas, it did not last.
Instead, women bore the brunt of the fallout at home. Working moms left the paying workforce to become teachers and surmount the growing housework. Stay-at-home moms suddenly found themselves without any social interaction beyond trying to balance the schedules of the entire household and add additional grocery store trips.
I’ve harped on the necessity of treating working moms better, giving stay-at-home moms the support they need and fully integrating women into the post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
None of it can happen without the support of both partners. That support starts in the home.
Division of labor
Before we found ourselves working at home, my husband and I had pretty clear-cut duties in terms of chores. Since the transition, those lines have blurred — and I think it’s for the better.
They’re simple changes, yes, but we’ve been forced to become more aware of what the other person does and how we can help each other.
I don’t profess to be an expert on the division of household labor. I’m also self-aware enough to know that what works for us won’t work for everyone else, and it probably won’t always work for us forever, either.
Why didn’t that momentum witnessed at the beginning of the pandemic continue?
In some ways, it did. Another study found that among the data compiled from 1,075 couples, men did pick up extra household chores and child care responsibilities. But while there was a general shift toward a more egalitarian approach, the increase of domestic responsibilities of women was much greater in relation to that of men.
The division of labor in the home has always been contested between men and women. In October, Pew Research Center reported 59% of women said they do the majority of household chores, but 49% of men believed the chores were divided equally.
The 2020 American Family Survey conducted annually by the Deseret News and the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU, had similar findings. Most men believed they were doing equal housework, whereas women believed the split was more like 65-35.
I recently heard someone excuse men for their obliviousness toward what it takes to run a home by saying women were more naturally organized. This may be true in your home, but it isn’t supported by data — women only become more organized because it is expected of them, according to a study published in the scientific journal PLOS One.
This argument is also a disservice to men, leading some to think that they are physiologically incapable of contributing more.
Women perform the majority of cognitive and emotional labor required in the home, according to a study in 2019. This causes the majority of care — particularly the “invisible, unlimited” care — to fall on women, even among couples who actively aim for a 50-50 split.
The first step in alleviating that extra burden is to understand it. The “mental load,” as it’s called, is caused by living in the intersection of preparing, organizing and anticipating everything. It’s knowing which kids need permission slips signed, knowing how to calm down the child who might have a bad day and remembering that your spouse needs more shampoo the next time you run to the store.
Couples often make decisions together, but many reports find that it’s the women who do the majority of the research. Communicating what goes into making each decision, then dividing those requirements — not just the actual tasks — might be one small step toward more equal housework.
Each study looking at the labor divisions in the home revealed that the additional flexibility for men to pick up any additional chores seemed to result from more flexibility from their employers.
This isn’t surprising, seeing as women have long had to find ways to be flexible, whereas men’s careers are perceived to be rigid and linear.
The factors contributing to a persistent unequal division aren’t clear cut or easy to resolve. Many are ingrained in us almost from birth. It’s not just about men doing more, but women must also break the cycle and begin to better communicate the burdens they bear.
The future of work looks more like your home office, so maybe we ought to put more work into our homes.
Savannah Hopkinson is an opinion writer for the Deseret News.