Quarantined Away from Your Husband and Kids? How Gender Roles Are Changing at Home

The coronavirus pandemic is radically transforming domestic life across America. Millions of nurses and healthcare providers are on the front lines of the pandemic, with many renting out hotel rooms and Airbnb’s to prevent the spread of the virus, while their partners are at home with the kids.

91% of nurses identify as female, which means many men are spending more time at home than they’re used to. Studies show women already do the bulk of the housework, but the pandemic is evening the scales. Married heterosexual men now find themselves doing everything from childcare and remote learning to setting up Zoom calls with friends and family.

The coronavirus could lead to lasting changes in domestic life, turning the nuclear family on its head.

Household Responsibilities by Gender

Even though women are now more likely to have a college degree than men, they’re still responsible for most of the housework in many domestic situations. In fact, married women tend to spend twice as much time on domestic chores as married men do. Today, women actually spend more time on caring for children than they did in the 1960s. This includes everything from setting up playdates to parent-teacher conferences and helping kids with their homework.

This often falls into the category of “unpaid labor.” Studies show women in the U.S. spend about 4 hours a day doing unpaid labor, while men spend just 2.5 hours a day.

Many household tasks still tend to be divided up by gender. Men may take out the trash or change the oil on the car, while women tend to be responsible for mentally and emotionally challenging tasks, such as childcare, doctor’s appointments, schoolwork, and sustaining family and platonic relationships. For women, it’s not just about physical labor. These tasks tend to consume hours of mental and emotional energy that often go unnoticed.

Studies also show that the more economically dependent women are on their husbands, the more housework they’re likely to do. However, working women whose husbands are unemployed still do more housework than their spouses.

How the Coronavirus is Changing Domestic Life

The coronavirus is quickly changing these norms. With many non-essential businesses closed and nearly 40 million people on unemployment, female healthcare providers are working on the front lines of the pandemic while their husbands take care of the kids.

If your husband or partner is taking care of the kids alone in quarantine, they may have to do things they wouldn’t normally do, such as:

  • Making sure everyone is practicing proper hygiene
  • Enforcing social distancing in and around the house
  • Laundry, household chores, and regularly disinfecting surfaces
  • Talking through emotions, such as grief, fear, anger, and confusion
  • Setting up remote playdates and get-togethers
  • Maintaining family relationships
  • At-home learning

The Better Life Lab is a work-life, gender equity and social policy program that’s working to address these issues. Director Brigid Schulte has been speaking to nurses working on the front lines of the pandemic and their husbands while they’re stuck at home with the kids.

Schulte talks about how the pandemic is forcing heterosexual partners to switch roles. Many men are finally coming to terms with how much their wives do around the house. Some couples are quarantined together in tight spaces, so even little tasks are unlikely to go unnoticed.

While women have more freedom today than they did in decades past, many American households are clinging to old-fashioned ways of life.

Schulte urges men and women to address these issues as we all adjust to the new normal. “You really need to create the space to have the conversations about who does what and what really is fair and how to share it. I think it’s very difficult for couples to continue [on] autopilot like they might have before.”

Schulte also points out that employers are often willing to make arrangements for women that need to homeschool their kids or take care of an aging parent, but that’s not true of men. Many employers expect male employees to be just as productive at home as they would be at the office, making it difficult for them to contribute their fair share of housework, but this should not exclude them from household chores.

Tips for Sharing Responsibilities in the Home (Or Helping Your Partner Adjust)

If you are quarantined with your husband or your partner is alone with the kids for the first time, keep these tips in mind:

  • Be aware of your responsibilities as they relate to the home and your family, including the mental pressures, daily stressors, and physical tasks, and talk about them with your partner. If you find yourself constantly worrying about certain issues and problems, share them with your partner. The first step toward sharing responsibility is bringing these responsibilities to light. Your partner can’t share the load if they don’t know how to help or how these tasks affect you.
  • Share communication as much as possible. Put your partner’s email on school and community email threads. Include your partner in family text threads and Zoom calls.
  • Take turns doing various household tasks and dealing with the related stress. Create a schedule to make the process more democratic.
  • Millions of Americans are now working at home. If your partner has converted to a virtual schedule, they should be able to fit in various household responsibilities throughout the day. They should share these added benefits with their employer, so they are more aware of how your family is coping with the pandemic. They may be able to make some of these arrangements permanent.
  • If you constantly have to nag your partner or they feel attacked in certain situations, create safe spaces throughout the house to give everyone some breathing room. When you go into the room, no one can nag or pick a fight with one another. Or better yet, no talking allowed.

The pandemic may forever change our understanding of home life, helping us build a more equitable society in the future. Family life and care should be a central part of you and your spouse’s career. Communicate with your partner, so you both understand what needs to get done.

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