There’s a conversation I’ve been having on repeat lately. It looks like this: a friend juggling a phone, a child (or two), and usually a snack or toy quickly walks to another room and whispers something along the lines of “Would it kill them to help?! If I get asked one more time…”
It’s a scene that has repeated itself consistently during this period of social-distancing – in my house, friends’ homes, and all over the country. The fact is that working parents are doing double duty (really more like triple duty) and in most two parent homes, one parent is taking on more than their fair share of work. In the vast majority of cases, that’s a woman. I understand it’s not always a woman. This week alone, I talked to a dad who is feeling drained by the extra work he’s doing (for more than his wife) and a mom whose husband is a stay-at-home dad who is now picking up extra things like homeschooling, cooking, and household duties – leaving him no time for the side project he had been working on. These are the exceptions, but they’re worth remembering too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these conversations; the stress and frustration they convey and what’s at the root of that. When confronted with the problem, the other party often replies, “I didn’t know!” or “But I asked!”. The problem? ‘Asking’ puts the burden back on the other person, and ‘not knowing’ is usually a result of not paying attention. There are three questions that I would genuinely love to never hear again:
Do you know why he’s upset/crying/acting like that? Yes. I know precisely why, and I decided to ignore it because I love the sound of his crying
Do you need help with that? Sounds nice, but it always comes after you’re 95% done.
What do you want me to do? What do I want you to do? I want you to do exactly what I’ve done – look around and figure out what needs to be done. Then do it.
Lately the ‘mental load’ has been overflowing for all of us. If you’re lucky enough to be in a two parent household, you desperately need it to feel like a two parent household right now. I know 50/50 is impossible – any given day it’s not going to be 50/50, and focusing too much on that exact split detracts from the big picture. But the concept of the other parent ‘helping out’ is insufficient. It needs to be shared work that each parent does, not burderning one more than the other (at least most of the time). Women are already contending with a wage gap, gender disparity, motherhood penalty, paid leave bias, and slower career growth. The time we spend delegating, coordinating, answering questions (see above) and overseeing everything at home is time that’s not going into our work, directly impacting our careers. To be clear, these issues have always existed. However, being home without help – be that childcare, cleaners, or any other help – is dramatically exasperating and accelerating these problems.
As witnessed by the many exaggerated whispers from friends, one of the worst parts is that we now have no break, no place to vent. That glass of wine with friends? Gone. A group fitness class escape? Live streaming burns calories, but it doesn’t beat stress the same way. A cathartic venting on the way to work? I don’t know how big your house is, but you can hear someone talking from any room in mine.
Two things have to change: partners need to step up big time across the board and companies must adjust expectations so that working parents, and particularly working moms, are not punished for societal changes brought on by COVID19 that we cannot control. The latter is a topic for another newsletter, the former needs to be addressed immediately.
I’ve never liked it when people refer to the ‘head of the house’ – that’s exactly part of the problem. If there’s a head, one person is in charge and it’s their mental burden to make sure it all gets done, even if the other parent is “helping,” People love to call women the “CEO of our family!” It’s not a title I want. All that says to me is you’re not sharing the load, and putting a name to do it doesn’t actually acknowledge how much work it is. No parent should have to become CEO of their household, thereby jeopardizing their chances to become CEO of their company.
We’re not going to change societal norms and close the gender gap overnight. But we are going to be home without help for a while longer, so it seems like as good a time as any to start making some immediate changes. The first step is pretty easy: if you’re the spouse doing less (you know who you are), stop asking and start acting. Take a note from Nike, just do it.