The coronavirus pandemic has deepened many pre-existing inequalities, which has exposed vulnerabilities in social, political, and economic systems worldwide. One of the issues that women are currently facing is the unequal distribution of invisible labor and household work. Unpaid work has increased with children being out of school/new homeschoolers and/or family members needing to recuperate at home. An awareness of the needs of older people and our overwhelmed health service systems has been heightened, and also made long-term caretaking a point of consideration for many.
We all know that in the formal economy, women are paid less than their male counterparts. But did you know that in the home, women are finding themselves doing the bulk of unspoken labor and daily household work…even during the pandemic when there are two partners or spouses working from home? This extends far beyond who is going to do the dishes after dinner (no offense to those who do dishes…all labor is valid!). Lives have been completely transformed as many homes have become offices, schoolhouses, and a place to convalesce.
Brigid Schulte, author of the 2014 book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, says our culture is still in the throes of an outdated “breadwinner/homemaker” model. She states that families are not a monolith, and that we now have an opportunity to begin a dialogue and ease the stresses of the unbalanced distribution of household tasks. I believe that she is correct in her assessment: instead of just blindly distributing tasks, or assuming that one person is going to do certain things, the pandemic has amplified the need for families, partners, and spouses to have conversations about what work needs to be done, when, and by whom.
Here are a few tips to help you equitably distribute labor in your household:
Make the time
Communicate! Make time to discuss what work needs to get done, the standards you agree on for the work, and ensure that all involved are doing big tasks as well as the daily small tasks (“big tasks” can include getting the car’s oil changed and gardening, for example, and “small tasks” can include making the children’s dental appointments and washing the baseboards).
Mix things up
Get the children involved! Even help with simple tasks make a huge difference when it comes to managing a household. Have children make their beds, clean up after themselves, help with dishes, take out the trash and recycling, water plants, etc. If they are motivated by rewards (who isn’t?!), create a chart and a reward system (Pizza night! Cash! Books!)
Have your partner or spouse do a task that you typically do, and vice versa! Maybe you’re the one who always goes grocery shopping, and your partner is the one who helps the children with their school projects and lessons…switch it up for a day or a week. This will help both parties have an appreciation for what the other typically does.
Acknowledge invisible labor
Who is the go-to person when someone is having a meltdown at home? The voice of reason when someone is having a rough day? The one who makes appointments? Remembers birthdays? Sends thank you notes? The person who is taking temperatures, propping up pillows, and serving ginger ale to someone when they are sick? Acknowledge that this is real work, and that it needs to be distributed, too. It is important that physical and emotional labor is distributed in order to ease an individual’s burdens and strengthen relationships. Keep in mind that children observe and emulate many things their adults do. Do not let the foundations of their daily lives exist on the premise of gendered norms and inequalities.
Make time for yourself
This is the big one.
Women are often the de facto caregivers, and in times of crisis and stress, it can be difficult for us to take care of ourselves. We must look to that strength and resilience that carries us throughout the day, and give ourselves our very best, as well.
Until we are all in a position where work–paid or otherwise–is equally distributed, we must continue to amplify our voices at home and beyond to make sure that we are not doing the bulk of the heavy lifting ourselves.