Dear Dr. Andrea,
Like so many other families right now, my husband and I are suddenly both working from home with two kids home from school. I was hoping that we would both start from scratch about how to figure this out, because I know it may go on for a long time. We have a second grader and a fifth grader. The second grader has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and it feels almost impossible to even just do a halfway decent job at anything. I am not expecting perfection and I know it is a work in progress, but everything is falling to me.
My husband’s job is a little more demanding under these circumstances, but it’s not like he’s directly involved in the coronavirus response, and my work has certainly not diminished either. I am so frustrated that I suddenly have to get my work done and also have taken the brunt of keeping the kids on task and out of his hair, rather than him helping me out, too. It feels like my job is also to keep the kids from bothering him so that he can work, and I am wondering, who is helping me get my own work done?
— Too many jobs for one person
No doubt it’s a stressful time, where so many of us are flying by the seat of our pants, and cutting our partners some slack is in everyone’s best interest. That said, it’s also important that we don’t let precedents get set that are abjectly unfair, or let stress and resentment build up over time to the point of damaging our relationships. When you think about it, this surreal time under house confinement — where so many previous “rules” have been thrown out the window — could actually be pretty opportune for starting from scratch and establishing new standards and structure with child-care responsibilities. Which is exactly what you say you were hoping for.
So, why were you left just hoping?
Fair precedents and equity within child-care duties don’t just happen automatically. In fact, the very reason the mental load can creep up so insidiously and unequally in so many partnerships is because unfair divisions of labor thrive on passivity and assumption. They take hold by default, as the path of least resistance, often just by one partner happening to take on a task and then it becoming “theirs” forevermore, without it ever being spelled out or discussed.
Now that your usual daily life has been upended, with heaping and unprecedented stress levels thrown in for good measure, this path of least resistance is even more tempting. Everyone is just trying to stay sane and get through the day. Unfair patterns can take root quickly because they seem like coping mechanisms. (“Mom has always packed the lunches, so now that the kids are home all day, of course she’ll be responsible for all the constant snack-patrolling as well” or “Dad has always read the bedtime stories, so now of course he’ll read to them throughout the day to calm them down whenever they veer toward wild-animal behavior.”)
In other words, simply hoping that you’d both jump on a full-scale realignment of housekeeping and child-care duties is not enough. It needs to be spelled out and established as important, with an honest and detailed conversation, before the precedent gets even more set.
Choose as relaxed a time as possible, without the kids. Come armed with a big picture goal (“This is a challenging time for all of us, with a lot of extra responsibilities, and they should be divided up fairly and thoughtfully”) and some small picture items (“It can’t just be me managing their online learning” or “I need X hours of quiet work time per day” or “Colin needs more Y, so we should divide that up 50/50.”)
What many parents are doing is setting a daily schedule that takes into account everyone’s needs, hour by hour. No two families are alike, of course, and having some flexibility is key, but by putting a tangible agenda down on paper, you have more of a chance of getting your needs met (and highlighting the inequity that’s already there). Of course, it could be that this will turn to a deeper discussion about whose career is valued more, or what undue assumptions have been hidden within your marriage all along — an uncomfortable topic, for sure.