In the United States, we’ve been doing this for four months. Four months of uncertainty about, well, everything. About what work will look like, childcare will look like, leadership will look like. About what the disease does to people and how long it does it to them. About when we’ll see various family members ever again. About the relative safety of a socially distanced backyard hangout, the grocery store, school. About whether you can trust what your local, state, or national health department is telling you. Just day after day of uncertainty — and, at least in this moment, the feeling that it will go on like this for some time.
That’s the glimmer of certainty: that nothing’s going to change, or at least go back to pre-pandemic norms, for months. I’ve told myself another year, with the understanding that could be wrong too.
Which means it’s time to take stock. Four months means that there are behaviors that you’ve adopted that have begun to calcify into new, long-term habits. Some of these habits probably feel good or liberating in some way: I love not doing my hair or makeup, I truly do. I’m not opposed to the way in which my partner and I just never really adopted Daylight Savings Time, and currently eat at 9 pm — when, at least in Montana, we still have another solid hour of daylight. I’m enjoying making new recipes every week, becoming more adept at new cooking techniques, getting better at preserving and not wasting food. (I very much realize the privilege of my position to be able to enjoy these things, including the fact that I work in a job where none of my coworkers will judge or devalue me based on a less traditionally “professional” appearance).
But some behaviors feel like short-term coping mechanisms that just keep extending themselves. Drinking habits, eating habits, exercise habits, spending habits, working habits, relationship habits, sleeping habits, phone habits, care-giving habits. I don’t think anyone should be hard on themselves about any of these habits adopted in the name of survival during societal and personal crisis. I also don’t think a pandemic is a time for, like, feeling pressure to “work on yourself” — unless that feels right. (Basically, I think whatever anyone is doing to get through that isn’t hurting others is pretty okay, even if it’s not what you, personally, are doing, and that’s a posture we should try and adopt as much as possible).
With that said: there are probably some behaviors or patterns that you’ve fallen into that make you feel shitty and/or actively make your situation harder. You don’t like them but inertia is a bitch and you’re too exhausted to deal with them. Bt now’s the time to see those things clearly — and figure out if it’s possible to change them before they just become the established backdrop of your life.
Take this new study on the division of parenting labor between heterosexual couples during the pandemic, summarized here by Jessica Grose in the New York Times:
A pre-print of a study soon to be published in the academic journal Gender, Work & Organization showed that in heterosexual couples where both the mother and father were continuously employed and have children under 13, mothers “have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers.” This has exacerbated the gender gap in work hours by 20 to 50 percent, the study found.
And another study, looking at parenting labor trends later in the pandemic:
A Syracuse University research brief examined data from the Census Household Pulse survey, conducted in late April and early May, and found that over 80 percent of U.S. adults who weren’t working because they had to care for their children who were not in school or day care were women.
Dr. Scarborough said that their study did not examine why women whose work circumstances were the same as their husbands were doing more of the child care. However, he said that his co-author, Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University, speculated that part of the issue may be that “when a child needs help, they go to mommy first,” and over days and weeks, that has a cumulative, undermining effect.
In the short term, figures like this can be explained away. Managers and co-workers can be understanding. In the longer term, it can translate into significant backslides on gains that have taken *decades* for working mothers to achieve in the workplace. When it comes time to promote from within, what kind of worker will management look for? The one who’s been working significantly fewer hours, or the one who’s been working at the same number of hours as before? I’m not saying this is okay or excusable. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
For my forthcoming book on millennial burnout — which includes a substantial chapter on parenting burnout — I’ve read a ton of books on the persistent gender gap in domestic labor, even in homes where both parents think of themselves as feminists. (My favorite, which I will never shut up about, is Darcy Lockman’s All the Rage). But I am not a parent. I am, however, a person who hears and sympathizes with so many of the struggles of managing to work and parent right now, and as Chloe Cooney put it all the way back in April, “the parents are not okay.” Not the parents who are essential workers. Not the parents who are taking care of infants, or toddlers, or elementary school age kids who desperately miss their friends, or even teens. Not the parents who are trying to figure out what to do about school. Not the parents who are trying to figure out if it’s okay to use their own parents as caregivers. None of the parents are okay.
But how do you prevent this not-okayness from turning into a division of labor that will have ramifications — in your workplace, but also in your partnership — for years to come? I wish I had the solution! I know that SO MUCH of it has to do with who’s taken on the role of ‘primary parent’ and how difficult that scenario is to break! Preschoolers don’t change their inclinations because you explain feminism to them!
So what can you do? The starting point is identifying what’s going on and articulating it clearly — to yourself and to others. Recognizing the ways in which division of labor is actually playing out in your home, whether you have kids or not, whether you’re heterosexual or not, does not make you a bad feminist. It makes you a person who recognizes an inequality and wants to work to try and fix it. Maybe you’re the one who’s doing less of the labor and have been kind of sheepish about it. Maybe you’ve convinced yourself that you’re doing equal labor. (See, for example: Nearly Half of Men Say They Do Most of the Home Schooling. 3 Percent of Women Agree)
Maybe things feel kinda okay but maybe you’ve just convinced yourself they’re that way. No matter where you are, parent or not, it’s worth having a conversation about how the division of labor feels — and how it could potentially shift, even in small ways, that could make the next year even slightly more survivable.
The same goes for your work habits, just generally. For all the hand-wringing about decreased productivity while working from home, the vast majority of people I know are putting in more hours, allowing the boundary between work and home to slip away in ways that produce/exacerbate burnout. This certainly happened to me when I started working from home three years ago, but it’s just not sustainable. I have a whole lot more to write about this (more on that soon, I promise) but it’s not just that your quality of life goes down. The quality of your work is probably also going down, but it’s masked by how many additional hours you’re putting in.
Were there practices you put in place pre-pandemic to try and feel less ruled by your phone and all the work that pulses from it? I had stopped looking at my phone before bed. When cases started rising, I couldn’t put it down. Now, cases are still rising, and I’m still paying attention all day, every day. But paying attention right before bed feels less and less helpful. Again: I’m trying not to conceive of changing this behavior as an opportunity for self-improvement. It’s an opportunity for self-preservation — arming myself, for lack of a better word, for the long haul.
We wear masks to protect ourselves and others. We wear them to say I care about other people and society. We wear them because we want to get through this, despite every massive, unforgivable bungle and fuck-up on the part of our leadership. So what things, large and small, can you do for yourself and others to get through this? How can you continue to be gentle with yourself, your partner, your circle — while also addressing behaviors that feel bearable now, but might slowly tear you apart?
Everything sucks. But it’s time to take stock — and figure out how to make it suck slightly less.
For yourself, but also for others: please, please, if you’re able, donate to your local food bank and domestic violence shelters. They’re incredibly easy to find by Googling. Donate to local news sources that are attempting to keep authority accountable. Keep yelling about protections against eviction. (If your landlord or someone else’s is threatening eviction, here’s what you can do). Keep yelling about the need for extended relief when the CARES Act expires. And keep acting and voting and living like people’s lives matter more than capitalism.
Things I Read and Loved These Past Weeks:
Why Hand Sanitizers Suddenly Smell Like a Frat Basement Put On Some Coppertone
Samin Nostrat on the deep joys of vegetable gardening
The latest Eli Saslow is very familiar and yet still makes me very, very angry
A small bit of Old Man delight
Just trust me (you might have to make an account to read this; it’s worth it)
Bonus: My favorite new recipe of the last few weeks (read the Notes; slightly reduce coconut milk, add lime at the end, and use molasses if at all possible)
If you know someone who’d like this sort of mishmash in their inbox, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences; the freedom of imperfection allows me to get this out for free and like so many of us, I’m doing the very best I can.