The pandemic has altered family life as we know it, ripping apart routines, producing exhausting workloads, and in households like mine reshaping gender roles and responsibilities in new and empowering ways.
Throughout our twelve years of marriage, my wife Ann has shouldered way more “invisible” labor than me. She has owned full responsibility for countless domestic duties including meals, laundry, holiday presents, appointments for our three young kids, and staying in touch with relatives. As best selling Fair Play author Eve Rodsky would put it, Ann has taken the lead on CPE: conception, planning and execution.
Six years ago the imbalance in our homelife got so unfair that it put us on a collision course with divorce. Terrified of my marriage ending, I agreed to entering couples therapy. There I realized that I lacked confidence around the house because I felt scared of doing things “the wrong way,” which resulted in me being passive.
Ann and I shifted how we communicated and collaborated, which led to me more confidently handling household tasks. I wasn’t yet conceiving and planning. She still did that. But now I was actively supporting Ann by executing her plans, which was progress.
Thankfully, we got through that rough patch. But when the pandemic broke out, it upended our lives and tossed our stable marriage back onto shaky ground. It was time for us to shift our gender roles even more.
As with many families around the world, major parts of our routine disappeared overnight: school, office, gym. Non-negotiable standards were now up for debate. Should the kids get dressed, or can they wear pajamas all day? Brand new challenges surfaced: homeschooling, working remotely, and finding activities to keep the kids busy.
As we began to shelter in place, neither Ann nor I had a clue how to run our household “the right way” in a pandemic. Ann couldn’t conceive and plan everything on her own because we were in uncharted territory with too many new changes and problems. Both of us needed to figure this out together, which meant I had to get out of my comfort zone and lead, not wait to be told what to do.
At the start of the first week in quarantine, Ann dove into transitioning her in-person business completely online. In the second week, she got sick. We still aren’t sure if it was COVID-19 or not. Either way it scared us and knocked her out of commission for days.
But there was a silver lining to Ann getting sick; it thrust me into the primary caregiver role and forced us to radically shift our established gender roles and responsibilities. Me handling execution would no longer be enough. It was time for me to take on significant ownership.
Ann recalls, “I was exhausted and had no choice but to stop and rest. It was a huge relief for Steve to assure me he could take care of everything. I honestly didn’t know if he could do as thorough of a job as he did. It was a sink or swim moment, and he swam.”
Leading the conception, planning and execution of multiple domestic tasks is new to me, so I’m still learning on the job. Here’s where I’ve started:
Finding Fun Kids Activities
Enjoying fun family adventures is one of my passions, it’s the focus of my professional life with my startup Dadventures, and it’s an area where I was already responsible for the full CPE pre-pandemic. But now that we can’t go out, my responsibility has transitioned into organizing new sorts of kid activities: bike rides in empty parking lots, filming silly videos, and learning old school dance moves.
Steering Toddler Naptime
Before the pandemic, our 3-year-old son napped at preschool while we were at work. With Ann video conferencing with clients most afternoons, getting him down to nap is now my full responsibility. The hardest part for me is how painful and demoralizing it is for him to reject me every day, saying things like “I don’t want you! I want Mommy!” I try not to take it personally, but it’s hard when the attacks are so personal.
Facilitating Remote Learning
Instead of merely showing up places on time (parent-teacher conferences, ceremonies, traffic duty volunteering), these days I’m making sure my kids successfully learn at home. This has entailed setting up their workstations, ensuring they can access online assignments, and staying on top of their fluctuating schedules. As the weeks pass, I have to work harder on keeping them motivated.
Promoting Partner Self-Care
With the quarantine eliminating exercise classes, friends’ dinners, and moms’ nights out, it’s been difficult for Ann to enjoy downtime away from the kids. So now every Friday night, I take over getting the kids fed, bathed, and in bed. Ann’s been appreciative saying, “Taking Friday nights off from caregiving has been a godsend in terms of me managing my own emotions. It’s when I get to be a person, not just a mom.”
Romance has traditionally been low on my priority list, but Ann and I hardly get the chance to connect on a personal level with our busier routines. So now I plan and organize weekly at home date nights with elaborate dinners, charming dining under the stars, and fun movies. These dates have been relaxing and surprisingly memorable, providing us with a wonderful dose of normalcy.
Parent Community Building
Ann has moms text groups that regularly share helpful info, but interested dads like me are never part of those conversations. However, when Ann got messages from school moms struggling with login issues, I jumped in to help. Despite announcing “This is Steve on Ann’s phone” before sharing tips, moms wrote me back “Thanks, Ann!” Craving the same connection moms have, I recently started a school dads’ text thread. We’re still figuring out what to talk about, but I’m hopeful this group will make it easier for dads to help one another.
Despite being in such desperate times, Ann appreciates all of the positives we’re encountering saying, “We have been talking about an equitable division of labor for years, but we were always too tired to change. It took a pandemic for us to finally create the jointly-responsible approach we craved for our marriage.”
The gender shift I’m experiencing is not just about doing more cooking, cleaning, and caring. Those are all part of it, but the real change happening is me finally embracing ownership and responsibility across multiple areas. It’s about transitioning from waiting for my wife to tell me what to do to taking initiative on my own. As Eve Rodsky would say, I’m playing fair.
Carrying more of the mental load is making my life feel fuller; sure I have more to think about and do, but I can see my work paying off in our kids acting cheerful, playful, and positive many weeks into the wearisome quarantine. I can also see it in Ann’s relaxed demeanor during our lovely dates. And I can feel it in myself as my confidence continues to grow.
My wife and I both believe playing fair will carry us through these troubling times and ultimately make our family much stronger for years to come.