Can This Time at Home Help Your Marriage?
Use research evidence to negotiate a more fair marriage while home together.
Posted April 21, 2020
No doubt you’ve seen the headlines about women’s burden increasing as everyone stays home. This pandemic, with mandated isolation at home with our families, forces us to pay attention to our loved ones and our family dynamics. Those sheltering in place with spouses and children are spending more time together than anyone ever hoped or dreaded. Many of those lucky enough to be able to work from home are doing so while trying to homeschool as well.
I think I will scream if I see one more magazine article about couples where the father shuts his study door after breakfast and protects his work time during the day while the mother tries to homeschool her children while also working full-time for pay, online. Are all the men out there really still Neanderthals? Is the coronavirus really a disaster for feminism?
We do not yet know if both parents, in two-parent families, are being pressed into simultaneously working for pay and doing the child care that has suddenly morphed into teaching. Or whether only mothers are handling this double shift on steroids.
What can we guess from past research? We know that the many mothers in heterosexual families do more child care and housework than their husbands before this crisis began. And we know this extra work matters. Research shows that motherhood still hampers women’s careers while fatherhood increases men’s earnings. Forthcoming research in Gender & Society shows there is not only a gender pay gap but a benefit gap too. Currently, it feels as if the world is going to hell in a handbasket and taking feminism with it. Can we hope for anything different in the middle of a crisis?
I think so. Let’s start by getting our facts straight. Only then can we use research evidence to help shape our decisions about family life. In heterosexual partnerships, men, overall, do less housework and child care than women do, even when both work full-time for pay outside the home. But, over time, each generation of men, internationally, does more than their fathers. While we should not forget that men often do less than their wives, we also should remember that most men do more than their fathers. Change is possible. Change is happening.
A wide-angle lens only looking at sex differences obscures as much as it illuminates. Statistics that only compare men vs. women hide the diversity within each group. Here is some really big news that gets lost.
First, as my colleague and I have shown, nearly everyone in American society believes that women and men should have equal rights at work, and most believe that men and women should share the work at home equally as well. But even more startling is that nearly half of American parents, both women and men, report that they equally share the work of earning a living and running their homes. Now, surely some are reporting egalitarian marriages because they are mixing wishful thinking with everyday reality. But still, surely many people report accurately.
Very few men in previous generations shared the work at home. I’m old enough to know this from experience. In the 1970s, my then husband’s boss told me we shouldn’t have children because I wasn’t the kind of wife a lawyer needed if he was to be a father. Can you imagine a boss telling his male employee’s wife that now? So let’s not underestimate the cultural changes that have occurred.
If some couples are really walking the walk, as well as talking the talk, what does that mean for the rest of us? Good news for the single heterosexual woman. No woman has to settle for a man who doesn’t share her commitment to equality; feminist men are out there. I know because I talked to some of them for my last book, Where the Millennials Will Take Us. We also know from international research that feminist ideas matter: Those couples that endorse feminism are most likely to share the housework and child care.
If you are a woman now facing working from home, or perhaps an essential worker on the front lines every day, and married to a man who hasn’t noticed how much effort it takes to run your household, now is the time to show him. If you are a man married to an essential worker who comes home after her day at the hospital to a dirty house where you've been working all day, how fair is that? If you are a woman married to a man who claims to believe you are in an equal partnership and then doesn’t clean the bathroom or supervise the online classes, here is your chance to change that. Try this.
Families are all home together for more time than anyone could have ever imagined. Kids who are old enough need to step up and help around the house, as well as sit in front of their screens for both school and pleasure. So it’s the perfect time to have a frank conversation, a family conference, about housework, care work, and equality. Who should be doing what and why?
Research shows that women who work at jobs that require negotiation tend to have more egalitarian marriages. They bring those skills home to challenge the often hidden and taken-for-granted male privilege in families. Of course, negotiation takes time and energy. At the moment, many of us have the time, and in the long run, this will save energy.
In this moment, every family has two options. You can do whatever you have always done, and for many heterosexual families that means letting the workload fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. But with women so clearly being "essential workers" in this crisis, perhaps afterward, they will be mad at the gender inequality at home, and maybe eventually get even, leading to more divorces in the coming year.
There is another path. We are a species that can adapt and change. Just because something has been so in the past, does not mean it has to be so in the future. You can be one of those families based on respect and equality, where men don’t expect wives to manage the family affairs as well as do more of the child care, cooking, and cleaning.
How do we get from here to there? Each member of the couple should sit down and make a list of what needs doing and who should do it. Then come back together — and if you have kids, include them — so that each of you has to make sensible, logical arguments and sound like an adult.
How many meals have to be cooked each day, dishes washed or stacked into the dishwasher? Don't forget about clothes that need to be cleaned and toilets washed. Comparing those lists can be enlightening. Just don’t have the woman of the house make the list or you have just undermined the process. If that's what happened, rip up that list and start over. Much of the work is in management of the household and research shows that often gets ignored.
Compare lists and then begin to negotiate. Volunteer for tasks so that they are shared fairly. Don’t leave one parent (read: mother) to be the enforcer, or you are back right where you started, presuming the family work is a mother’s job. Assign a different person each week to be “the enforcer,” to make sure everyone is doing their fair share.
This pandemic is turning life upside down. We all feel somewhat out of control. One important lesson I've learned from Kerry Ann Rockquemore, who facilitates a group of people in the Joy Collective, is that it is very important to take control of what you can, to empower yourself by making goals and meeting them, especially in a moment in history when so much is externally constrained. So take charge of what you can indeed control.
We can’t control the virus or the need to stay at home, but we can use the unexpected time together to make home a better place, and our marriages more equitable partnerships. Why not give it a try? When will there ever be a better time, and more time, to make your marriage and family stronger and more fair?