More Men Helped With Housework During The Early Days Of COVID-19. What Went Wrong?

Men stepped up during the first wave, and then backslid. Here's how to reengage them, according to couples therapists.

Article after article tells us that moms across America are utterly exhausted. Some have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, others are trying to balance work and supervising kids doing remote learning. Most are doing it with little to no support.

But men were chipping in when it came to housework and child care tasks ― at least in the first wave of the lockdown, according to a new study.

“Our findings based on data from very early in the pandemic show that if fathers are in the home more and work allows them to be flexible, they are more likely to be able to step up to the kinds of demands that families have,” said Melissa Milkie, the lead author of the study and a sociology professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Milkie and her team conducted the study last May in the midst of the first wave of coronavirus-related lockdowns. Their research took into account the responses of 1,234 male-female couples across Canada with at least one child. (It’s worth noting that Canada offers far more parental support to its citizens.)

Both men and women reported that dads were stepping up. The biggest gains appeared in organizing and planning children’s activities: Before the outbreak, 46% of respondents said this was an equally shared task or that fathers did more than mothers. Afterward, 57% said this was the case.

Respondents reported smaller increases in fathers monitoring kids at school, reading, talking and listening to them, and physical care.

But somewhere along the line, things changed. As your exhausted working mom friends have probably told you, far too many men seem to have stepped back and let their wives again take on the lion’s share of the parenting and household responsibilities.

According to a McKinsey poll conducted with LeanIn.Org, since the pandemic began, mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to shoulder the majority of household and parenting labor. And they’re 1.5 times more likely than dads to spend an extra three or more hours on chores and child care. Single mothers, of course, have it even harder.

As the McKinsey report notes, working women have always endured a “second shift” at home: The expectation is that they go to work, then take up the housework and child care in the evenings.

“Now the supports that made this possible ― including school and child care ― have been upended by the pandemic,” the researchers write.

More men helped around the house early on in lockdown. What happened?

What made fathers show up in such a big way during the first lockdown, then step back?

“In the first wave of the lockdown, fathers stepped up some ― showing they will get involved when conditions are just right,” Milkie told HuffPost.

“But other structures and inequalities made this not sustainable in terms of more sharing,” she explained. “Structurally, mothers were more often in precarious, low-paid jobs, and very powerful cultural forces pressure mothers to ‘choose’ to reduce their work when stressors are overloading a family.”

“I know fatigue has set in for almost everyone regarding COVID, but for many guys, there’s a regular pattern that has nothing to do with COVID.”

- Kurt Smith, therapist in Roseville, California

More than 2 million women have left the workforce from the winter of 2019 through this fall, either due to decreased hours at work or to facilitate remote learning at home with their kids.

That’s an incredibly worrisome trend. According to a report by the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress, “even a 5 percent decline” in mothers’ economic participation “would undo the past 25 years of progress.”

Milkie admits her optimism about a more balanced domestic division of labor is tempered by these recent trends.

“I do think that in cases where mothers reduced their paid work or are no longer employed, parents have likely gone back to specialized, more traditional gender roles,” she said. “And of course, for single moms, and those with fewer economic resources, the pandemic has hit especially hard ― they are doing an incredible amount of work to manage raising kids in a pandemic.”

As Milkie sees it, after the first wave of the lockdown, government policies, workplaces and structures all failed working mothers.

“They failed in a lack of direct relief to families during the pandemic, including a focus on keeping schools and child care safely open,” she said. “They failed in the lack of existing infrastructure of quality, year-round care for children. Failed in a lack of paid parental leave for all workers. Failed through the structure of a labor market that disadvantages women, especially those with the fewest resources. And failed in workplaces that promote overwork and inflexibility.”

Couples therapists say they see dads stepping back.

Marriage therapists say they’ve heard plenty of stories about dads who’ve slowly backed away from household chores and Zoom class supervision duties ― even the ones who were on top of it all at the beginning of the pandemic.

“One client is staying home one day a week so his wife can go to her workplace, but he continues to make excuses that he’s just not good with kids and often creates more headaches for her when she gets home, so she says the benefit is a wash,” said Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California, who primarily works with men.

Many dads fall back into old gender expectations, one therapist said, like taking care of the outside of the house while expecting their partner to handle the inside.
Many dads fall back into old gender expectations, one therapist said, like taking care of the outside of the house while expecting their partner to handle the inside.

It’s almost universally acknowledged that even in 2021, tired gender expectations about housework die hard. A Gallup study from last year, before the pandemic hit, showed that even among egalitarian-minded millennial couples, it’s gender ― rather than, say, the earning power of individuals ― that shapes the division of household labor.

Many new dads fall back into their fathers’ and grandfathers’ ideas about the division of labor, Smith said, like taking care of the outside of the house while expecting their partner to handle the inside.

But in the midst of a global pandemic, men’s partners need considerably more from them.

“I know fatigue has set in for almost everyone regarding COVID, but for many guys, there’s a regular pattern that has nothing to do with COVID,” Smith said. “It’s a pattern of stepping up for a period, falling back into old habits, then stepping up again when the relationship gets too uncomfortable.”

Smith said the pre-pandemic complaints he heard about lack of consistency or reliability haven’t waned as the coronavirus continues.

Sarah Spencer Northey, a marriage therapist in Washington, D.C., said that initially, many of her millennial parent clients did say that dads were stepping up in a big way. The wives were thrilled about it.

“Most of my clients, who are around my age, place a strong value on achieving gender equality, so if there is a clear way to achieve that, such as a shake-up like working from home more, they jump on it,” she said.

But Northey said the majority of the couples eventually ran into a big hurdle: In spite of valuing gender equality in all areas of their lives, most struggled to make it happen at home since so few people have received any sort of training or modeling on how to do so.

“Most people would understand why someone might freak out over cheating or a pattern of hurtful detachment. We need to lean in to calling out toxic patterns of unequal labor as well.”

- Sarah Spencer Northey, marriage therapist in Washington, D.C.

Without seeing it modeled by your own parents, achieving gender parity in housework and emotional labor is pretty much a pipe dream. (Even with that model, though, it’s easy to slide into old gender roles; culturally, we put a premium on men’s work while undervaluing women’s. Plus, paid leave and child care options in the U.S. are abysmal.)

“It’s like our parents’ generation gave us this nice idea [on household labor], but we didn’t get sufficient guidance to put it into action,” Northey said. “It’s kind of like placing a strong value on being able to play an instrument, but then having very limited instruction on how to actually play it and being sent to perform on a concert stage.”

Hence the backsliding and bumbling we’re seeing now, Northey said.

“My hope for the next generation is that they will get to have both: the value and the training, with much better attempts at modeling equality around the house,” the therapist said.

“We need to support demanding equality around the house in the same way we would support demanding anything else super important to a relationship such as trust or affection,” one therapist said.
“We need to support demanding equality around the house in the same way we would support demanding anything else super important to a relationship such as trust or affection,” one therapist said.

Here’s how to ask your partner to once again step up.

Reverting to old patterns is a natural and expected part of making a deeper change, but it’s certainly not helpful in times like these.

Elisabeth LaMotte, therapist and founder of the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center, told HuffPost the best way to reengage a slacking partner is to simply remind them of how helpful they were early on in the pandemic ― during the chaotic but we’re-all-in-this-together stage of this mess.

If you’re unsure of what to say, LaMotte said to script it out like this:

“Do you remember back in the spring when all of this felt so scary and new? I realize that I felt like more of a team back then and the steps that you took around the house made a big difference. I’d like to try to get back to that place together. Do you think that we could work on that? For example, if you could take over the meal planning, clean up after dinner each night and take care of the laundry, it would go a long way to helping me feel like we’re in this together.”

However you broach it, don’t feel guilty or assume you’re overreacting by asking your co-parent to actually parent.

“We need to support demanding equality around the house in the same way we would support demanding anything else super important to a relationship such as trust or affection,” Northey said.

To put it bluntly, the marriage therapist said it’s probably time we make gender inequality a dealbreaker in relationships.

“The inequality needs to be seen as more than just a problem for a partner to endure patiently and compassionately alone,” she said. “I’m not trying to break up homes with this suggestion, just break the cycle.”

If anything, Northey thinks it will benefit a marriage to talk about this kind of stuff in a direct, unequivocal manner.

“I actually have faith that partners will step it up once we take this problem more seriously,” she said. “We can stop enabling the inequality by taking more seriously how pernicious it can become. Most people would understand why someone might freak out over cheating or a pattern of hurtful detachment. We need to lean in to calling out toxic patterns of unequal labor as well.”

Don't feel guilty or figure you're overreacting by asking your co-parent to actually parent, one marriage therapist said.
Don't feel guilty or figure you're overreacting by asking your co-parent to actually parent, one marriage therapist said.

Workplaces need to step up, too, and understand the burdens for working dads and moms.

Of course, a transparent, no-holds-barred conversation with your partner isn’t a solve-all here (though it will certainly help). For working parents to have a genuinely healthy work-life balance, employers need to be a little more conscious of what their employees are going through.

Just like working dads, bosses and managers need to let go of their traditionalist gender expectations about who goes to work and who stays home, Northey said. Not every employed dad has a wife at home who can supply free labor.

But men also have an obligation to speak up to their employers about their need for a better work-life balance ― just as working mothers have done since time immemorial.

“Historically, many women didn’t have a choice but to tell their employers they had schedule or time limitations due to family obligations,” Northey said. “This puts them in vulnerable positions [because they were] being perceived as less dedicated to their careers, but also made them more comfortable and better trained in speaking up about it.”

If working parents are going to get through this pandemic with their sanity intact, it’s going to take effort from both employers and working dads.

“The reality is, men need to start being more vocal, and more employers need to be proactive in making their scheduling leave policies truly equal,” Northey said.

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