A total disruption in our usual routine has presented us with a golden opportunity. Assuming we are not in crisis, we’ve had the chance to re-evaluate the ways in which we show up in the world and ask ourselves: do our choices truly serve us?
Central to this question is how we balance work and home life now that they often occupy the same physical space and share the same hours. For those of us with kids at home, it’s been a unique challenge and for the first time, the effects are being studied. Data on the disparate impact of coronavirus on women, especially women of color is clear. While men are more likely to die of Covid, women are four times more likely to drop out of the labor force. Research has shown that primary caregiver status matters more than any other factor. The “second shift” is still a thing. Mothers are spending twenty more hours a week on housework and childcare right now than fathers. All our inequities have been magnified. Gender and race related biases mean that Black women are dealing with all of these challenges plus the emotional toll of the pandemic on the Black community. It. Is. All. So. Much.
To fix it, there are calls for policy makers to act so that systems change and corporations develop flexibility to allow women more time for child care and domestic work. Hmm. The unpaid work of caregivers has fallen more heavily on women due to both social norms and practicalities. Who makes less? Who is more flexible? In heterosexual relationships, the answer is typically the woman. Single parents are facing impossible choices right now. In our home, we have a writer and a lawyer. You can use your imagination to figure out who’s work has been prioritized.
With three kids suddenly home, the early days of distance learning brought me back to how I left the practice of law in the first place. Seventeen years ago, without any discussion, Mark and I assumed my schedule would be the one to absorb the disruption of starting a family. As a woman in this culture I can already hear the criticism for even framing the issue that way. So why start a family if you are so concerned about your precious schedule? That’s not the problem. It was that we’d both been conditioned to think that the male, who was also the higher wage earner, should not be expected to make room in his professional life for children and any time suck inherent therein.
As a mother-to-be, I felt the full weight of responsibility, quite literally, and crammed for the final exam. I gathered intel on “work/life balance” and read whatever I could find. At the time I didn’t notice that the messaging came from women and was directed only to women. My husband, as excited as he was, didn’t feel the need to study any of it. When I wasn’t preparing for trial, I researched attachment parenting, co-sleeping, health and nutrition and began handmaking 125 trifold birth announcements with die cut hearts and tiny white bows. My need to be the perfect mother is a whole other insane subject. I would get an A+ as a mother or die trying.
For as much as I had read, the actual impact of a new baby on my demanding career still seemed pretty fuzzy. I didn’t understand how I would take 100% responsibility for my job and 100% responsibility for our child when there were only twenty-four hours in a day. I had a deposition coming up in Germany that I had looked forward to for a while. Shortly before the trip, my midwife recommended I stop flying so I gave away the billable hours and the international travel to another lawyer. My colleague was more than happy to leave work, his three kids and stay-at-home wife for a depo that I had already fully prepped.
As the due date loomed, I picked the brains of other professional women. A lawyer mom in the real estate department at my firm had brought in a playpen after maternity leave so she could continue nursing instead of leaving her baby in daycare to pump milk in the bathroom at work. When I knocked on her office door to inquire, she happily confirmed that the playpen had worked great. By the time her baby nursed less and wanted to play, she was ready for childcare. She gestured to a photo on the credenza of two smiling girls in matching flowered dresses, both now in grade school. Their mom returned to doing closings full time like the old days.
Back upstairs to litigation I went, my enormous belly arriving at the office manager’s door first. I asked about the arrangement. She paused.
“Oh..that’s only for partners.”
Playpens are only for partners? Breastfeeding is only for partners? What did that mean?
All of a sudden, I felt like I had overstepped a boundary by asking for support as a new mother. My face flushed and I backed out of her office feeling for the doorknob behind me. I felt deep shame for being dismissed so casually about something so important. I had no fight in me for this and just needed to be taken care of by HUMAN RESOURCES. Wasn’t that what they were here for? It made me want to cry.
I took a couple of deep breaths in the empty hallway and collected myself. Back down the stairs to real estate I went.
“Hey, sorry to bug you again. I’m told the playpen deal is just for partners?”
A look of panic crossed her face which she quickly masked with keen interest in her computer screen.
“That’s too bad,” she said, avoiding eye contact, and reaching for a file. I stood there stunned. No advice, no “I’ll talk to the partners for you.” I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised. She was one of the few women partners at the firm and I didn’t work in her department. She would not waste precious political capital on a random litigator like me.
I went home and spoke to Mark. He suggested I interview full time help. With two lawyer salaries, we could easily outsource another parent for our daughter. Because I had been left with a replacement parent who had done a spectacularly poor job, the thought of it freaked me out, but I scheduled an interview anyway. I had worked like a dog to become an attorney, making plans for my child shouldn’t be this hard. Mark did not come to the interview and I didn’t ask him to. The unspoken deal seemed to be that I would co-parent with the nanny. A privileged position to be sure, but not at all what I wanted.
When I answered the door for Stephanie, she seemed perfect. A tidy appearance, easy smile and lots of experience. She said all the right things.
“As a newborn, she won’t be awake much. What will you do with her all day?” I asked.
“I would basically just be her mom.”
I was the mom. There was no way I could leave my new baby with this person.
Because of my own parents’ issues around who earned the money, I told Mark that I would stay home with our child only if he continued to treat me as an equal partner. We were lucky to have enough for a comfortable life on one income. And I am a notorious penny pincher so Mark wasn’t worried that quitting my job would lead to retail therapy.
Pulling out of the paid work force however, has negatively impacted gender equality in our family. When women like me leave, the gendered impacts continue because we take on all the responsibility at home. Gone was any expectation for Mark to attend conferences to get to know teachers, meet the kids’ friends, coaches, doctors, fellow parents, etc. Well-meaning and committed a Dad as he was, he showed up at the end of the day, ready to be served dinner. Don’t get me wrong, he has always done plenty around the house, coached football, attended their games and performances and has been an awesome parent by any measure. We switched off breakfast prep and I shopped for and planned every meal. I knew the kids’ every respiration to the point where if I had to leave for even a day, I left a ten page treatise because he had no idea what anyone did, where they went or what time they needed to be picked up. I carried 100% of the emotional labor of our family. He paid for everything and advanced in his legal career undeterred. This was the deal we had made.
As time went on, the optics of this bothered me and I resented making all the decisions about our kids on my own; medical, educational, sports, social, you name it. Mark trusted my decisions because I did my homework, but I needed a partner for this. When I heard attitudes in my own children that my time was theirs for the taking and daddy’s was precious and billable, it concerned me. My daughter complained about being the only one to stick around to clean up after dinner when the boys ran off. After all I had sacrificed, I felt like an irresponsible parent. They had never seen me kick anyone’s ass in court and it was their loss. But we were so entrenched. What to do?
Enter the pandemic. All patterns everywhere were broken on March 13, 2020. We were lucky enough to be home and healthy and now we had the opportunity to reevaluate. I dropped commitments left and right. Leadership roles that no longer served me and maybe never had. I set the goal to hunker down and finish writing the book I had shoe-horned in to the mountain of other kid and community obligations.
Then my weekly writing schedule morphed into an unending distance learning groundhog day where I attempted to set up a routine in hopes that it would become self-directed. Things did not look good for finishing my manuscript.
All signs pointed to renegotiation of our division of labor at home. Mark and I both had work we felt passionate about. Only one person’s work kept the lights on, however. And Mark had just opened a new law firm a month before the pandemic hit, i.e. start up crunch time. Holy hell.
But the idea that my work could be sacrificed because we don’t count on it to eat is the circular reasoning that keeps women from ever having the chance to be the top earners. Our time is not the priority so we take on all unpaid domestic labor and have less and less time for our own work.
Lucky gal that I am, Mark agrees that my work is also important.** Of course we’ve had some loud disagreements about who’s turn it is to be interrupted for the umpteenth time. Trying to bill hours while chasing a kid down the hall to get him to log on is not ideal. We came up with a routine so we could both have uninterrupted days. And Mark brilliantly observed that we now live a twenty-four hour day so business hours can be any of those twenty-four. We made a dinner schedule that divided the week thusly: I made dinner twice, he made dinner twice, we ordered out twice and prepared dinner together on Sunday. Just recently we divvied up grocery shopping so each of us only does it twice a month. Once in-person school became an option for one of the three kids, Mark made breakfast and I did the driving. (We didn’t even negotiate that one, we just did it–how about that?) Lunch prep for the older kids ended and my short order restaurant closed for business until the dinner hour.
To understand the need for this shift, Mark has done some reading of his own, starting with bell hooks’ The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity and Love. He has become aware of the ways in which the patriarchy*** has harmed men as well, conditioning them to shoulder burdens alone, ignoring their own emotional needs. He understands the need to become an instrument for our collective liberation. We grew and changed and it was good.
But the best part about our renegotiation is the impression on our daughter. One day as she watched me grumble while cleaning up yet another mess after Cocoa pooped in the house, she said she didn’t want to get married or have children because getting stuck doing the grunt work sucked. I don’t blame her. Observing the changes in her dad, her recent birthday card to him said it all, I am so proud of the growth you have accomplished recently. You’re setting a great example for the boys that it’s never too late to change your ways and assist in taking care of the kids.
Even though Jane never got to see me argue a big motion in court or win an epic trial, this is satisfying in its own way too.
Out in the world, the debate about how to solve the disparate impact of a crisis on women in the workplace rages on. Demands have been made on policy makers and corporations to solve the problem. To my mind, we don’t have the political will for that yet. Policies won’t change until men demand flexible work because they are willing to adjust their hours when family circumstances change. No one willingly gives up a position of privilege. It takes a revolution. What are we waiting for?
Remember, the young ones are watching. It’s time to foster gender equality in our homes so it can become the norm in our culture. Time to renegotiate. I promise, it’s going to be okay.
Writing Prompt: How are you fostering gender equality in your home?
*This title isn’t quite right but Mark thought of it. Because he so generously allowed me to put him on blast for this piece, I threw him a bone.
**It’s absurd that I should have to get buy-in that my work is important, but this is where we are.
***This is actually shorthand for the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Mark goes around saying it all the time now. It’s pretty sexy.
Copyright © *2020, Elizabeth Heise, LLC., All rights reserved.
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