Will COVID-19 Affect the Family Dynamic Long-Term?

The Industrial Revolution changed the family dynamic by helping women break away from traditional gender roles and paved the way for women to enter the workforce. The overall result was that women became more independent and empowered. By 2020, 59.8 percent of married couples with children were both employed.

However, the transition has not been seamless. Due to specific factors throughout history, which I discuss below, many working mothers ended up working outside the home while still having to assume most of the domestic and child-rearing responsibilities inside the home. As a Seattle-based divorce and family lawyer, I hear from women all the time about how a lack of shared parenting and division of household labor, despite working high-pressured jobs just like their husbands, is weighing on them and their marriages.

The emergence of COVID-19 and remote work, introduced to keep the virus from spreading, sent both mothers and fathers back into the home. However, the development did little to level the playing field. Instead of men assuming a larger share now that they were home, women took on more.

Unable to balance the pressure of remote work while having entire families living under one roof, which for parents of younger children also included having to supervise distance learning, an unprecedented percentage of women left their jobs during 2020, four times as many women as men. Experts speculate the loss could set women back decades.

I believe many marriages could be saved by breaking old patterns. The recent pandemic has done much to underscore the imbalances that continue to plague twenty-first-century households. Though technological advances have enabled us to continue working amid a global health crisis, our thinking about gender roles on a societal level remains stagnated. It presents another far more pervasive problem than COVID-19 because it threatens to affect our young daughters and sons as they, too, become indoctrinated in the same gender stereotypes accepted by their parents as normal.

COVID-19 has been a tragedy of epic proportion, with more than four million deaths worldwide to date. Because of these losses, we can more clearly recognize the various ills infecting us as a people. Among those are inequities in the home. Indeed, the pandemic has alerted us to a problem. Now, it’s up to us what we’re going to do about it. But before we look forward, let’s take a moment to look back.      

It’s important to understand the history and how we got here.

During the 19th century, families were typically large. When women became mothers, they usually stayed at home to raise children, while fathers went out to work as skilled laborers, skills they expected to pass on to their children as soon as they would become old enough to learn them.

Because families were so large during these years, women often supplemented their husbands’ incomes by taking on tasks they could do at home, such as sewing. The pay was low and the hours long, much more so than if they worked outside the home. Households suffered as women outsourced certain responsibilities. One responsibility, in particular, was breastfeeding. As the role was handed over to wet nurses, common in France especially, infant mortality rose. 

Then came the Industrial Revolution. Technology made many skilled laborers obsolete. Men ended up unemployed, propelling women and children to find low-paying work in the factories. Many families fell into poverty. In a new twist, men became responsible for taking care of the household.

For some families, the shift gave rise to capitalism. To survive, some laborers kept their skills close to the vest, creating businesses run and managed by the entire family. Fathers supervised their children in their own factories, while mothers managed the businesses from home. Due to women’s added roles, and as money allowed, women outsourced as much of the household responsibilities as they could to servants, governesses, and wet nurses.

As men became more successful, it became incumbent on the women to create a haven for their families. It was also a status symbol and mark of men’s success for women to stay at home. This thinking returned women to traditional gender roles, further cementing their control over the household domain, which included decorating the house and child-rearing.

Once the feminist movement of the 1960s took hold, affording women greater rights in education, politics, under the law, and in the workplace, many husbands didn’t get the memo. Women went to work in what were traditionally male roles, only to come home and have to assume the same household duties they had when they didn’t work outside the home.

Last year, the emergence of COVID-19 forced men to return home yet again. However, more than a year after the pandemic began, it appears the move has done little to shift household and child-rearing responsibilities to men as it did during the Industrial Revolution. Instead, conditions for women have worsened, the effects of which are only beginning to be quantified.

The question remains how we as a society can balance these burdens and create long-lasting change before women suffer irreparable harm. Here are a few ideas.

Women need to stop doing it all.

When women come to me, whether on the verge of divorce, interested in laying out a plan via a prenup, or for a postnuptial agreement should their marriage not go the way they planned, I start by asking them one plain and simple question. And that is, are you communicating to your spouse (or future spouse) that you’re not happy with the number of household responsibilities you have currently?

Too often, I get a blank stare, followed by women telling me they either gave up asking or decided on their own to continue doing everything themselves. To which I reply: You’re part of the problem.

Eve Rodsky, author of the newly released “Fair Play,” writes about her own experience reconciling home and work life. Rodsky’s epiphany came after she created a list called “Sh*t I Do,” which included more than she ever realized. She then emailed the list to her husband with an enthusiastic note that read: CAN’T WAIT TO DISCUSS!” His response was less than enthusiastic, leading Rodsky to become more proactive.

That began with Rodsky not doing so much around the house and perpetuating a system she knew was unfair to her. She also created a framework that would facilitate equal participation around the house from everyone who lived there and put a stop to what the inequalities were costing her marriage, identity, career, wellness, and society at large. With regard to the latter, Rodsky cites a statistic where 43 percent of highly qualified women are pushed out of the workforce to take a “career detour” because of overburdening household and childcare responsibilities.

The solution? Rodsky advocates women change their mindset, then their spouses’. In other words, stop doing so much, let go of your control and need for everything to be perfect according to your standards, make your spouse accountable, and realize that asking for help doesn’t take away from all that you do but adds to it instead.

Rodsky proposes four rules to change the game at home: (1) All time is created equal (Your husband’s time should not be more valuable than yours), (2) Reclaim your right to be interesting (Stop giving up what you love), (3) Start where you are now (Figure out and own who you are today), and (4) Establish your values and standards (What are your standards, do they make sense, and what’s most important to you?)

If you don’t see a pattern in all of these changes yet, let me elucidate them for you: All of the adjustments you must make to create fair play in your home begin with you and your thinking. Only when you know who you are and what you want out of your marriage, parenting, and life can you inspire change. But changes don’t mean anything if they’re temporary.

What you should be looking for is lasting change, an evolution in how you live your life as a woman and mother in your own home, and your contribution to the community of women like you. The part you play in this shift matters. However, you’re not the only responsible part. 

Business owners should embrace remote work rather than forcing people back to the office.

Research supports the idea that women can benefit from a level playing field by demonstrating how men can benefit, too. Amy Henderson, founder of TendLab and author of “Tending: Parenting and the Future of Work,” argues that when two parents are involved in child-rearing, they both enjoy more workplace success. If that’s not an incentive for men to pitch in more at home, I’m unsure what is.

In particular, as men engage more fully in their households, they become more empathetic and altruistic and collaborate more effectively. Knowing this, along with the problems inherent in our current infrastructure where the U.S. lags behind even third-world countries in the amount of paid family leave offered from work, Henderson argues it’s incumbent on American lawmakers and C-suite executives to lead the charge. Henderson says that when men don’t take an active role in parenting at home, it places incredible stress on women as they struggle to balance their careers with home life. One of the most significant stresses falls on marriages.

With her findings, derived from research in neuroscience and behavioral psychology, Henderson created a consultancy that offers business training programs to support working parents. The programs are designed for parents and the companies that employ them to create an environment conducive to success both at work and home.

Normalizing men as caretakers the way we do women will serve us all. 

Popular culture can play a role in normalizing stereotypes as well as breaking them. The more we begin to show men contributing to the household in a tangible way, the more it won’t feel like a deviation. Movies, TV shows, and commercials can alter what we as a culture deem acceptable behavior.

The same goes for business, education, law, and healthcare. The more female CEOs we have, women who are in their roles because of the contributions made by their spouses at home, the more we need to celebrate these advances. These women also must be the ones to pay it forward. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, is one such woman.

In her groundbreaking book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” Sandberg explores how discrimination, family-unfriendly policies, and a lack of support at home hold women back in their careers and keep them from reaching their full potential. To help women fill more leadership positions at work, Sandberg urges women to “lean in” to their careers. She advises women to take more risks and be ambitious in their professional goals by demanding more help from their counterparts at home.

Leadership positions aren’t limited to only public companies either, like the one where Sandberg works. Leadership roles exist in education, healthcare, tech, entrepreneurship, and anywhere women can make a difference for society. Sandberg also expresses how critical it is for women in leadership positions to help fellow women on their career ascents.

Finally, as much as we as a society must portray men in childcare and household roles, we must speak favorably about them as we do. By eliminating words and terminology that denigrates men actively stepping up to support their female counterparts, we can further solidify these changes, making them permanent ones. Words do matter.     

Contact a Seattle divorce and family lawyer if you still don’t feel supported at home.

The hope is that with more education and communication between genders and society at a macro level, men who haven’t contributed enough will begin to do so more at a micro level. Still, no matter how much time and attention women give to changing their mindsets and then communicating those changes through words and action, men must be receptive to making those changes. Not every man will be.

One thing I’ve learned after practicing divorce and family law in Seattle is that the only behavior you can change is your own. If your partner isn’t willing to change, even amid COVID-19, you always have the option to change your situation. I did so myself and found a partner in my second husband, who’s willing to do his part to support our household and the labor necessary to run it, which includes co-parenting six children between us.

If you find yourself in a marriage that’s continuing to weigh you down physically, emotionally, and financially, you still have options. At Elise Buie Family Law Group, we can help with advice about how to exit your marriage successfully and without inciting unnecessary controversy, even when dealing with a high-conflict ex. We can also offer guidance about how to be an effective co-parent after divorce, even if you didn’t enjoy this shared parenting style during your marriage. Give our team of divorce and family lawyers a contact us today.

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