How The Pandemic Has Exacerbated The Gender Divide In Household Labor

“When he helps, it’s almost like the opposite of help.”

Anthony and Jenny Naglieri still get their 2 1/2-year-old daughter ready every morning. But instead of the pre-pandemic routine of taking her to daycare, Jenny now brings her to her mother's house. That’s where Jenny, 33, an occupational therapist, has set up shop to do teletherapy during the pandemic, while her mother watches her daughter.

Meanwhile, Anthony, 35, who transitioned from a job that required a daily three-hour commute to a new, exciting position at a startup, puts his head down in work at home. The new role demands a lot of long hours and focus, he said, but he loves it.

The Naglieris, who live in Maryland, are still trying to find a rhythm that works when it comes to housework. And they’re trying to get there quickly, because the couple are expecting their second baby in January. “Negotiating [housework] is one of the major things that has annoyed us about the pandemic,” Anthony said.

Jenny agrees with this assessment. “Sometimes I think Anthony doesn’t realize that when I’m at my mom’s house, and she’s watching our daughter, I’m still working all day. Because I go to my mom’s to work, and then I come home and find I still need to prepare dinner, or throw in laundry, or put away things, even though he’s the one at home. I am trying to be understanding because he’s putting in the hours for the new job, but it can be frustrating,” she told me.

The Naglieris are not alone in navigating these frustrations. A study published in the Gender, Work & Organization Journal found that among heterosexual couples where the mother and the father did not stop working, the pandemic disproportionately affected mothers.

The study found that because of increasing housework and childcare, mothers have reduced their working hours “four to five times more than fathers,” and concluded that the pandemic has made the gender gap in work hours 20% to 50% worse. That division was manifested in arenas like virtual education, where almost half of the men said they do most of the educating — but only 3% of women agreed with that statement.

These trends are not limited to America, either. A similar study in England found working mothers are doing the bulk of childcare and housework. France is facing similar problems — a labor activist there told the Atlantic in May that her biggest worry is “a violent return of women to the home.” Globally, a United Nations study found the pandemic is a significant threat to gender equality in the workforce.

Jenny described their differing approaches to housework like this: “I feel like if I’m home, I would still make it a priority in between the work I’m doing to put away dishes, or tidy up, or quickly throw in a load of laundry. It would be in my line of vision, and I wouldn’t be able to let it go. Whereas it doesn’t often occur to Anthony.”

Anthony said he’s working on how much focus the new job takes. “I don’t feel great that I’m not as present with my wife. It’s not that I’m not present at all, it’s just that the stakes are a little bit higher in my job now. So I’m home all the time, but laser-focused on work,” he said.

At least the absence of a long commute means he can help get their daughter dressed and ready in the morning. “I would say she’s generally pretty easy,” Anthony said. I mentioned this to Jenny later, and she laughed and added, “Sometimes when he helps, it’s almost like the opposite of help, because he’s like, ‘I’m here and I want to play!’ and our daughter loves that.”

One thing that has helped with the imbalance: Jenny said Anthony has made it a priority to take the lead on their toddler’s bedtime routine. “Bedtime is their thing,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I take care of the bath, and then I can count on my relaxation time while they do the songs and the books and bedtime stories. And that has made such a big difference in my day.”

"I would be remiss if I didn’t say dads have it a little bit easier."

Anthony reflected on the responsibilities the two share and added, “I would be remiss if I didn’t say dads have it a little bit easier. I always think about how lucky I am that she is going along with me through this. I absolutely know my privilege here.”

Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and coauthor of the study, told me the study came about because “we wondered: If so many people are working from home, might the silver lining of the pandemic be that the invisible labor that traditionally has fallen on women becomes more visible to men, and spur equal participation?”

The result? A resounding no. William Scarborough, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Texas and coauthor of the study, said the increased care and housework demands have fallen overwhelmingly to women. He added that it’s not even necessarily intentional. “I don’t think it’s that fathers are trying to skirt their labor. It’s not out of malice. It’s the cumulative effect of a lot of small interactions.”

Take childcare, for example. “Say a child needs help opening a jar or getting a toy or getting some food,” said Scarborough. “For many families, in parenting, there’s just this ‘Mom is better at it’ narrative. So the kid might go to Mom. But what might actually be happening there is: The more they rely on Mom, the better Mom gets at it, and Dad doesn’t have to.” Collins added, “There is a name for this: learned helplessness. Men learn not to know all the things, because they just don’t have to.” Over time, Collins said, “couples who intend to have an egalitarian division end up moving away from that.”

Jake Thomas, 34, is back in the classroom for the first time since the pandemic abruptly ended the last school year. The North Dakota high school teacher is still getting his teaching groove back. Meanwhile, his daughter Ada, 6, won’t be going back to school this fall — she and her brother Ash, 3, will be staying with their grandparents, while Jake and his wife, Becky, 33, an elementary school teacher, return to the classroom.

In the early, uncertain days of the pandemic, the two of them had to juggle teaching, housework, and parenting at the same time. “I had more leeway teaching in March and April because I teach older students, so I was taking the lead on parenting because my wife’s teaching load was heavier than mine,” Jake told BuzzFeed News.

“Right away when Jake told me he was interviewed for this, I knew your data would be skewed,” Becky told me. “Jake skews everybody’s data because he is not real. He is an extraordinary man who is just out of this world, and he stepped up and took on everything while I needed to be available for work.”

Becky is a Title I elementary school teacher, meaning her teaching involves working closely with students who need extra help. “It’s my dream job, and Jake knew I was in high demand. He often heard me working with kids who were crying because they needed help. So I was on video calls all day — sometimes until 11 at night — helping kids with homework, and he was always the one juggling, juggling, juggling.”

Was it an adjustment for Jake to get used to being the point person on parenting? “We are very much an equal split in terms of taking care of kids and our house, so it didn’t feel like it was anything out of the ordinary,” Jake told BuzzFeed News. “What was frustrating was that there just wasn’t enough time to get everything done.”

Jake is not the only dad to find himself with vastly increased responsibilities. Joanna Pepin, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin who studies families and gender inequalities, said her research shows that men are doing more parenting than they were before the virus. She is the coauthor of a study that looked at the division of housework and childcare during the pandemic. It found that before the pandemic, only 27% of parents reported sharing housework equally. By April, that went up to 42%.

Pepin noted that the pandemic has reduced the barrier between the workplace and the family, and this helps with tackling the stigma of caretaking. “A lot of studies have shown that mothers do things to hide their caretaking from their employers. But now that work and family are happening in the same context, there’s just no way to hide that,” she explained.

For Jake and Becky, that was a big change. On the best of days, there was no way to prevent their children from popping up while they’re working. The couple’s relationship with their children had to adjust, too, said Jake. “I know it sounds like we’re in the perfect situation to handle the pandemic because we’re both teachers, but our kids don’t have that relationship with us. When we’re home, we’ve always been just Mom and Dad.”

Scarborough pointed out that couples could guard against imbalance in housework by being vigilant about inequalities. “A lot of households where this is happening, they might not even be aware of it. It’s these small tasks that are just here and there,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Fathers need to really look at their house and keep track of who’s doing what, and if the kids are always going to Mom, and if they see a result they don’t like, maybe they should look in the mirror and evaluate that.”●

This story is part of the BuzzFeed News Parenting Week series, about how parenting has changed during the pandemic.

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