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It’s Time for Husbands to Step Up

Women are being pushed out of the workforce, and many of them have their spouses to blame.

By Caitlin Abber

On Wednesday, when New York City announced that public schools would be closing their doors and going 100% remote, I almost burst into tears. I don’t live in New York, and my daughter is barely a year old, but still, the news of it overwhelmed me. I immediately thought of my sister-in-law, my friends, and my colleagues who have school-aged children at home. I thought about how they had just figured out this new hybrid routine and were finally able to focus on their jobs a little bit more, and now—with less than 24 hours notice—they were back to where they were in March and April. I know these are mostly women with a bit of privilege, but I also thought about the women who work in the service industry, or are freelancers, or work part-time, who now had to lose work and wages or scramble to find some kind of safe childcare before 6am the next morning. I thought of the conversations all these women would be having with their kids that night, explaining why they might not be able to see their friends or teachers again in person until next year (oh, and Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah are cancelled, too). I thought about it all, and I felt really sad—and really angry. 

One thing I didn’t think about, however, was men. I didn’t think about the impact this abrupt change of plans would have on them. I didn’t think about how it might disrupt their work over the next however many months or whether or not they might even be able to work at all. Because, while this has been an upside-down, no-good, very-bad year for everyone, 1 in 4 men hasn’t considered quitting his job to stay home with the kids or even had to worry about whether or not there was enough toilet paper or hand sanitizer in the house. As the headline of Anne Helen Peterson’s recent article on this subject suggests, “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women,” and this country—and too often, men in heterosexual marriages—still rely on women to take care of those things. So really, for many men, what’s a couple more months with the kids downstairs on their iPads, if they can be sequestered in their home offices in Zoom meetings ten hours a day?

I know this sounds harsh, but the numbers don’t lie, and neither do the stories woman after woman, wife after wife are telling everyone from M.M.LaFleur to the New York Times (and definitely their friends and fellow frustrated moms in private Facebook support groups, with names like “Women Whose Husbands, Partners & Kids Are Driving Them Insane.”) Women are struggling right now, and no one is helping them. The government has all but left the building in terms of offering any guidance, stimulus, or relief. If their companies are kind, they might offer parents flexible hours or an extended parental leave policy, but if no one is taking advantage of those things, most moms don’t want to be the first. And they can’t call on the support of other women—be it relatives or paid childcare—because, hello, pandemic. So they’re alone. 

Except they’re not. Many of these women have husbands and partners at home who just aren’t doing enough. By “enough,” I don’t mean helping the kids log on to Zoom school a few times a week, but rather, respecting their wives’ time and supporting their careers every single day, so—whether consciously or not—they aren’t forcing their wives to sideline their own careers. 

“I think language really matters here,” says Eve Rodsky, author of Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live). “Women don’t drop out of the workforce. They don’t opt out of the workforce. They’re forced out of the workforce. And they’re forced out of the workforce in a couple of ways: by their partners—who are their true glass ceilings—and by their workplaces.”

Rodsky has been studying marriages for over eight years, trying to understand why women end up doing so much more emotional and domestic labor than men and what we can do about it. Her theory (which seems pretty legitimate) is that as a society, we are conditioned not to value women’s time as much as we value men’s. More than that, we are also conditioned to believe that women have an infinite amount of time, while men only have so much. 

“We’re not Albert Einstein,” says Rodsky. “We can’t fuck with the space-time continuum. We only have finite time, but what happens is that we don’t have a choice for how to use that time. We only get 24 hours in a day, and we should be able to have as much choice over how we use that time as our male partners.” 

For many women—and more importantly, for many couples—this is easier said than done. Reimagining a heterosexual marriage free from societal norms or the trappings of how we’ve been raised, socialized, educated, and conditioned is daunting at best. It’s also a hell of a lot of work, which is—and I am saying this loudly so the people in the back can hear—the last thing women need more of right now. 

“We only get 24 hours in a day, and we should be able to have as much choice over how we use that time as our male partners.”

The quickest solution is for husbands and partners to step up, and generously—meaning without compromise, guilt, or interruption—give women some of their time back. This might be tough; men can be fiercely protective of their time—“they guard it with their lives, and society protects their time,” as Rodsky points out. But as she also notes, “flexibility is in the eye of the beholder,” and excuses are just that. If men really want to help their female partners during this critical period (and well after), they need to value their partners’ time as much as they value their own.   

It’s also necessary that both individuals in the relationship stop equating income with importance. Just because one partner makes more money (in the U.S., it is still typically the man) does not necessarily mean he has less time or flexibility, or—most crucially—that the work he does is more valuable. What it does mean is that he has to find ways, and time, to be more efficient. And no, women aren’t more efficient or better multitaskers than men; we’ve likely just been told that they are so they’ll do more and so men can expect more of them. “Women do $10.9 trillion worth of unpaid labor,” says Rodsky. “So these fallacies, these arguments around ‘my job being more flexible,’ ‘my husband makes more money than I do,’ ‘I’m wired differently for care,’ ‘I’m a better multitasker,’ or my favorite, ‘in the time it takes me to tell him what to do, I should just do it myself,’ which is a classic time value failure argument—they have all been made by design. It hasn’t been an accident.”

Some men, of course, have prioritized finding a way to make emotional and domestic labor more equal. For Justin, M.M.’s Chief Digital Officer, respecting the work his wife does, as well as her time, means collaborating on a schedule that gives each of them a hard stop. “We try to split up everything pretty evenly,” says Justin. “I feed the kids breakfast and put them into bed at night” (his wife is with the kids during office hours). “So at least I kind of bookend the day, and she has a start and stop to managing the kids. If anything, the pandemic has made this more important, because it doubles the emotional burden of every decision that’s made.”

Rodsky offers a similar approach. She recommends that couples adopt an “ownership mindset” and take full responsibility for certain tasks, from conception to completion. “This means doing all the cognitive labor and the behind-the-scenes tasks involved in any single responsibility—for example, not just showing up at the little league fields or registering the kids in the portal, but also buying their equipment and coordinating their practices.”

For some couples, this might mean something as easy as trading off who decides what’s for dinner, gets it on the table, and cleans up after (I’ve tried this, and it works) to something as complex as owning entire aspects of the family operation. For example, I know one woman whose husband is entirely responsible for everything related to their kid’s medical needs—from scheduling and attending pediatrician appointments to making sure the medicine cabinet is stocked with children’s Tylenol. If they’re both at a doctor’s appointment and the pediatrician asks her a question, she says she doesn’t know the answer—that’s her husband’s domain. 

Another thing that will help in the short term is for husbands simply to recognize how hard this time period is. Even for women who don’t work full time and have always been home with the kids in some capacity or other, the added stress of the pandemic and the monotony of every single day looking exactly the same is taking its toll. “I am in this office all day long on Zoom calls, from basically 8:00am until 6:00 or 7:00pm,” says Eric, President of M.M.LaFleur. “Last night, I was on a board call from 8:00 to 10:00pm. So, all of the childcare responsibilities fall to my wife. She wakes the kids up, chases them in the morning, gets them in all of their classes, makes sure they’re doing their work. She helps them with their homework. There’s no personal time for her. There’s no moment in time when you’re not working, when you’re doing that job with two kids in the house. It’s just super hard.”

“I think the silver lining is that the invisible is now literally visible. It’s much harder for our partners to deny what the work looks like at home.”

Men may not be reading every article about the female recession or texting their friends for homeschooling tips, but now, all the invisible labor women have been doing since the beginning of time is suddenly out in the open—and it’s hopefully impossible to ignore. “I think the silver lining is that the invisible is now literally visible,” says Rodsky. “It’s much harder for our partners to deny what the work looks like at home. We are all seeing it in a much more acute way. So the beauty is that when the invisible is visible, it becomes a lot easier to have these conversations, if you’re willing to invest in those conversations in the first place.”

And thankfully, some men are ready to have those conversations—both at home and on a larger scale. “I think this pandemic has really reminded us of how much work there is to be done,” says Eric. “When push comes to shove, as a society, we haven’t invested in any of the things that would provide the type of safety net that would allow women to have navigated this pandemic in the same way men have been able to. It’s illuminating.“

Caitlin Abber

Written By

Caitlin Abber

Caitlin Abber is the Brand Editor at M.M. LaFleur, and an award-winning writer and content creator. Over the last decade she has held senior editorial positions at MTV, Women's Health, Public Radio International, and Bustle, and has bylines at InStyle and OprahMag.com.

See more of Caitlin's articles

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