If you’re a mom, you’ve probably laughed at the viral videos of other moms chronicling their bonkers days while being stuck inside with their children. In my regular communication with girlfriends—commiserating, talking each other off ledges, and discussing how much wine is too much wine—I have received many of the same text: “You got this, mama” (usually paired with the flexing bicep emoji). The sisterhood has been a silver lining during this wild storm, but I keep coming back to a lingering question:
Where are the men?
I know where my man is. I can see him right now, as I compose this essay in the “Notes” app of my iPhone while helping my two-year-old put diapers on her dolls. He is sitting at his work station, going about his life pretty much as normal.
To be fair, I went on leave from my full-time job a week before the country shut down. Why, you might ask? Well, in my attempts to “do it all” (working full-time, writing books, mom-ing), I’d started to acquire a number of medical issues: insomnia, heart palpitations, unwanted weight loss, anxiety requiring medication, and recurrent colds and infections. When a work situation triggered my first-ever panic attack, my doctor said, “Enough is enough.”
I was supposed to resume working (from home) this week, but decided to extend my leave upon realizing it would be impossible to work and care for my daughter given the dynamic in my household, a dynamic that has come into sharp relief during this crisis. What has happened—and what has shocked me, as someone who considers herself a feminist—is that I have bent and twisted myself to accommodate my husband. I have become that wife who “takes care of everything” so that he can focus on work.
Please know: My husband is not a jerk. He is not a slacker. He cleans maniacally. He does the dishes. He changes diapers—not nearly as many as I change, but who’s counting? (Me. I’m counting.) A few weeks ago, I walked in on him clipping my daughter’s fingernails and I nearly had an orgasm.
So, yes, he helps.
But, no, it is not 50/50.
In the past two weeks, I have done an estimated 71% of the childcare; my husband has done 29%. I can calculate this so precisely because I do nearly everything for our daughter except for a couple-hour reprieve in the afternoon (my friend said, “You get TWO HOURS?!” as if the idea of mandating any time to myself was radical).
Because I’m on leave from my full-time job (which I realize is a huge privilege), it makes sense that I do more of the child care. But, I am confident the percentages would remain relatively the same if I resumed work. My husband would remain engrossed in his laptop, and I would be left to bend and twist, no doubt exacerbating all the medical issues that led me to take leave in the first place.
Despite the fact that I’m doing the lion’s share of the child care during this pandemic, I continue to suggest (to myself, to others) that my husband is equally involved. The other day, I posted a photo of him holding a bunch of my daughter’s dolls with the caption, “Dad-ing so hard.” The truth behind the photo: He was just transporting all her dolls from her crib because I could not carry her and all the dolls. After the transport, he went to his corner to work for nine hours.
The main reason I don’t tell the whole truth is that I really want to believe that I have a 50/50 household. Because I know that’s what I should have. That’s what I was told I could have growing up in an age of female empowerment. If I admit I don’t have it, what does that say about me? That I am a failed feminist?
In previous generations, there was an accepted script: Women did all the housework and child care; men brought home the long-lauded bacon. When a revolution allowed women to see that they could bring home bacon too, the script got revised. Or, rather, one half of it did. We were told girls can do whatever boys can do, but nobody talked about boys doing what girls do. That’s left women to “do it all” (and end up with a laundry list of medical concerns).
In a way, our generation of women is letting men get away with less than 50/50 because we don’t want to admit that we haven’t demanded 50/50. We make up all kinds of excuses: “He’s just not wired for child care like I am.” We wear our subjugation like a badge of honor: “I’m just better at it than he is.” Men are more than happy to abide this storyline: “Wow, babe, you’ve got everything handled!” We raise our fists with pride: “Women should rule the world!” Women probably could rule the world, but we are ignoring the other half—men need to support them better so they can.
Again, I do not think all husbands are jerks. Some are. Most are just caught up in a system that predates our existence. Some may genuinely believe that “mother knows best.” They may lack confidence in themselves as fathers and default to biology being the reason. Mothers may believe this too and, in effect, step up as the primary caregiver. This perpetuates a vicious cycle: women step up, men step back. There you have it—a dynamic in the marriage is established.
When I realized this dynamic in my own marriage and expressed discontent to my husband, he looked at me like I was speaking Swahili. When I attempted to explain how I was suffering mentally and physically with how much I felt was expected of me on a daily basis, he suggested I read books on time management. Seriously.
My husband says, “I do more than most men,” and I respond, “That’s nice, but it’s not 50/50.” When he says, “I think it is 50/50,” I don’t know how to argue with that. The misperception is in his best interest; I expect he will cling to it as tightly as my daughter clings to her beloved pacifiers.
It does not surprise me that divorce filings are skyrocketing right now. I have to wonder if child care conflicts are a contributing factor. In general, the vast majority of divorces are initiated by women, and many cite unfair division of labor as a big reason. Many women are under so much pressure right now—acting as the primary parent even though their husband is home, while also juggling their own work commitments. Layer in all the general stress and anxiety of a global pandemic and it’s a recipe for matrimonial disaster.
My good friend, Dr. Huong Diep, a board-certified psychologist, summed it up like this: “Most couples are not used to spending this much time together and may have relied on other coping strategies (e.g. working out, happy hours with friends, nannies) to successfully navigate their relationships and child care responsibilities. There was no official handbook for child care during a pandemic; so most couples are building the plane as they fly it… and praying they don’t crash.”
To all the people I’ve misled on social media, here is our quarantine reality:
My husband, daughter, and I rarely spend time together, the three of us. I do my 8-hour shift, my husband does his 2-3-hour one, and then we have a couple hours of “together time,” which usually involves me cooking dinner, my daughter feeding her dolls Play-doh, and my husband on his phone beating me at Words with Friends (the other day, he said, “You could beat me if you spent more than 30 seconds thinking about your moves.” I’m still baffled that he thinks I have more than 30 seconds available for this game).
I felt I had to extend my leave from work to avoid divorce. My husband thinks we could “swing it” with me working. It’s easy to be optimistic with a comfortable distance from the majority of the work—he said today, regarding our daughter, “She’s been so easy lately!” I do worry that extending my leave will jeopardize my career long-term. Corporate America is quick to mommy-track (or lay off) women who prioritize their families. But, it’s even harsher on men who dare to do so. It’s not that I think my husband’s job matters more than mine; it’s that I do not see child care dynamics in my household changing soon so I need to make decisions in the interest of everyone’s sanity. I guess I’m letting the patriarchy win. For now.
All I have to say is this: Let’s just hope I don’t get the virus. I am always the one who gets the viruses (#motherhood). If I get it, and I’m literally bedridden, our household shit will hit our household fan. And that will be another essay entirely.