Here’s a conversation from my most recent online counseling session:
Me: This is impossible. I can’t do everything that needs to be done. I’m losing myself in survival mode. My kids need me, but I don’t have anything left to give. What if I die? Who will take care of my kids? They’re too young to lose their mom.
Therapist: These are all completely reasonable concerns, and you’re not the only one feeling this way right now. Have you talked to Wally [my husband] about some of this?
Me: Uh, no. I mean, kind of, I guess. He knows I’m stressed. But I know he’s stressed, too.
Therapist: Has he talked with you about feeling stressed?
Me: Well, no, not really. But I mean, he’s gotta be stressed too, right?
Therapist: OK, right, I’m going to share some communication exercises with you.
She talked me through a worksheet called “Stress-Reducing Conversation” from The Gottman Institute, a relationship-focused therapy approach. It was a significant upgrade from my husband’s and my usual end-of-day marriage script. Structured listening and guided responses helped us share concerns constructively, but more than that, they reminded us that we’re a team.
The New Domestic Work
Wally and I recognize that it’s just us right now. We’ve lost the tangible, hands-on help of our village; we’re unable to depend on extended family, babysitters, teachers, pastors, speech therapists, coaches, day care workers, neighbors, Scout leaders, house-cleaners, friends, and even community comforts like our local playground, library, and rec center.
And we’re not alone. Families around the world have been impacted by this torrent of new stressors: kids in need of schooling, limited food options, restricted mobility, sharing home work space, loss of resources. Unfortunately, due to the cultural assumption that kids and households are “women’s work,” the lion’s share of daily stress resulting from this pandemic quarantine often falls on the shoulders of women.
The lion’s share of daily stress resulting from this pandemic quarantine often falls on the shoulders of women.
This influx of new domestic work introduces overwhelming logistics: Who plans the kids’ newly wide open schedules? Who oversees their schoolwork? Who plans meals with a pantry short on staples and then deals with the resulting dishes? Who coordinates home workspaces? Who has the phone numbers for the pediatrician, urgent care, and county health hotline readily available? Who clears the clutter constantly collecting in a busier-than-normal home? Who vets contractors’ safety protocols for unexpected house problems? Who communicates with the normal caregivers, teachers, and extracurricular leaders in this indefinite interim?
Most of these new family responsibilities are covered by women. (Let me state now that this statement does not apply to all women, all families, or all men.) And this trend is unhealthy for women, marriages, families, and society.
“The Partnership of the Whole of Life”
In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis addresses the fallacy that household labor and care for children are emasculating for men: “Taking on domestic chores or some aspects of raising children does not make him any less masculine or imply failure, irresponsibility or cause for shame” (286).
The Holy Father echoes the counsel of St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio: “Family, become what you are” (17). This admonition is followed not by a list of household responsibilities divided by gender but by a call for fathers to actively involve themselves in the daily work of family life, too often defined as exclusively women’s work:
“Above all where social and cultural conditions so easily encourage a father to be less concerned with his family or at any rate less involved in the work of education, efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance” (25).
For families to grow stronger through this unprecedented challenge, we must rely on the “partnership of the whole of life” to which Catholic marriage commits (CCC 1601). We must commit to teamwork, because it’s too much for one spouse to carry this burden alone.
We must commit to teamwork, because it’s too much for one spouse to carry this burden alone.
Erin Brigham, writing on the effects of coronavirus on family labor at Catholic Moral Theology, suggests that solidarity is the solution:
“Part of the revolution in thinking about home, work, and gender means recognizing the unique value of this work and allowing solidarity, not rigid conceptions of gender to guide how we organize work and family in our homes and society.”
What does this look like practically?
In our family, it means that Wally deep-cleaned the bathroom, without being asked, while I homeschooled the kids, because he noticed an oasis of pee pooling behind the toilet (the inevitable result of five boys, several on the shorter side, now using one toilet around the clock).
It means that he also helps the kids with their schoolwork.
It means that he often cares for the kids at the end of the day while I email school assignments and organize the next day’s lessons. They usually play video games or watch a movie. The fun factor in their father-son relationship has multiplied substantially since the beginning of this quarantine.
Solidarity also benefits our marriage: It means that once the kids are in bed, we can enjoy quality time together, because we’ve already accomplished the necessary family work of the day, together.
What does it look like for other families to embrace an approach of solidarity in response to the increased labor of child care and housework during this pandemic?
Talk to your spouse. What are his biggest stressors in a day? Where can each person compromise? What’s non-negotiable? How can each person contribute — with hearts conditioned by loving solidarity rather than cultural gender norms — to ensure a healthy, supportive home for everyone? In all of these conversations, remember that today’s solutions might not meet tomorrow’s problems, so we need to keep discussing what works and what doesn’t within our families.
Today’s solutions might not meet tomorrow’s problems, so we need to keep discussing what works and what doesn’t within our families.
When Wally and I take our kids on camping trips, we have a parental catchphrase for everything: “We’re doing this!” It’s the perfect line for both forest picnics (“Yay! We’re doing this!”) and overnight thunderstorms (“UGH. We’re doing this even if it kills us.”)
As we manage the increased family labor that comes with quarantined life, we’re calling on this same spirit of teamwork and solidarity in our marriage: We’re doing this together.
As we manage the increased family labor that comes with quarantined life, we’re calling on the spirit of teamwork and solidarity in our marriage: We’re doing this together.