It was a familiar divide: men and money on one side, women and children on the other. In our dark dining room, my husband and I struggled to push against these stubborn gender roles.
We were still talking about it when the email came: The kids’ school was canceled. Aftercare and activities followed. Then social distancing knocked out play dates, babysitters and visits from family and friends. Finally, employers pushed us home, too.
Several weeks into this reality, my husband and I continue to negotiate how both of us can do our jobs and also care for our son and daughter full-time. Most days, one of us settles into a makeshift desk in the garden shed to clack away on the laptop while the other wrangles the kids; then, we switch. (My friend calls this arrangement “he shed-she shed.”)
As we muddle through, two things are starting to come into focus. One is how important my husband really is to the caregiving equation. We could not keep operating as a family right now, and I could not meet my professional obligations, without his complete engagement with our children and household for long stretches.
The second is how significant it is for him to adjust his work to accommodate our family life. Initially, I wasn’t inclined to be too sympathetic — let me count the ways I have already adjusted to gestate, birth and raise our children. I’m still mourning the loss of my regularly shaped belly button, not to mention career opportunities.
But he has impressed upon me how uncomfortable he feels not focusing on work, especially at a time when our financial security is so uncertain. He’s not crazy. In general, American society doesn’t give men permission to privilege child-rearing over earning, even temporarily. For example, even when men have access to leave from their jobs after a new baby, they hesitate to take it. More subtly, a psychological study published in 2019 found that a man playing with his child on a Saturday is perceived as more competent, likable and masculine than a man playing with his child on a Tuesday. The researchers’ conclusion: Men’s caregiving is seen as positive only if fathers show that supporting their families economically is their priority.
But now, two-working-parent households with young children may find that the demands on them are too unique and overwhelming to uphold the usual gender norms. To be sure, women on the whole continue to do the majority of unpaid labor at home, before this crisis and, reports suggest, during it. However, I hope that recognizing — and supporting — working fathers as caregivers will be one of the positive changes this terrible experience will bring.
One hopeful scenario is that dads who find themselves more integrated into their families embrace the opportunity. That is what happened to Marlon Gutierrez, who keeps the blog Being Papa. Five years ago, he had to transition to remote working because of a medical issue. When his daughter came along, he found the arrangement ideal to share care of her with his wife. He now clocks in from 4 a.m. to noon, after which he does “the fun stuff.” Gutierrez said remote work gives working fathers time — not only for their families, but also for hobbies and relaxing.
That observation is noteworthy.
A diverse, nationwide focus group of men said lack of time was one of the reasons they could not be the fathers they wanted to be. The structure and stress of work was another. But now, just as some fathers have found unexpected pockets of time, hundreds of thousands have had their work structure upended.
Many of the ad hoc arrangements aren’t ideal, but they have required workers to jump into the unknown. Once they get over the shock, Gutierrez hopes, some will use the experience “to restructure the mind-set for how we tackle work every day.” He is optimistic that dads who like the new mind-set will be able to keep it, using the tools and policies organizations have had to invest in now.
Another scenario is that opportunities for men to do more caregiving happen automatically as jobs shift. Haley Swenson, who studies men and care at New America, said most people organize their families in response to work routines and the economy, not fixed ideas about what men and women are. In the coming months, a staggering number of us will lose our jobs; health-care workers — the majority of whom are women — are going to be out of the house or exhausted; and workplaces will reduce or extend hours. All these factors will scramble home life. If couples end up adopting opposite schedules or nonstandard hours, fathers will probably do more child care and housework than average.
To support working fathers, Swenson advocates for flexible leave policies — not just when someone is sick, but also when a caregiving partner is absent. “Flexible” is also a word that Gutierrez used when encouraging dads to let go of their expectations about how work should be.
And “flexible” is what Dave Sucharski, a stressed-out father in Pennsylvania, wishes his job could be more right now. I called Sucharski because I had heard him speak at a panel on paternity leave, where he was lamenting that he did not have more time to spend with his wife and newborn after a difficult delivery. I wanted to know if fatherhood was going any better for him, now that he was suddenly a remote worker under stay-at-home orders with a 2-year-old. In a word: No. He was trying simultaneously to keep the small company he works for afloat, his family solvent and his daughter from throwing herself down the stairs. He said he definitely did not have the time or flexibility to sit with her for 30 minutes while she does a puzzle.
Jessica DeGroot of the ThirdPath Institute, which supports an integrated approach to work and life, noted that Sucharski’s experience is probably a lot more typical than Gutierrez’s. Economically anxious times do not inspire employers or employees to seek ways for dads to do more parenting, she warned. Indeed, one of the other major barriers to caregiving men cite is affordability — they just can’t risk losing income. Whatever situation they are in, DeGroot encouraged parents to consider themselves a united front, asking: How can we navigate this constantly changing landscape as a team?
The other day, my husband and I met again before dawn — this time in the kitchen, where we were both seeking more coffee. I’d been up since 4 a.m. working. He was trying to squeeze in the grocery shopping before he hit the shed.
With the kids still asleep, we could talk frankly — about how worried we were for our future, how scared for our parents, how sad for our children. My husband put his hands on my shoulders and looked hard at me.
“This situation is forcing us to make changes,” he said. “Let’s make sure some of them are good.”
Kelly J. Kelly is working on a book about the history of men in the domestic sphere. She is a Public Voices Fellowship leader at The OpEd Project.