Pre-pandemic, being a mom meant figuring out the tricky balance between parenting, home, career and self. What that meant in practice was that women in heterosexual relationships took on about two-thirds of domestic responsibilities.
The global coronavirus pandemic has resulted in dramatic shifts for everyone, especially for families, with parents working from home, school and day care closures and a general loss of stability and support. Now moms are homeschooling older kids, caring for little ones, feeding their families three meals a day, and sanitizing everything, all while trying to keep everyone healthy and keep up with their day jobs.
While many partners have stepped up to take on more responsibilities at home during the pandemic, the workload balance has not shifted enough (despite nearly half of men claiming they do "all" the homeschooling, a claim that most women disagree with).
Women are legitimately concerned that they will become the default caregivers and take on most or all of the household chores, leaving little or no time for their careers or their own well-being.
Here's how to keep that from happening by coming to an agreement with your partner about sharing the workload at home.
1. Have the hard conversation.
Many people avoid hard conversations out of a fear that things will become adversarial. But now more than ever, we need to talk about roles and expectations. Remember that your partner also wants what's best for you and the family. View this conversation as a collaborative conflict, one where the two of you are working together toward a win-win solution.
Phrase to try: "Let's sit down for half an hour this evening and review both of our to-do lists," or "Can we find a time in the next day or two to go over everything we're both trying to get done?"
2. Start with your goals in mind.
Your goal is to come up with a plan that works for both of you. The focus is you both teaming up against the problem.
Phrase to try: "I'd like to talk about how we can both find a good balance between work and helping the kids," or, "So much has changed. Let's talk about how we're going to make this work for us both."
3. Share your hopes + fears.
Tell your partner what you're worried about, and what's been most challenging. Be honest about your experience and what you're afraid of. You'll notice there are no assumptions, personal attacks, shaming or blaming, which is important. My friend Melissa Strawn was in the middle of launching a business when the virus hit. Her husband works full-time and they're raising five boys. Melissa suggests, "Communicate openly and honestly about what's working and not working. Sometimes, I am just looking to feel validated given how much I actually juggle with five kids and a startup. Other times, I need him to just #getitdone."
Phrase to try: "I'm concerned that I've taken on all of the homeschooling and I don't have time to do my work," or, "I realize I'm trying to cook, clean and watch the baby. When I sit down to focus on my job, I'm already exhausted."
4. Ask for their perspective.
You have to ask how they're feeling and what's on their mind. Both of your experiences are valid. Asking and listening makes your partner less likely to feel defensive. It's a reminder that you care about what they're going though, and it shows that you're in this together.
Michael Erisman, Chief People Officer at Pushpay says he and his wife keep in constant communication to make sure they share work and parenting. "My wife Kathy and I share most duties. It's always a dual effort."
Phrase to try: "I know this is hard for you, too. What's your biggest concern right now?" or "I've shared my concerns, what are you most worried about?"
5. Brainstorm + experiment.
There are no experts here, and the right solution is different for every couple. Spend time tossing out ideas about ways to make this work for both of you. Not sure where to start? Here's what's working for some couples:
Create a schedule
Try working in shifts. One of you can take responsibility for the kids and housework for a period of time, while the other person sits down to do their work. Half way through the day, switch. It results in a fairer division of time and responsibilities, and allows the working parent to focus with fewer distractions.
Phrase to try: "Can we try to work in shifts tomorrow and see how it works out for us?"
Choose a lane
Divvy up work based on your strengths. One of you might find it calming to fold laundry, but doesn't have the patience to re-learn middle school math. Maybe they're a great cook and you'd rather do the tidying up. This approach lets you focus on the things you're good at and enjoy most.
Phrase to try: "You're so great at helping the kids with their homework. I have less patience for that, but I'm happy to handle dinner. Should we try that today and see how it goes?"
Lean on the kids
Many parents are realizing how capable their kids really are. Yes, even little ones can wash and load dishes, flip laundry and bake cookies. Older kids can do pretty much anything you ask. One week my 18-year-old son made risotto and Vietnamese pho—now I want him to cook every night.
Phrase to try: "The kids are old enough to pitch in. What if we ask them to unload the dishwasher and take out the trash? That would be a huge help."
Our lives have changed in ways we couldn't possibly have been ready for. The stress and uncertainty can be exhausting so give yourselves and each other a break. We're all more exhausted and less productive right now, so lower your expectations. Small business consultant Laura Doehle who's raising a 3-year-old while she and her husband work full-time says, "No one is getting 100% of their to-do's completed but no one is putting their career on hold either."
Whatever plan you come up with, give yourself permission to experiment. When you try out a new schedule or routine, it won't be perfect so you'll need to test it out. Talk about what worked and what didn't, then make adjustments. Just knowing it's not set in stone makes it easier to try something new. Most important, keep having those open, honest conversations.