David Goldstein’s wife, Amy, is a healthcare worker. He hates when people call her a hero.
“‘Hero’ is what you call someone when you’re okay with them dying,” Goldstein said.
Americans are under unprecedented pressures from their employers, spouses, and families. In a setting that’s so high-stakes, what is likely to result is a redefinition of gender roles.
Covid-19 has uniquely and disproportionately impacted women. Nearly 60% of those who have lost their jobs are women. Women who stayed working had a higher likelihood of serving on the frontline during the height of the pandemic as essential workers. With most schools not fully back in-person, homeschooling responsibilities have increased and endured longer than expected.
These tensions ripple through families. Fathers are finding themselves with front-row seats to the mounting pressure working mothers face, causing household dynamics to shift. As the intricacies of households come to light, fathers are willing to renegotiate their roles with their partners as well as their employers. Though adjustments were initially thought to be temporary solutions to a short-term circumstance, as the pandemic endures, these changes will result in permanent reforms.
The concept of the ideal worker in the American economy will also be renegotiated.
The ideal worker is devoted to their job. They clock overtime (without additional pay), are buttoned up, and always raise their hand when an opportunity to take on more work arises. They climb the corporate ladder at breakneck speed and make it look easy. Businesses tend to reward this behavior, despite promises of work-life balance.
Women have all the makings of a great ideal worker. They’re resilient, take initiative, and are generous with their time. But things tend to shift when kids enter the equation. Motherhood triggers assumptions that family is number one, not work, making it increasingly difficult for women to fit the ideal worker mold as they advance in their careers.
“Child-free women are really closing the income gap to a large degree. They can work as that ideal worker that capitalism wants,” said Katie Garner, executive director at the International Association of Maternal Action and Scholarship “When you add kids, that’s when you see the precarious drop.”
Now, dads are experiencing the clash as well.
Goldstein is a senior vice president at a political strategy firm, which says he’s always been an ambitious hardworking employee. Though his employer was supportive for the “toughest moments,” eventually, Goldstein was moved to part-time as his parenting and household responsibilities took precedence and taking a 60% pay cut. He works from home, using natural light, to save on electricity.
“There’s no room in the pandemic for that overweening ambition and being a parent,” Goldstein said. “ And that was one of the toughest struggles I had. I couldn’t be as good at my job as I normally was. There was just no way in hell that was happening. It hurt.”
Goldstein has taken on the role of primary caretaker of his two young children, Isaiah, 9, who is sweet but can be a bit moody, and Gemma, 6, a spitfire who loves to wrestle and shout, as his wife, Amy, works her shifts as a nurse practitioner and collapses in exhaustion at the end of each day.
These negotiations are occurring primarily among white-collar workers and those with middle-class incomes (or higher). Covid-19’s disruption has exacerbated inequities that have long undermined economic mobility for women of color. And, just because dads are taking on more doesn’t mean the pressure is off for moms. A new household responsibility has entered the equation, and it’s falling almost entirely on the shoulders of moms.
Homeschooling is making the “mom” in “working mom” more obvious than ever before. Working mothers in states with stay-at-home orders and school closures that went into effect earlier were nearly 70% more likely to take leave from their jobs than working mothers in states where closures happened later, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Time spent on educating and household tasks have nearly doubled, according to a report from Boston Consulting Group.
“It speaks to the idea that women are suffering so much more in terms of employment outcomes,” said Richard Petts, a sociology professor at Ball State University.
Though the homeschooling burden is theoretically a temporary one that will be relieved when schools eventually fully reopen, it’s lasting longer than expected. As time wears on and the country awaits a vaccine to be distributed, a culture shift is happening among dads.
Men are spending more time at home; there has been a 50% increase in fathers not actively working compared to last fall. According to Misty Heggeness, a senior advisor and research economist at the U.S. Census Bureau, this is a byproduct of men being forced to engage in childcare they haven’t had to in the past.
Zane Sebasovich, who made the switch to being a full time stay-at-home dad in 2020 says he finally understands his kids.
“This pandemic has given us a pressure keg to look at ourselves,” said Sebasovich. “It was really easy to see the tantrums of our kids and say why aren’t they listening? Why are they so upset to put their shoes on?”
Sebasovich is a dad to Flynn, 2, who passes his pandemic time by “being a T-rex,” and playing with his tractors. Though Flynn is largely unaware of the circumstances, his older sister, Silvia, 4, hasn’t been making new friends and misses seeing her cousins.
Newly homebound dads are now privy to what goes on in households, an insight they were previously ignorant of, according to Dan Carlson, a professor of family studies at Ohio State. However, dads like Sebasovich disagree, saying that running a household with someone who is “completely obtuse about the inner workings of family politics” is an outdated stereotype.
“It’s not easy. I never thought that stay-at-home moms had it easy,” said Sebasovich. “Even though I know that that theory of manhood is just a construct, it still stings. It took more effort to let that roll off of me than I wanted it to.”
The division of labor before the pandemic was a primer for what happened during it. Research from the Council on Contemporary Families shows that the amount of parents who say they shared care of young children equally increased from 41% pre-pandemic to 52% during the pandemic, suggesting that changes might be less stark than anecdotal evidence suggests.
Flexibility, a previously scarce resource, has been introduced on a scale larger than ever before. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin argues that flexibility has been the missing keystone in closing the gender wage gap. And it’s never been more within reach for women. Companies like Salesforce, Snapchat, and Uber have even signed a pledge. signed a pledge to help working parents remain in the workforce through the Covid-19 crisis.
“The curtain between work and home care has been torn apart,” said Jahdziah St. Julien, research associate at think tank Better Life Lab. “employers and businesses are stepping up to accommodate their workers and realize that flexibility is not a token or something that should signify the value of a worker as less than.”
The impact of flexible work arrangements on gender equality can be seen in other countries; about 75% of European employees have access to work-from-home flexibility, along with 90% of employees in Nordic countries. The result has been an increased level of female employment without a gap in weekly working hours.
But for some moms, flexibility has been an unintended side-effect of the pandemic that has also offered them the opportunity to take career risks they might not have been able to in the past. Leda Kushner, a director of patient experience at a telehealth company has a “slow burning plan” for a major career change and return to school to become a nurse practitioner. Going part-time at her job enabled her to envision a way for her to segue into the field she’s always wanted to be in, while keeping hours at work and taking care of her two young kids, Erza, 7, who loves Minecraft and Emilia, 4, who prefers to play princesses.
Above all else, the pandemic has shocked the system and at the very least forced families to reevaluate their systems.
“If we’ve all been sleepwalking until this point about gender equality, this pandemic threw water in our face”, said Heggeness. “It forced us to wake up and take notice in a way we haven’t had to in decades.”