When the coronavirus pandemic forced parents across the country to homeschool their children, couples overwhelmingly came to the same conclusion: Mom will handle that, too.
So says a survey of COVID-era domestic duties that finds women are disproportionately shouldering new domestic responsibilities in lockdown, while continuing to oversee traditional ones like cooking, cleaning, and child care.
However, the survey, released May 20, presents a glass-half-full perspective on these dirty dishes: Yes, men are doing less than women when they’re shut in at home. But they’re doing more than they were pre-pandemic.
A survey of 1,060 parents in different-sex couples, released by the Council of Contemporary Families, found that 70 percent of women say they are primarily responsible for homeschooling children in quarantine. But it also found a substantial increase in the percentage of parents sharing housework relatively equally since the start of the pandemic and a rise in the percentage who share child care equally.
“The bad news is that dads still expect moms to figure out what the kids need, so when a new responsibility comes up, like having to take over homeschooling, women end up doing the heavy lifting,” the CCF’s research director, Stephanie Coontz, said in a statement.
“The good news, when you combine these findings with other studies on the long-term effect of paternity leave, split shifts, and work from home, is that once men begin to see and participate in the invisible labor they used to be able to ignore, most of them step up their game.”
The pandemic, which has wreaked untold health and economic havoc around the world, has intensified stress within the home by closing schools and child-care centers and preventing families from outsourcing help. Gone are all the baby sitters, house cleaners, and even grandparents who could normally be asked to lend a hand.
“With the epidemic, so much of that went poof overnight,” said Gretchen Donehower, a University of California Berkeley researcher and principal investigator on an ongoing international project called Counting Women’s Work.
Many women have found themselves picking those tasks up again and feeling baffled and overwhelmed by how much they’re still expected to handle in 2020.
“I’m perfectly capable of being a mom and taking care of my kids, but all of a sudden I had 10 jobs on my shoulders, and it was just too much,” said Allison Goldberg, 37, of Newton.
With her children in school most of the day, the stay-at-home mother had recently started a small art and interior design business, finding her passion and a little space of her own. But when the pandemic struck, she suddenly had three children at home “asking for snacks every 10 seconds,” unfinished projects, and a steady schedule of Zoom classes to coordinate.
Her husband, who owns a law practice, was likewise stressed out, worrying about bringing back employees he’d had to furlough.
“He didn’t see everything that I was doing,” she said. “He really didn’t see or understand why I was struggling — which made it that much worse.”
Another Newton mother said she spares her husband certain domestic tasks because “the amount of time it would take to teach him to do certain things, honestly? I don’t have the time to put in the work now.”
So although she asks him to put away his own clothes after she washes, dries, and folds them, she handles the children’s clothes, because “they’re so small, it can be confusing.”
Despite their gains in the workforce, women still do relatively more unpaid care work around the world, in almost every age group and almost every country, noted Donehower. American men’s and women’s rates of paid and unpaid work have been converging over time — but so slowly that an equal balance is not expected for another 100 years, Donehower said.
“It’s invisible work, as we all know,” said Jenna Andelman, a Newton stay-at-home mother of four boys.
Still, her husband was surprised when she recently mentioned how much more she was doing in quarantine.
“I just started listing out all of the extra things that I was doing. He said it was like a big revelation to him,” Andelman said. “And this is despite the fact that we’ve been having these conversations for a long time."
The first few surveys to reflect on domestic life amid the pandemic suggested little was changing. A recent New York Times poll, conducted by Morning Consult, found 80 percent of women said they were doing the bulk of homeschooling; 45 percent of men thought they were, but only 3 percent of women agreed.
Women also reported that they were handling more of the cooking, cleaning, and child care, even when both spouses were working full time from home. In families with children under age 12, about 80 percent of women said they were doing most or all of the housework and overseeing homeschooling, while 70 percent of women said they handle most of the child care.
The most recent survey, led by Daniel L. Carlson of the University of Utah, found that 20 percent of men say they are overseeing homeschooling, while only 3 percent of women agree.
The new survey did find, however, a 58 percent leap in the percentage of parents who report sharing routine housework relatively equally with their partner — from 26 percent before the pandemic to 41 percent during it.
One in four women reported sharing housework with their partners during the pandemic, up from one in six before it.
That’s encouraging to researchers because it’s consistent with past studies showing that men who get involved — by taking extensive paternity leave, for instance — stay involved.
"The hypothesis is: Is unpaid care work becoming more visible in lockdowns when there’s so much more time spent together in households — and does that change behavior?” Donehower said.
Some couples changed quickly. Tara Logan, a nurse coordinator for a clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital, found herself unable to manage patient calls from home while supervising her two daughters’ schoolwork.
So her husband, Patrick, took the lead. The 39-year-old computer programmer was already working from home and adjusted his shift to start work after most of the school day was over. “Sometimes I don’t get to everything,” he acknowledged, and he hands off the remaining assignments to his wife. He’s also doing his own laundry and half of the kids’ clothes.
“I’m doing more of the cleaning, but I don’t really think that it’s unfair,” said Tara Logan of Malden. “Fair is such a strange word to use in the COVID era.”
Appealing to an innate sense of fairness, though, is what often persuades men to contribute more at home, said social psychologist Francine M. Deutsch, author of the upcoming book “Creating Equality at Home: How 25 couples around the World Share Housework and Childcare.”
“If both people are home it’s harder to justify that one person should have a disproportionate share," Deutsch said.
Men are often accused of “chore blindness” — actually not seeing the dust bunnies or the children’s homework — but all this time cooped up in the house could open their eyes, she and other researchers say.
“Everything in our lives is being shaken up right now, and that means there’s a potential for change,” Deutsch said.
That might be happening in Goldberg’s home, where she had once banned her husband from laundry duty — “he tends to shrink things,” she said — but recently handed off the children’s dryer-safe clothing.
It has already become a classic story in their household.
“He was complaining the whole time,” she said, noting that her husband had claimed the entirety of the task as actual labor, rather than just the hands-on portion. "He was going around telling everyone, ‘I did seven hours of laundry!’ "