According to Kim Eisenberg, a licensed clinical social worker with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, for households forced into new situations — such as a one partner losing their job and the other partner becoming the primary breadwinner — the dissolution of social norms, while challenging, can also be liberating and create a blank slate going forward.
“Any time we’re faced with a major disruption to our lives, we are afforded the opportunity to shift our perspective and do things differently,” Eisenberg says. “Unforeseen challenges can lead to enduring growth and give us a sense of purpose along the way.”
According to Eisenberg, it is important to talk with your partner and others in the household about what you can do to create sustainable dynamics — for yourselves as individuals, as a couple, as parents and as a family — to address these imbalances.
She calls the discussion of how to fairly divide household and caretaking responsibilities “an ongoing dance,” not a one-time negotiation. Priorities must be identified and each person will need to clarify what they can give, what they need, what they can sacrifice, and what they are willing to risk in order to get through the pandemic and other major life disruptions.
“When talking about how to best move forward, it is important to start from a place of empathy and compassion, rather than fear,” Eisenberg says. “We are all under an enormous amount of stress and you need to remember you’re a team.”
Eisenberg offers the following additional recommendations to ensure the fair division of household and childcare duties, and to let go of some of the assumptions and anxieties surrounding them:
- Discuss roles and goals. The sense of meaning and purpose we derive from all the different spheres of our lives varies from person to person. Discuss how each person works inside and outside the home, and acknowledge and honor each other’s short-term and long-term personal and professional goals.
- Take full ownership of tasks. Everyone must be proactive in assuming not just the actual tasks they take on, but also the mental load — or emotional labor — of managing them. This is the invisible work involved in each task, such as planning, making sure all necessary supplies are available, arranging for transportation (if needed), and confirming the job is completed.
- Be realistic. Identify unrealistic expectations for yourself and others about the ability to “do it all.” These types of expectations can lead to resentments as well as increases in depression and anxiety. Practice mindful compassion and acknowledge that you’re doing your best and getting through it together.
- Make time for self-care. Everyone should be given the space and time to focus on self-care, whether it’s a bubble bath, watching a sunset, or taking a night off to play video games or binge-watch favorite shows. The goal is to be kind and gentle with yourself and loved ones, now more than ever.
- Just ask. Practice asking each other for help. Start small, with something tangible and relatively short-term, such as asking your partner to give the kids their bath one night so you can go for a walk after dinner, and invite your partner to let you know when you might be able to step in to help them.
- Reach out. If you’ve been extremely isolated from your friends and family, consider ways you can reconnect with your “village” — those outside your home who can provide additional support. People are social creatures and can’t handle isolation for any significant period of time before their mental health starts to degrade.
Eisenberg points out that while adapting to the changes brought about by the pandemic have been challenging, there have been benefits, both at home and in the workplace. Shelter-in-place orders have forced many workplaces to offer telecommuting, scheduling accommodations for working parents and flexible leave policies when childcare is unavailable, all of which have tremendous positive impacts, especially for women.
“We’re experiencing changes in the workplace, at home and in gender roles in ways we haven’t seen since World War II,” she says. “It takes massive disruption to shake up societal norms. In the midst of all the fear and tragedy, we can seize this moment to redesign the way we structure our families, our workplaces and our relationships. Just because we’ve always done things in a particular way, doesn’t mean we can’t make a conscious decision to do things differently.”