“Jennifer,” 41, lives in Missoula, Montana with her husband and two sons, ages 10 and 12, who are now out of school because of the covid-19 pandemic. She works full-time for an international non-profit and her husband works part-time as a therapist. She asked to use a pseudonym to avoid professional repercussions.
I work full-time, my husband works two-thirds time, and I’m the primary wage earner. The way we used to do it was two nights a week he worked through the early evening, so I was the parent in charge of after-school activities, dinner, homework, etcetera. Then the other three days, he was in charge of all that. Plus, he didn’t work Fridays, and sometimes Mondays, so on those days, he would do everything else that a household needs to get done: groceries, repair, shoveling snow, recycling—the everythings of life. He was in charge of all of that.
He and I had completely switched stereotypical gender roles. We really had a pretty full conventional reversal. We had a really comfortable and equitable division of labor according to spare time and schedule. Now that we’re forced to re-balance all of that, it’s really hard.
We live in a single-story ranch with no basement. There are three bedrooms with one big multipurpose open floor-plan—living, dining, kitchen, and hangout area, that’s all one room. If you’re not in a bedroom, you have no privacy. My husband is a mental health therapist and our house is too small for him to maintain a confidential space for video therapy. If he’s interrupted during a session with a client, that’s a major violation of his professional standards. If he worked from a bedroom in the house, we could hear him, which would be unacceptable and, theoretically, he could be reported to the state board. He is permitted to go into his office for video therapy according to the “shelter in place” order because he’s considered an essential worker. Now we’re struggling to figure out how to make this work with me at home with our boys most days while working full-time.
Yesterday, my husband was at home. He did not have to go into his workplace. He was in charge from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and I hid in one of the kids’ bedrooms because it’s got the nicest desk. Today, he has to work all morning, while I work at home, and the kids are doing some school assignments and walking the dog for some exercise. When my husband comes back home this afternoon, we’ll switch and I’ll work the best I can into the evening so that I can do, basically, a full day—maybe. Wednesday is gonna be weird. Thursday, I think I’m just not going to work. Friday he’ll be in charge that whole day and maybe I’ll work a ten or eleven hour day, if I have to, to get caught up.
I may need to reduce hours by at least one full day. My employer is remarkably generous and is doing absolutely everything imaginable to support working parents. If I do reduce hours temporarily, I will still be paid for them because they have this rule for caretakers that they’re putting into place in this crisis. We’re so lucky that I can say, “I just can’t work Thursdays,” and they will still pay me until this pandemic allows schools to go back into session. It’s a hell of a commitment. I can’t say enough how grateful I am for that. We come from a place of so much privilege and so much luck, honestly. Neither one of us is going to see a very significant loss of earnings. My husband has seen some loss, some clients are just really uncomfortable with video therapy and are just probably going to take a break, but most of them are on board. In Montana, we have a really big tourism and service industry, and all of those are being brutalized. The layoffs we’re seeing in our city are devastating.
The kids are old enough that once they get moving with an actual assignment they do pretty well. This morning, my son had been working on a math lesson for a full hour and then he needed more guidance. In an hour, especially if both kids are synchronized, I can get a lot done. There’s a lot of interruptions, though, and I can’t do work where I have to fully immerse myself. I certainly couldn’t do a webinar. I can pick away at work, but it’s incredibly difficult to put the kind of brainpower to my work to really get it done right. There’s only so far that picking away at email correspondence can take you. At some point, I have to actually do the meat of my job. If I’m reading a research paper or writing up a policy statement summary and one of my kids wants help with a snack, I can’t do it.
Until recently, I traveled out of state two to three days at least about ten times a year. I’ve had this job for over a decade. I don’t even know what I’m going to do without that structure in my working life. I’ve always been preparing for a presentation or organizing a meeting myself. Everything is canceled. But now I work from home and my kids have no after-school activities and they have no outlet but me and my husband and oh my god.
We live in this neighborhood utopia where our kid run out the front door and go around the neighborhood and play with their friends, there are tons of kids their age. It’s brutal, I had to really explain to my sons that you can take the dog on a neighborhood walk but if any of the 5 billion kids who are your friends in the neighborhood are out playing, just wave from the other side of the street. You can’t stop, you’ve gotta keep walking. It’s so hard for them to see their friend playing basketball—normally they would stop and go play basketball with them and now they can’t. One of my sons is having trouble getting to sleep and I can’t figure out if that’s just from disruption of routine or if he’s experiencing anxiety. Both of them are moodier than usual, which, frankly, all of us are.
I’m still really, really angry at the world. I’m very frustrated that I’m being asked to do things that are impossible. I can almost do them because of my luck and privilege, but the vast majority of people can’t do this, they can’t make this work. I’m incredibly disappointed with our federal government’s response—I’m very pleased with our state response—but, god, I am so angry right now. Whereas my husband is still trying to maintain his sanity by looking at the positives. He’s really glad that we live in an area with quiet walking trails that are not overcrowded, where we can send our kids off to walk the dog and be assured that they will have plenty of space. That’s where he chooses to be, and I respect that, but it’s not where I am.
For a while, my husband and I were holding strong, we have really good communication, but the departure between how angry I felt and how he was coping best by maintaining a positive front, that kind of came to a head in the last few days. We talked through it, we apologized for getting snippy, and I think we’re moving on, but I would expect that sort of thing is going to happen in a cycle. We’ll probably do really well for another week or two and then we’ll probably both bubble over, because this is hard. I think that’s the best you can hope for.
To channel my husband, I think one thing that this has been really good for is reminding us of everything we took for granted, personally and professionally. If I have to be positive, that’s how I’d do it, but I don’t want to be positive, I want to be pissed as hell.