A few weeks ago, my husband was stood down from his job and our life changed overnight.
As we hurtle towards a probable financial crisis, reading the daily news has gone from being one of my favourite pastimes to becoming an exercise in dread. With the Federal Government preparing a financial package to support up to six million unemployed Australians, many people are feeling understandably helpless and scared about what their future will hold.
Yet, over the last week, cooped up at home with my son and husband, I’ve begun to notice a small — yet significant — silver lining: for the first time in years, I am getting a break.
I am still lucky to be employed and to have the freedom to work flexibly. In fact, I have worked flexibly for a long time: first because I needed the flexibility to do other projects; and then, following the birth of my four-year-old son, to make it easier to care for our child.
And, until recently, I hadn’t realised just how stressed and run off my feet I’d been over the past few years. With my husband now at home, for the first time since our son was born I’ve realised how exhausted I am when I slow down.
At first, having him at home available to do the tasks I usually do — vacuum, do the grocery run, plan for dinner, cook dinner, pick up our son — made me anxious. I’ve been so used to running the house a certain way, running a million miles an hour trying to fit everything in that suddenly, having to contend with my husband’s input was a shock to the system.
After a few days of grudgingly sharing the load (I was happy he was doing it but I wanted it done a certain way), I realised I had to let go. I had to let my husband exercise his own free will when it came to meal planning, cooking and cleaning, and to trust that it would get done.
As soon as I did this, I realised I could complete, for the first time in years, an uninterrupted day’s work. BC (before coronavirus) I had to split my full-time work hours with child care and domestic work, meaning that my shift would start somewhere in the early morning and end at 10 or 11pm.
To his credit, my husband acknowledges how much I do, and has certainly stepped up. But while he’s always helped out, he didn’t quite see — and therefore think about — all the things that need to be done just for life to function.
Having somebody else seeing what I do is extremely validating, and has signalled to me that things have to change post-COVID-19. And while old habits die hard (I still tend to clean or tidy on my breaks), my husband now happily joins me or cleans around me, as I work.
Like it or not, the pandemic has precipitated a mass social experiment which will no doubt throw out some mixed results.
On the one hand, some households will see gender equality go backwards. With Australia’s gender pay gap at nearly 14 per cent (meaning women earn, on average, $242 less than men per week), and women more likely to be working part time, this time of crisis will no doubt lead families to make the most rational economic decision, i.e. keeping the person who earns more money employed (usually the man).
On the other hand, the pandemic has exposed men to what most women already know: that there is no such thing as a hard line between life and work, and that life — meaning children, pets, parents and daily chores — has no regard for the hours we designate for work only.
In order for both parents to play an active role in their children’s lives, we have to evolve into a society that readily accepts “I need to leave early” from both mums and dads, and one which doesn’t punish people for having responsibilities and lives outside of the workplace which tend to interfere with work.
As Jacqueline Maley wrote in SMH over the weekend, “some households will see a similar effect to the revolution in women’s work we saw during World War II. Female essential workers such as nurses and supermarket attendants will leave the home, either sending their kids to school or daycare, or leaving their partners to do the childcare.”
COVID-19 has also exposed just how much we need the practical skills of people we usually dismiss — the nurses, carers, shopkeepers, supermarket attendants and cleaners — who, ironically, are also the jobs that tend to be paid the least, have the highest incidences of part-time workers, and are mostly done by women.
For many single parents, especially women who work in the above industries, life is already tough, and having to now figure out who can care for their children while they work has made life even more complicated. Free childcare for essential workers – could this possibly be the norm? If flexibility could also be the norm, their lives could fundamentally change for the better to manage the logistics of their lives.
As for single fathers, I’m sure they already know what my husband, and many husbands across the world, are now seeing.
The COVID-19 crisis has laid the foundations for a much broader societal discussion about how we want families to operate and how work can better fit around our existing responsibilities — instead of always being the other way round.
We are so used to working one way, and suddenly we’re seeing that it doesn’t have to be like this. The coronavirus crisis has shown that most workplaces CAN adapt to working from home, and having employees work flexibly doesn’t spell the end of an organisation.
The biggest change we can make is making this change sustainable. We’ve seen and experienced new ways of working and living, and we are responsible for not slipping back into old habits.
Hopefully this will empower men to ask more openly about flexible arrangements, and women to demand a greater partricuation in the home from their partners. We will emerge from this time a different society. How it will look is anybody’s guess, but as far as I’m concerned, my life will be different, where, to say the least, I will finally be able to not have to choose between going to the gym or cooking dinner for my family.