When You Work From Home—and Are Expected to Do the Housework, Too
As a stay-at-home dad for the last 12 years I often find myself in conversations that a lot of heterosexual, cis men might not get to hear. In the year 2017, gender stereotypes are alive and well—which means social roles are still likely to be handed out based on gender expectations instead of personal aptitude—and so on the playground, at school, and during birthday parties, I’m usually a gender interloper.
Among my mom peers, a common refrain is that women in heterosexual couples shoulder an overwhelming bulk of their households’ domestic burdens—often on top of work outside the home. Pew Research data backs this up, showing that while the roles of moms and dads continue to progressively converge, men still lag behind women in hours-per-week spent on childcare and housework (17 hours for men vs. 32 for women). And although—on average—men put in more time per-week at work outside the home (in part due to women being more likely to structure their careers around domestic duties), anyone responsible for “invisible labor”—the emotional, domestic, and caretaking duties that are often unpaid and unnoticed— can vouch that it’s an all-consuming task, with some hours not fitting neatly into a survey.
So what does that mean for remote work—where it might be easier to assume that partners have tons of extra time on their hands? After all, they are home all day. Is it even harder to get out from under the weight of gender expectations and domestic burdens? For some women—it absolutely is, and for others, remote work can be a catalyst for tackling domestic disparity head on.
Lou Donnelly-Davey, Head of Marketing at Timely, leads a remote team of seven employees. She says she’s able to balance her demanding job with domestic responsibilities due to the fact that she and her husband split their household chores equally. But there’s no magic to this situation: “It’s not the 1930’s,” Donnelly-Davey says. “[My husband] makes the kids’ lunches in the morning and I…fold the wash. I hate making lunches and he hates folding, so it works. [These days] both parents in a [two-parent] family [often] work full-time, and it’s important that partners are putting equal time and dedication into family life as well as household duties.”
It’s clear that partner support is crucial, and Irit Gillath, VP of Marketing at syslink Americas, says it’s the key to a successful balance of remote work and domestic responsibility. “My spouse works outside of the home,” Gillath says, “but since he knows I [also] work full-time he doesn’t expect me to do more at home…he knows [when I’m at home] I’m working and doing nothing else. I couldn’t [work as successfully from home] without a supportive partner [who] equally shares the housework and childcare load.”
But while examples like these are encouraging, they also require a partner who is acutely aware of the nuanced ways in which we assign certain traits and expectations based on gender—and is committed to undoing a lifetime of reinforcement. This often isn’t the norm: The system in which we all grew up (aka: the patriarchy) says that women are responsible for household labor. If you saw the adult women in your life picking up the household slack while the men watched football and drank Lite beer, it’s not surprising that you might be conditioned to think it’s a given—but this parody of gender is anything but. And sure, growing up in system may make men victims of the patriarchy, but their free pass expires fairly quickly. An unquestioned response to social norms isn’t acceptable on the part of men in partnerships—and it often falls to the women in heterosexual relationships to bring their male partners up to speed.
Kelley* is a web designer working remotely and married to her childhood sweetheart. Over the years, they’ve worked through enough problems in their relationship that they now enjoy a relatively blissful marriage—except when it comes to the division of domestic tasks. “My husband’s mother took care of all those things when he was a kid, since she was mostly a stay-at-home mom,” says Kelley. “I think subconsciously that idea is still in his head—that I’ll take care of him and all the household things.”
Kelley says her husband works long hours at a stressful sales job, and since she doesn’t have a commute and generally works a less hectic schedule, she’s happy to pitch in more on the domestic front. Still, she and her husband go through times when all the domestic work starts falling on her—because of the very flexibility of her remote job, it seems easy to assume her time is less valuable. But that’s not the case at all: “If I get too many chores on my plate, then all the things that make me ‘me’ start drifting away and I feel like a mindless drone,” she says. When the domestic imbalance in their household is at its worst, her husband is able to come home and pursue his own relaxation and personal projects, while she’s too tired to think or be creative.
Being able to work remotely is crucial for Kelley due to a chronic health condition, but it also syncs up well with her personality—she didn’t like the noise and constant interruptions of an office environment and she hated commuting. While her husband accepts that she’s at work even when she’s working from home—in the sense of not expecting her to be available for housework just because she’s in the house—he is still more likely to assume she’s available for running errands in the middle of the day or to drive downtown to meet him for lunch. “I have to put time limits on my lunches and breaks, otherwise they’d get out of hand and I’d be working late into the evening every day,” Kelley says.
While Kelley and her husband don’t generally fight, the issue of domestic work recently came to a head, forcing them to start talking things out. After some time stewing, Kelley talked to him frankly about how he needed to help more with domestic tasks and not complain when she asks for his help. Kelley says she felt heard, but that it’s an ongoing process. “I’m thinking about writing up an agreement so our roles are more clear as a next step,” Kelley says.
It’s not just when one person works outside the home and the other works from home. Consider IT Consultant Alma Miller, who says that she definitely felt gender-based expectations from her husband when she started working from home even though he also works remotely. In fact, Miller’s husband started working from home before she did, and during that time he didn’t get much domestic work done. When Miller joined him, she says there was an expectation that she would pick up the domestic slack. “If a child was sick, [it was expected] that I would take [time] off work to care for [them] while my husband…remained undisturbed,” says Miller. “Sometimes [it felt] like my job didn’t matter as much [as his] even though I was the breadwinner.”
Miller says she found this double standard frustrating, and it led her to have a direct conversation with him about domestic chores. Miller came away from this conversation with the understanding that she’s more capable of multitasking than her husband is, and that he “relies on her to keep things together.” So to bridge the gap, they determined a list of domestic duties that he was 100 percent responsible for, like helping the kids with school work and handling all of their parent-teacher conferences. “If I can participate, good,” says Miller, “but if I can’t, oh well, because it’s his responsibility.”
Part of what makes remote work an ideal platform for giving male partners a reality check seems to be that very juxtaposition of work and home. Seeing their partner doing something they can relate to—paid work—against the backdrop of something they’re not as used to—domestic chores—can help men see that invisible labor. Of course, this falls into the trap of men only believing women’s experiences when they see them first hand or experience them themselves, as opposed to listening to women and believing them. To be clear: This is patently unacceptable. It’s a slippery slope when we don’t believe people about their own experiences until we see it ourselves.
When I started working remotely for Skillcrush last November, it was the first time since our 12-year-old daughter was born that I’d worked (virtually) outside the home. During those 12 years I’d been in charge of most of my family’s domestic duties (everything except cooking, which my wife did), so there was an adjustment period. Even working part-time, it became exponentially harder to get things done around the house (and it hadn’t been easy to begin with). The first few months were rough, with dishes and laundry piling up and home projects going neglected. The balance my wife and I had just barely achieved over the past 12 years was knocked out of alignment, and there were some definite growing pains when either she or I felt the other wasn’t picking up the slack.
Fortunately we started to notice what was happening and made the tweaks necessary for our new schedule to work. “You’re second-shifting me!” became our in-joke code term when one of us felt overwhelmed—a nod to the influential Arlie Hochschild book we’d read in college about how despite women working 9-5 jobs, they often take a “second shift” when they come home to handle cooking, laundry, childcare, etc. Whenever she or I threw out this accusation, it gave us a chance to check-in, regroup, and see what we could be doing better.
Remote work isn’t a fairy tale, but remote work does come with special qualities that make it ideal in so many ways: It can maximize your time by speeding up and streamlining meetings, it eliminates commutes, it affords parents the chance to easily stay involved with school dropoffs and pickups, and it can be a great chance for partners to reconnect and establish a new paradigm for balancing paid work and domestic chores. But—like anything in a relationship—none of this happens on its own. Direct and honest communication about your needs, your feelings, and your expectations are key, as is a concrete set of plans and routines coming out of those conversations. If you’re thinking about remote work or already working remotely yourself, set aside some time to talk to your partner and let them know where you’re at with our own balance. If they’re a partner worth having, they’ll listen and work with you to get to where you both need to be.