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Life has changed at Robin Milhausen’s house, where chores used to take up an hour or two after work each day and a few more on weekends.
Now, with her two adolescent children learning from home and the professional cleaning help cancelled, the days have become an 18-hour marathon of homework assistance, meal preparation, dishes, laundry and dog walks – all while the mother tries to fit in her day job as a professor at the University of Guelph.
“We are making more mess and grime since living in the house all day every day for 11 months,” said Milhausen, a sexuality researcher studying marriages through the pandemic with the Kinsey Institute.
When her husband, a psychologist, comes home from the office, he takes one look at her face and takes over homework help or dinner, she said. On Saturdays, the family has started using a chore chart to divide “five-minute tasks”: wiping the bathroom floor and mirrors, sorting laundry, unloading the dishwasher.
“It’s a huge life change to stay in the house basically every day … prepare 90 meals a month and support your children all day long, compared to going off to work and taking care of your own responsibilities,” Milhausen said.
As families approach a year sequestered together in various states of lockdown, their homes have rarely seen more traffic, clutter and dirt. For some, the disruption of the pandemic has upended the ways they share the load at home, making the invisible work of chores visible. For others, the old ways persist: Women have reported struggling with the triple whammy of working from home, helming child care and remote learning, and maintaining the household, with some pulling away from their careers.
Since the pandemic intensified last spring, Canadian researchers have been tracking changes to household dynamics. They want to know whether spouses learned anything from the first wave to carry them through the second, and whether any new chore habits will stick.
Surveying more than 2,000 spouses last April and December, Milhausen and her Kinsey colleagues found most felt like a team through the crisis, with husbands reporting they’d stepped up on the housework front. “I have become closer to my wife and I am able to see how hard she works taking care of me, the dogs, and the house throughout the day,” one man remarked.
Even so, Milhausen remains unconvinced that heterosexual couples have “strayed too far from the status quo” on unpaid domestic labour, with more wives than husbands reporting they were slogging through “much more” housework since lockdowns hit.
Throughout the crisis, stressed-out spouses have been making decisions around paid and unpaid work, doing a rudimentary mental calculus: Whose job is more flexible, who makes more money, who’s got the health benefits – but also who is better at which task, at home and beyond?
“In a lot cases, it’s leading families to rely on the scripts they already have,” said Haley Swenson, deputy director of Better Life Lab, a think tank based in Washington.
Swenson, who researches gender inequality at home and work, believes families are flexible and views the past months as an opportunity to re-evaluate the way things happen in households: “It’s a vital moment of learning the details of unpaid work, seeing it for yourself when it might have been invisible to you and understanding its value in a new way.”
She manages research for the BLLx project, a tool aimed at helping families share chores, lower stress and boost a sense of fairness and happiness. The website features 30 experiments, all informed by behavioural science, for families to try at home. One exercise asks family members to put Monopoly money in a jar every time they expend mental load on chores, to raise awareness about who does what at home. Another exercise recommends whoever cooks in the family doesn’t clean up after the meal. Some of Swenson’s advice is blunt: “Don’t have as perfect a household.”
Spouses should cut each other slack on the domestic stuff during this “bracketed time,” according to Toronto author Stephen Marche, who hosts the podcast How Not to F*ck Up Your Marriage Too Bad.
“This is not the time to set up rules to run your household by. This is a time to survive and be kind to each other because it’s all a mess,” he said.
Marche, whose family has been working and learning remotely from home for 11 months, said his contribution to the household through the pandemic has been cooking. He’s been doing it “frantically,” concocting “absurd meals” including rabbit with tarragon and croquembouche.
“I don’t know if that’s helpful to the marriage,” said Marche, author of the book The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century. “Our operating mode until this whole thing is over is forgiveness to ourselves and others.”
The crucial thing is to talk it out, according to Veronica Lamarche, a Hamilton-born senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Essex.
Spouses who had many, deliberate conversations about household duties changing in quarantine reported greater satisfaction, commitment and closeness, according to a study of 682 cohabitating partners in Canada and abroad, co-authored by Lamarche and under review for the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
On the flipside, those not speaking openly about home dynamics in lockdown “are truly suffering,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Helen Tubrett’s husband, Brent Tucker, was often away half the time, travelling for work. Since last March, the Calgary spouses, both 53, have been at home 24/7.
Tubrett doesn’t expect much from her husband during the week, when he toils at his computer 10 to 12 hours a day. But on weekends, the expectation is to share the weight.
“You don’t want to get dragged down by a house,” said Tubrett, a community volunteer.
Since the lockdowns began, her husband has been cooking big weekend dinners. They fold laundry together while watching TV. Before, Tubrett vacuumed her husband’s office twice a month, when he was away. Now that he’s in there all the time, he noticed the dust and started hoovering the entire house “with some relish,” using the different vacuum attachments, Tubrett observed.
Doing the chores together curbs her resentment about the gendered nature of housework. Her philosophy is to get dull tasks over with quickly so the two of them can head to the mountains, or so she can read and write.
“We’re home and we’ve developed these new habits that displace the previous ones. You see that there’s a better way to be.”
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