For Concord resident Richard Ellenson, every day seems like “Groundhog Day,” that popular Bill Murray movie from 1993 that had him reliving the same day over and over.
Many fathers – and mothers– have expressed feelings like that during the coronavirus pandemic, when family dynamics changed suddenly due to work furloughs, school closures and the shelter in place.
Ellenson says he was one of the “lucky ones.” The Crossings resident and his wife usually work from home, caring for their sons, who are 3 and 6. But he says the hardest part of the pandemic was when schools and daycares closed.
“Without the boys off to school for the day meant that we had to balance work demands, home demands and child demands,” he says. “Completing work tasks was suddenly challenged by child-care scheduling and choosing which meetings my wife and I had to attend versus those we could simply listen to while the boys played or practiced a skill.
“My weekdays morphed into weekend days to complete work tasks, making each day of the week be the same,” he says.
A new parenting balance
The Ellensons could be what the Center for Contemporary Families (CCF) calls a “glass half-full” family – one where the father plays a greater role in child care and day-to-day family life during the pandemic.
In a May survey of 1,600 different-sex families nationwide, CCF found that family work at home has increased for many couples. For most of those couples, women are still doing more than their partners. However, the good news is that women’s relative share of the burden is less lopsided than before the pandemic.
On the whole, men have increased the percentage of the housework and child care that they do since the pandemic began. There are two big exceptions, though. Women are doing 70 percent of homeschooling. And among couples where the division of labor was most unequal before the pandemic, women’s absolute and relative share of family work has increased.
But that isn’t cause for dad-bashing and fears that the pandemic has dealt a major blow to hopes for gender equality.
“Our results suggest a more hopeful scenario than those implied by some of the headlines,” says CCF research director Stephanie Coontz, a professor emeritus at Evergreen College in Olympia, Wash. “According to both men and women, men are doing more housework and child care during the pandemic than before it began, leading to more equal sharing of domestic labor.”
Looking on the bright side
Here are some of the benefits families have found:
While burdens have grown for many families, about 60 percent of respondents reported that their “time in domestic labor has not changed since the beginning of the pandemic, even accounting for helping children with homework.” This may be due to reductions in things like chauffeuring children, scheduling their activities and attending their events – a reminder of how much time parents normally spend on domestic labor outside the household.
Among most couples where the division of tasks changed, it did so in an “egalitarian direction.”
A little more than a month after the start of the pandemic, 41 percent of parents reported sharing housework with their partners – a 15 percent rise over pre-pandemic levels.
Shared child care grew by 11 percent, from about 45 percent to around 56 percent, with small variations depending on the ages of the children.
But those “glass half-empty” families may not be as lucky, says Coontz.
“Men who already participated in housework and child care before the pandemic tended to increase their share of these tasks after,” Coontz says. “But little progress occurred among couples where men started out less involved. And even the more egalitarian couples did not make the same progress when it came to dividing the novel tasks of homeschooling that the pandemic added to many families’ daily schedules.”
Maintaining the marriage
With the pandemic and shelter in place, another issue families face is too much togetherness. And that can strain the primary relationship: the marriage, says Concord-based family therapist Thomas J. Martin.
“A lot of couples are just being pragmatic right now, and there isn’t a lot of relationship-building going on,” he says. “Also, there is a lot of forced intimacy, and one partner, who may not be used to seeing a different side of the other partner, may be surprised and in some cases, disappointed.”
He urges couples to try to enhance this time together, rather than resent it.
“It doesn’t help to say, ‘I wish my partner was different,’ ” he says. “This is a time to learn acceptance of the other partner.
“Make sure that both parents have some ‘me time’ during the day to recharge,” he adds. “Recognizing that it’s not selfish to take time to feel stronger is a very healthy step.”
Ellenson is one of those fathers who will take that advice.
“My father’s sage advice was in his actions … caring for those around you, being affected and showing that it’s okay to cry. That was his superpower.”
The changes in the family due to the pandemic may stick around, Coontz says. “The good news, when you combine these findings with other studies on the long-term effect of paternity leave, split shifts and work from home, is that once men begin to see and participate in the invisible labor they used to be able to ignore, most of them step up their game.”