A typical day in my home right now feels far from ordinary. Like other Canadians, my family, including our three kids, is social distancing in an attempt to flatten the COVID-19 curve—and it’s taking a toll on my marriage.
Kids and quarantine are a unique mix. We aren’t binge-watching Netflix, deep-cleaning our house, or embracing a new hobby. In fact, we barely have time to figure out meals, entertain and educate our kids, or manage our two jobs from home. For me, in particular, the stress and anxiety of balancing home, work, and kids feels beyond overwhelming. And I’m not alone.
According to a 2018 study, Canadian women spend 50 percent more time on household chores and twice as much time on childcare than men. In my home, the pandemic has only amplified the unequal division of labour. While my partner is a wonderful father and husband, we struggle to come up with a plan that has us equally contributing around the house. While he squeezes in a few extra work hours each day, I’m left doing more household chores and also delegating tasks that need to be done. I’m exhausted, we’re arguing more, and things are growing tense.
I know I carry the brunt of the emotional labour in our house, but it can be difficult for my partner to see this. Things like anxiety over pandemic planning and grocery shopping, budgeting and financial planning, anticipatory anxiety over our kids and their education—these stressors are very real, but they’re also mostly invisible. And when I try and explain this to my partner, he doesn’t get it.
Stacey Ivits, a social worker in Guelph, Ont. says that effective communication is key when trying to negotiate roles and share how you’re feeling.
“It’s important that the overwhelmed partner doesn't blame the other partner for not doing enough, or not noticing all the things that need to be done,” says Ivits. She suggests starting a conversation with an “I” instead of “You”.
Being trapped in the house together can bring up all kinds of unsaid feelings, which can be difficult to navigate through, says Ivits. “If the issue is unequal balance of household labour, highlighting the struggle may open the floodgates and bring something to light that has been simmering for a long time unchecked.”
Ivits suggests that the overwhelmed partner starts by letting go of some of the burden. For example, if meal-planning or grocery shopping is weighing you down, stop doing it and let your partner pick up the slack. “This is the moment of clarity that is sometimes required before a partner will truly get it,” she says.
For emotional burdens like pandemic stress and doling out hugs, Ivits suggests sitting down after the kids go to bed and discussing the areas that overwhelm or cause added strain. Situations like constant kid interruptions while you’re trying to work, or extra snuggles with your kids can accumulate and take a toll. It’s important that each partner share whatever it is that is overwhelming them.
Every household situation is different. Some partners are both working, while others have one, or both parents unemployed or as a stay at home parent. “Discuss what your family values are and what the priorities are for you,” says Ivits. She suggests working on a list of non-negotiables, or things that need to be done, and then things that would be nice to accomplish but aren’t necessary. Make a plan so that those items are delegated in a way that feels fair to both partners.
To pandemic-proof your day, sit down together as a couple, and work on a flexible but manageable chore chart, plan work and school schedules, put together shopping lists and even pre-order meals to be delivered, says Ivits. She also suggests that you adjust your expectations during this time. Lose the screen-time guilt, expect that the house won’t be perfect right now, and get the kids to help out when possible. Teach them to sweep, dust, and vacuum. Even younger kids can help organize the bookshelf or the shoe rack, she says.
One key change I’ve made is approaching our home as a team, and not a battleground. We’re far more effective as a couple when we problem-solve together and attempt to find solutions that work for both of us. Working together as a team has meant leaning into our own individual strengths—I love cooking, so I manage the meals; my husband is great at entertaining the kids, so he’s been taking on more childcare.
The beauty of this pandemic is that we have ample time to figure this out. “If you are so overwhelmed by your to-do list, take a day to pause,” says Ivits. For me, a nice long hike, some quiet time in my bedroom, or even a cozy evening watching a movie with my husband are great ways to reconnect and recharge.