Tbh Pete puts in a lot more emotional labor in this household
Despite being stuck inside thanks to coronavirus and suddenly having many more usable hours in a day, I find I can’t write a damn thing. It’s a small complaint, I know — I’m sure people with kids are not finding a whole lot of spare time to spend not-writing — but this feeling of anxiety-induced paralysis seems about as close to universal as anything right now.
The other thing that keeps popping up again and again: How badly our patriarchal family and social structures have set us up for this moment.
Men are dying from coronavirus at a rate higher than women. Part of that is probably biological, as this scientist and physician points out in the Times this week. Women generally outlive and outlast men. We are less likely to get and die of many cancers. The advantage may be chromosomal: Those of us with XX chromosomes (mostly but not entirely women) have an advantage.
But health outcomes are behavioral, too, and that’s where women have another leg up — and where deeply stupid ideas of what it means to be a man are killing men. Men are more likely to smoke. They’re more likely to drink in excess and to abuse drugs. You’ve probably heard about the “deaths of despair” that are killing working-class white men. Those don’t stem from biology; they stem from the depression and isolation that comes from more than a century of telling white men their primary purpose is to be a stoic breadwinning head of household, an authority figure over a wife and children, needed for the ability to provide and protect. When that’s less possible — when there aren’t enough traditionally masculine jobs that pay a living wage, when women don’t need you to pay the rent, when women resent the suggestion that they need an authority figure to watch over them, when the culture has shifted so that your identity and experience is no longer the most lauded and central — men whose identities hinged on breadwinning, cultural supremacy and familial authority feel left out to sea. Despair ensues, and with it, depression, substance abuse, and suicide.
Men are also less likely than women to seek out healthcare when they need it. They’re less social — they have fewer friends, are less involved in their communities, and are much more likely to rely on a romantic partner to facilitate social and even familial connections. They’re more prone to being victims of our culture of overwork, and carry the attendant life-shortening stress. Our bizarre cultural ideas around masculinity even extend to what men eat (a lot more meat than women); men are less likely to be vegan or vegetarian; men eat more fast food than women; and men are less likely to eat a wholesome and balanced diet. Men tend to engage in riskier behaviors (which is why, for example, car insurance is more expensive for teenage boys than teenage girls), spanning everything to risky driving to physical violence and fights.
All of this makes men less physically healthy, and more prone to disease — including, apparently, coronavirus. And while biological factors may be less moveable, a lot of these vulnerabilities are entirely man-made.
You’ll often hear feminists say that feminism is for everybody, and that we would all benefit from less-restrictive gender roles and a fairer distribution of power and privilege. Welp.
One bit of good news is that some of this is changing, albeit slowly, thanks to a growing number of men who have had enough.
While men are bearing the physical brunt of coronavirus deaths, women aren’t exactly getting off scot-free. The overwhelming majority of healthcare workers in the United States are women. It’s women who are on the front lines in hospitals, risking their lives and often staying away from their own families to help others. It’s women who are caring for elderly people in nursing homes — people who cannot see their families, who are at the highest risk of coronavirus infection, and who may be confused, in pain, and scared.
It’s women who are quarantined with their violent male partners.
And it’s women who are now doing five different jobs at home, and realizing that their egalitarian marriage isn’t quite what they thought it was — that when the going gets tough, a lot of husbands decide their jobs matter more than their wives; a lot of husbands assume their wives will do what needs to get done. And a lot of wives do it, because no one else will.
I don’t mean to suggest that no men are doing their fair share at home. Of course they are! A lot of them are! A disproportionate number of male readers of this newsletter probably are (ditto male partners of female readers of this newsletter)! I don’t have kids so it’s less of an issue in my own relationship, but I am lucky to have a partner who is a real teammate. Men who are full participants in their own families absolutely exist, in ever-growing numbers.
But when you look at the aggregate of who is planning meals / making meals / teaching homeschool classes / organizing activities / keeping everyone fed and entertained and as low-anxiety as possible, a lot of American homes suddenly look like it’s 1955. American women were already doing three times as much unpaid care work as men. Now that it’s suddenly a lot harder to pay anyone to do the rest of that work, who do you think is picking up the slack?
Here’s what we already know happens: That even among couples who initially say they want equality, men assume very early on that their careers will take precedence, and they’re right. Women assume things will be more evenly divided, and they are wrong. One study of Harvard Business School students illustrated exactly this: That while most ambitious, hard-working HBS students said they wanted high-powered careers and egalitarian households, and while men and women put equal emphasis on the importance of career and family, the male students also said that, if push came to shove, their career would take precedence over their spouse’s career. Female students were much more likely to expect egalitarianism. And a decade or more after graduating, men’s careers had indeed taken precedence, while women had scaled back their work to enable them to do more at home. And despite the desire to “balance” work and family, the women reported being less professionally satisfied than the men.
And that’s among some of the most privileged people in the country who can mostly afford childcare, in a normal time when older kids are in school and, for the highly-educated and attendantly relatively wealthy, a whole lot of life can be outsourced.
Now it can’t be. Many of us are working from home; those with kids are also trying to keep them educated, entertained and cared for. Another study found that working from home increased the number of hours women spent doing household chores, while men took work-from-home opportunities to work overtime. I suspect that dynamic is being magnified and replicated in homes across the U.S. right now.
We don’t know yet what coronavirus means for families. But I bet it has already meant a retreat to more traditional roles — not on purpose, but because women are simply used to picking up the slack at home, and now all of a sudden there’s a lot more slack to pick up. Who has the vaccine schedule memorized? Who does the school call when a kid is sick? Who is usually doing the meal-planning and grocery shopping and keeping mental track of who’s allergic to what and who won’t eat what other thing? Of course that person is going to be the one who just does what needs to get done around the house.
Again, #NotAllMen. But we know that, as a general rule, the people doing much of the physical domestic labor in heterosexual couples, and particularly in two-opposite-sex-parent families — not to mention putting in disproportionate mental and emotional energy — are women. And everything just got turned up to 100.
I hope you’re all staying safe and healthy and if you’re a heterosexual man with kids at home, I hope you’re doing 75% of the work.
(If you think you’re doing 75%, you’re probably doing 50).