This piece was originally penned in February 2021. Today, I am privileged to share it with this community. I do this as a reminder. A reminder to stop, look, and listen to what’s going on under all our bloated politics. If we did that, we’d understand what it truly means that throngs of people still experience how inequitably “essential” home-based work continues to be. We’ve ignored these individuals and their stories for far too long. It’s time we started listening.
I should start by saying that I’m one of the lucky ones. The ones whose husbands aren’t afraid of a little — okay, a lot of — work around the house. By this I mean not only fixing things that break, as is the customary reference, but also proactively taking up work that is so often, needlessly, and unceremoniously relegated to women. Or at least, relegated to the more domestically-included human in any housing-based partnership, and then mistakenly gendered along the way.
If that sounds like a lot to process, that’s because it is. It’s also why I’ve chosen to frame this essay with a deeply personal story. In my experience, personal stories give much-needed context to broad-sweeping social narratives. And historically speaking, that kind of context helps support long-lasting change.
Change is why I got into this business, so I’ll just lay it all out right here.
I am a woman, and while I enjoy some aspects of keeping a home, I also enjoy having the freedom to pursue tasks that full-time home-making simply does not allow, whether or not one ultimately couples or raises children.
Luckily, I married a man who gets that on all levels.
He understands that each person’s worth is inherent to their personhood, and that this concept is completely separate and distinct from the monetary value of their earnings or the social value of their time — whether inside or outside the home.
Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones.
Of course, there are still chores to be done and bills to be paid. There is no out-valuing that reality. But it was for precisely this reason that, early on in our marriage, we developed a clear understanding of how our house should run.
It’s this simple.
Never will he assume or suggest that I complete a task on the basis of my sex or gender, and in return, never will I assume the same of him.
Sound like a fairytale?
Let us assure you that it’s not. But it’s also a far cry from more restrictive arrangements of the past — and in some instances, also of the present. As a matter of fact, we’ve found that our marriage functions in a substantively different way than most other couples around us.
For example, the breadwinner? Could be either or both of us. Okay, maybe that part’s not so radical. But dishes-doer? Bed-maker? Laundry-folder? Ironer? Meal-planner? Grocery-shopper? Yard-maintainer? Wall-fixer? I could go further. However, my sense is that you get the point. And besides, the answer to all of these questions is the same: either or both of us.
“How very egalitarian,” some of you are thinking.
“Thanks,” we offer in reply, “but don’t you dare romanticize it.”
See, despite our best efforts, the division of labor in our home is very rarely “equal.” And yes, we knew this would be the case, because no amount of understanding could be expected to undo millennia of antiquated social rules. Especially not during a pandemic and historic social uprising.
By the way, how are we all feeling about the absolutely relentless world-pummeling we’ve survived to-date? You know, the one that began late in 2019, lasted all the way through 2020, and will likely be with us for the foreseeable future?
The disaster that we’ve come to call COVID-19 — and I suspect, many other less dignified names — has been one hell of a wake-up call for American households. I’d like to assume that the vast, ruinous landscape we’re trudging through will continue to reform and refine us, but history will be the arbiter of that decision.
Reformed and refined by what, you ask? By our response (or lack thereof) to the many injustices that ravaged American society long before the pandemic, but which are certainly brought into sharper relief by it. And my lord, do opportunities for reform and refinement abound.
In particular, the United States of America must still face and complete its reckonings with racial injustice and related points of access like a living wage, fair housing, nutritious food, quality medical care, and dignity-affirming education.
In each of these arenas, it’s critical to note that when we speak about injustices, we are actually speaking about individuals who have been wronged, communities who have been transgressed, and not just about broad academic or political buzzwords.
What this means is that when we speak about gender inequality, whether at-home or in the workplace, we are actually speaking about the ways in which women and people who don’t identify as male are denied opportunities, restricted in their movement or growth within the limited opportunities they’re given, or are made to disproportionately suffer the consequences of decisions they did not — or perhaps were not allowed to — make.
Let’s remember, none of those struggles are exactly new. The list of offending behaviors women endure daily — and have for generations — is the topic of another essay. Still, given that we have been handed the uncomfortable microscope that is COVID-19, it would be irresponsible not to evaluate long-standing social struggles in light of our more recent crisis.
Historically speaking, women’s roles in American society have actually expanded around periods of national and international strain. For example, women won the right to vote in 1920 — just two short years after the 1918 flu pandemic. And within two decades, women weren’t only allowed to work outside the home, they were explicitly asked to.
History buffs might recognize “Rosie the Riveter” as the World War II era campaign I’m referencing here — and take similar issue with its hasty copy-pasting on everything from coffee mugs to “Health Care Heroes” campaigns in this century’s pandemic. Rosie’s so ubiquitous that I’m not sure we even appreciate what she stands for anymore. How very symbolic.
Since then, women’s presence in the paid workforce has been anything but short and limited. It took only one additional generation for women in padded-shouldered pantsuits to enter corporate America in droves. And thanks to those trailblazers, women in my generation think nothing of reaching for jobs at the highest levels their education, experience, and social standing can buy.
This doesn’t excuse America from making further efforts to achieve greater parity or justice. To be clear, for as much progress as we’ve made, many American households still assume home-based work is “women’s work.” And as long as that’s true, the most immediate threat to equality isn’t the board room — it’s the ironing board (and a bunch of other places).
I’m no social scientist, but I’d be willing to bet that many readers have said, “Yep, old news,” several times in this essay. And I’m with them — I hear them, I stand with them, I am one of them. That’s not the issue. I’d argue that, perhaps with exception to COVID-19’s forced re-domiciling, the bigger problem is America’s quiet acceptance of this reality in the first place.
What happens when we assume that the home is exclusively — or even primarily — the woman’s domain? The exact opposite of what should: women are un- or under-paid, our work is devalued, and we become invisible despite our many efforts to distinguish ourselves. Ear-bleeding double-speak about how “invaluable” we are doesn’t help, either.
So where does that leave us?
Exhausted already, women take to the streets and the polls, as we have for generations, to protest our treatment and demand better. But we have limits. And those limits get reached a lot faster when we realize that maintaining jobs outside the home will not save us; that voting for progressive, feminist candidates will not save us; and that perhaps no one really wants things to change for us at all.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only made this uncomfortable truth more apparent. In a time when we’re collectively called to “stay at home,” women’s lives should be central to nearly, if not all, conversations America has, bending the arc of justice towards appropriately protecting, recognizing, and compensating us for our time, effort, and energies.
That hasn’t happened — at least, not until recently.
What did we experience instead?
Even when women have managed to secure employment outside our homes, our tasks within them haven’t faded, they’ve only grown more demanding. And unlike our male counterparts, we can’t simply demand crisis pay to help us swallow these “new” responsibilities — because we’ve never been paid for work we do in our homes at all.
By now, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that women report feeling exhausted. No one asked to fragment themselves in this way could be expected to feel otherwise. But here’s the deal: for all our exhaustion, women see what’s going on, and just like the generations of women who came before us, we refuse to be held down by it.
We know better than anyone that our plight is a result of society not having a reliable system by which to understand — much less, assess — us. And so, as we’ve always been capable of doing, we wholesale reject its definitions and expectations. What serves us matters, too. So get ready for the reckoning.
But first, we have some questions:
How is it that women are so “invaluable” that our assigned work breaks us apart? How is it that our male partners — both business and domestic — see this and do nothing to change it? How is it that so many people live in peace with the knowledge that women’s “invaluable” nature renders us broken and exhausted to the point of invisibility?
The answer is that there’s gross injustice at work.
That’s right, we have some answers, too.
But if the devil’s in the details, so too does evil hide within the criminally obvious. That means we have to talk about gender inequality in great depth, starting right now. Yes, today. Not tomorrow. Not next election cycle. Right now.
And that brings us back to our current context. We’re living through a global pandemic that, at least for women, has changed very little — except to bring into even sharper relief how maddeningly the same our lives actually are, whether relative to how they were two years ago, or relative to the many “onerous” changes our male counterparts bemoan by comparison.
Don’t you dare make the mistake of believing this injustice is just a past or present concern, either. Unless we do something to change it, women will continue to feel the effects of COVID-19 faster, closer, and longer than our male or male-identifying counterparts. This means that our rapidly evolving situation might also breed an unjust future.
Neither should this be a difficult concept to grasp, though let’s not render it ineffectual. It just means that women need as many people as possible, across as many channels as possible, to make our reality plainer than plain — for as long as we possibly can.
On that note, I’d like to propose a slight “rebrand” of this conversation. The reason is two-fold: (1) we need to be on the same page before we aim to make change in our unique corners of the world, and (2) whether or not we succeed will depend in large part on how well we equip ourselves with language that the vast majority of people can understand.
So bear with me.
Rather than leaning exclusively on the language of injustice, I’m going to start calling gender inequality a problem. In my experience, that word has a higher success rate when it comes to driving action. That is probably because people are hard-wired to fix “problems” — and that is thanks to the perception that problems are quotidian in nature, and thus solvable by anyone, whereas “injustices” often seem so large that no one could possibly help. This is an important distinction.
With me so far?
Now, since we need every willing person to help us, I’m going to call gender inequality a problem — and hope it makes a difference.
Remember the beginning of this essay, where I told you that personal stories also have the capacity to make change? I’m going to attempt to weave the larger social and historical context we’ve been discussing back together with my own — and hope that makes a difference, too.
Even as a woman with a fully-committed husband, the pandemic has brought about one principal change for me — and it’s not one I’m happy about. Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve gone from being a wife who works, to a stay-at-home “work-wife.” I’ll explain what that means in a minute, though let me assure you that it’s neither sexy nor exciting.
First, you need to understand our family’s previous home context.
Even before the virus, my husband worked in a career that barely afforded him time to eat or sleep. Back then, he labored in days-long shifts at the office, surviving on nothing but adrenaline, cheap take-out, and willpower. Maybe there’s some caffeine in there too, but that’s beside the point. What matters — as he would also tell you — is that my husband was almost never home. And as we were — and still are — two people in this marriage, of course his reality affected me.
The first major impact? A forced, false singlehood. And the second? Learning very quickly to make good use of my free time. In the beginning, this freedom encompassed only a few short hours a week. But eventually, my spirited pursuits outside of work became my work, and at that point, I furnished myself with a home-based office.
This accomplishment will always make my “top five” list of favorite moments. I’d finally liberated myself from toxic notions of success and, in their wake, started the journey I’d been called to take since I was a little girl. Even then, I knew to cherish these moments because I’d never get them back. I just had no idea how right I’d be.
Fast-forward to March 2020.
When it became clear that COVID-19 would be staying stateside, my husband joined me in working from home. And we welcomed this adjustment with open arms. First because it greatly reduced our risk of viral exposure, and second because, for the first time in our marriage, we actually got to live with each other.
This is not an exaggeration.
It’s also a fact I proudly shared with our family, our friends, the neighbors, or really anyone who would listen. I was just that excited.
Another problem, though.
Excitement can be blinding. Blinding to the point where important clues get missed. And let me tell you, from the other side of this transition, I never saw our current reality coming.
Today, instead of my once-neat work schedule:
Wake at 8
Eat breakfast by 9
Workout by 10
Work until 1
Eat lunch and relax until 2
Work until 6
Eat dinner and relax until 8
Work until 10
Go to bed by 11 … okay, maybe midnight but who’s counting?
I have another work-worn human to take care of all the time, in addition to the home-based responsibilities he no longer has time for, given that his field understands “work from home” to mean “Great! you are now working 24/7/365 — and you better be immediately reachable, too.”
Enter my new role: “work-wife,” which includes a collection of duties just numerous enough to completely decimate my pre-pandemic career. And I’m exhausted. Completely and utterly exhausted.
I say all this from a position of clear privilege. That our biggest complaint involves unequal division of labor is absolutely a first-world problem. One that is softened even further by my husband’s commitment to being an equal partner who does his level best to correct the imbalance daily.
And to be clear, I know that our struggles could be so much worse. Either or both of us could be dead, either or both of us could be sick, either or both of us could be losing our home, out of work, lacking enough nutritious food, or have want of reliable access to medical care.
Thankfully, neither of us are these things. And in that context, it’s obtuse to assume that America should care about my new home-based duties, or even how they restrict the work I need to do in support of my chosen career.
But what if this problem wasn’t just about me?
What if my privileged complaint actually underscored the story of countless other people, partners, and parents who — whether through good will, coercion, or some terrible combination of them both — necessarily sloughed off or de-prioritized their own endeavors, citing medical, economic, or other family demands they’ve been asked shoulder simply because they are women?
What if these first-world problems were actually global problems of gargantuan weight and endless, tessellated variety, morphing and evolving as quickly as the virus itself? What if we were entirely unprepared for the decades- and possibly centuries-long ramifications of these changes? And I shudder, what if we didn’t want to admit that precisely because it was happening in the home, which is also the office — instead of the office, which was never meant to be at home?
“OH, CRAP,” some of you are thinking.
“She’s right,” others of you are saying.
“Can you stay a little longer, work-wife, and let me pick your brain?”
“Can you help us connect the dots, stop this collision course, and set the world right once again?”
It pains me, but no.
Unfortunately I can’t.
Because — as should be self-evident by now — I must get back to my other, non-paid (thankfully not thankless) job: making sure my family is fed, clean, and healthy in a time when we are literally just trying to survive.
Let’s be serious: someone has to do it. And at least for now, society values my husband’s profession much more than mine. Hence, my newly assigned role as “work-wife,” the advent of many supportive conversations, and eventually, this essay.
I’m a writer, by the way. When I’m not playing the role of “work-wife” to the best damn husband in the world, I can be found putting pen to paper, fingers to keys, and voice to air.
“Wow,” some of you are saying, “What have you written?” — as if my finished manuscript should somehow lessen the blows I’ve been dealt.
And others of you are joining them, pleading with me, “Why didn’t you say so?!” — as if somehow, you knowing this information any sooner might have changed things in any material way.
I roll my eyes, because my answers to these questions feel increasingly silly.
“Still,” my husband assures me, “someone has to answer them. And if not work-wife-previously-known-as-writer, then who?”
He’s got a point.
So, where is my work? At home. Both jobs.
What have I written? I’ve got a novel and a few blogs under my belt.
And why didn’t I say so earlier? Because I work on these things in stolen moments, which means I have even less time to explain the struggle to you. Because “work-wife” duties now come first. And because I worry that unless something seriously changes, this short-term arrangement might become much, much more permanent.
But again, this isn’t only about me.
This essay and my story are a warning, a call-to-FIGURATIVE-arms, a rally cry for every soul who gives a damn about women in America. If we’re smart, we’ll start re-writing HERstory today, right now, in this critical moment in time (read: they’re all critical moments).
If we’re not careful, society won’t remember the work that women lost or had to give up in this challenging season of life. And I don’t just mean their job titles upon furlough, firing, or resignation. I’m also speaking about their lost forward trajectories.
Just ask any woman who’s spent time away from the paid workforce and she’ll tell you what you need to know. For everyone else, it doesn’t take much to envision how COVID-19 makes life both inside and outside the home even harder for women.
For example, who is expected to revise their work schedules when childcare centers close down? Who is expected to complete home-based tasks between Zoom calls, spreadsheets, or class periods? Who gets to use “better” workspaces to begin with? The answers to these questions tell an interesting story. And that’s assuming that women have managed to keep their outside jobs in the first place.
Of course, for many women, this has not been the case. In addition to being forced back into their homes, they’ve also lost jobs — and with them, not only their physical paychecks, but also the freedom that comes with being compensated for their work, however well or badly. Absent this escape route, their only choice is to continue working at home and for free. And where that is true, we’re not talking about a “reduction in responsibilities” — we’re talking about a railroading.
This brings us to our second, scary alternative.
If we’re not careful, an entire generation of women will also be forgotten for the work they did when they “weren’t working,” for all the essential jobs they performed without pay, without breaks, without promise of promotion or recognition or anything else of male-assessed value. (That is, unless we count seeing big names with big platforms get paid to publicly lament “how terrible it was to watch this happen” — and then do nothing to change it).
So, where is change possible in this dire set of circumstances? Everywhere. And as a matter of fact, what happens next is entirely up to us. That said, I’d like to propose an alternate ending to the HERstory of COVID-19. This story can still end the way that women and other home-based workers truly deserve.
If you’re wondering what that looks like, then for starters we could:
(1) Stop silencing women’s voices;
(2) Start respecting women for the tireless work we’ve completed since the beginning of time and;
(3) Start compensating women as the essential workers we’ve always been, AND/OR accept our delegation of the duties we no longer have time for, starting right now.
In short, I’m proposing that we choose to abate the inequitable strain placed on women at every moment of our lives — and make the world a better, stronger, more livable place for everyone as a result.
Because women hold society together. We help you process, keep you warm, keep you fed, keep you clothed, keep you schooled, keep you living and breathing and safe from harm — and when that is not possible (God help us), we keep you morally awake.
What’s more, we do this with grace and pride and minimal but thoroughly justified complaints. Because that’s just what women do: we make sure you live. No one better ask us what we do for a living ever again.
“Because that’s just what women do: we make sure you live. No one better ask us what we do for a living ever again.” — Ryan Vale McGonigle | “Work Wife” on North by North CarolinianTweet
Instead, if you claim to value women, you can learn to actually value us. And no, despite your many protestations, you don’t. At least not yet.
How do I know that?
Because if America truly valued women — inherently and otherwise — we wouldn’t still be here.
If America truly valued women, I wouldn’t be writing this essay, we wouldn’t need to challenge gender norms on everything from the kitchen table to the White House and back, and we wouldn’t need to print Rosie the Riveter on everything imaginable, mindlessly proliferating World War II era propaganda that — remember — celebrated women for their sacrificial work in another period of national crisis.
In fact, women’s work would cease to be sacrificial at all.
We aren’t there yet. There’s still a lot of work to d–
Oh, I’m sorry, what’s that you’re saying? You know? Then good, we’re on the same page. Women won’t be working from home for free anymore. And as a matter of fact, we aren’t sure home-based work should be ours alone to begin with.
So go ahead.
Tell the others.