Global crises have a habit of changing things. During the Second World War, with most working-age men consigned to the military, women rushed to fill the jobs that were suddenly left open.
Being able to work gave them a taste of economic freedom and a purpose that stretched beyond homemaking. When the war ended, they were reluctant to give up their new lives. I wonder if we’re on the cusp of something similar today. For better or for worse, lockdown has been transformational for couples.
On the one hand, men who have habitually shunned household chores – women do 10 more hours of housework than men each week, on average – are finally experiencing the slog of keeping a home. On the other, the financial hit caused by the virus has been indiscriminate. People are losing their jobs in droves, regardless of gender. As a result, in some cases, the scales are starting to tip.
I know couples where men – burly, old-fashioned, cartoonishly alpha men – have been made redundant and their wives have not. In the past, this would have been a huge psychological blow to the men, because their entire identities were wrapped up in what they did for a living and the thought of a female breadwinner unsettled them (despite a third of European households having one). They took pride in their role: it was how they provided for their families, by working long hours and barely seeing their children.
However, most seem to have fallen into their new roles with barely a complaint. Dads have been home- schooling their kids and cooking dinners. Men have taken on what used to be considered feminine roles and, though it probably shouldn’t have taken a catastrophic global health crisis to get them there, they’re finding worth in them. More than that: one in three men describe themselves as “permanently stressed” about their jobs, compared to one in five women. In the case of my friends, taking their feet off the accelerator has shown them another, better, way to live.
Things have been slightly different in my house. Both my wife and I are freelance writers who work from home, so we’ve always divided the day down the middle. One of us worked while the other looked after our two kids; then we swapped at lunch. But we had to readjust. In the before-times, we were each able to work 40-hour weeks. Under lockdown, that went down to 25.
This adjustment was horrible at first, especially since it meant that I had to turn down work for the first time in my life. But working less has given me a glimpse of the other side, where I am financially worse off but not stuck on the hamster wheel of my career. I’m spending more time with my kids. I’m keeping on top of housework. I don’t feel as much stress. It’s a smaller life, but I think I might prefer it like this.
I’m still the breadwinner. I earn more, so I pay the mortgage and the bulk of the bills. I’m the “provider”. Lockdown has made me question whether that’s a role I even want any more. But maybe I am still looking at it through the wrong lens.
If this time has taught us anything, I hope it’s that the traditional masculine view of what constitutes “providing” is massively out of date. Providing can mean anything. Sure, it might mean earning all the money, but it also means looking after the kids. It means doing the laundry. It’s cooking dinners and vacuuming. It’s making sure that everyone in the house feels safe and happy and looked after. Male or female, financially or otherwise, it’s all part of the same job. I hope that’s the lesson that sticks when we come out of this mess.
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