kids

'I don't think he's done a single load of washing.' How women's mental load changed in 2020.

In late March, companies all over Australia who had been saying for years that flexible working ‘just wouldn’t work’, set up an entirely remote workforce within weeks. Suddenly, men who previously couldn’t possibly work from home when a child was sick from school were working full time in the house, and women who had previously had to fight for any flexibility in their hours saw a glimmer of hope that things were about to change for everyone.

There have been benefits – more time together as a family, less frantic pace of life, men working flexibly – but we’re also hearing about new grievances of homes becoming offices, no division between work and home, and ‘flexibility’ meaning now you’re allowed to work from 5am until 11pm and then do it all again the next day. Now, Mamamia is supporting research into the impacts of COVID on working women and we’d love for you to have your say.

When women come last

Kate, who works three days a week as an Executive Manager at a big bank, says prioritising herself was the first thing to go when COVID hit and life changed. 

“My day would start at 5am, I’d work until the kids got up, then I’d get them breakfast and log them on for home schooling. I was working significantly longer days. I really didn’t want the kids to fall behind, but because I prioritised that and work was the next priority, I deprioritised myself. Exercising was the first thing to go. In some ways it was a relief when the gyms shut because I could stop feeling guilty about not going. When online options came available I still thought, ‘How can I justify an hour class when there is schooling and work to do?’ It just never worked.”

Couples therapist Isiah McKimmie echoed Kate’s experience with what she sees with clients. 

“I’m trying not to be too gendered about it because I know it can go both ways, but the way a lot of couples have their lives set up, men have been used to having more time to themselves, away from the family. Now, couples are stuck in the house together and that’s adding a whole lot of pressure. Women still do tend to take on – or be left with – more of the domestic duties, and I think women tend to express more guilt for taking time for themselves.” 

Lauren, a mother-of-three who works a full-time role in strategy for a major Australian retailer, says that even when men try to help, it relies on the mental labour of women.

Watch: What the sexiest man in the world actually looks like. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.
ADVERTISEMENT

“My partner would say, ‘Tell me what you need’, so I had to articulate that I was drowning. I get up, feed the kids, get them set up for the day, and the next thing it’s 10am and I haven’t turned my laptop on. I got frustrated because he was saying, ‘tell me what you need’ and I said ‘NO, look around and work it out!’ We ended up coming to an agreement where I would get 2-3 hour blocks of time without interruption to work, but I initiated that by losing my sh*t.” 

“We originally set up a single desk and thought we would share it. I found I was sitting with the kids trying to do my work and talk them through whatever they were trying to do for school that day, constantly interrupted because they’re young, and he’d be upstairs and come down every few hours and get a glass of water. I thought, he just doesn’t see it. I’m getting nothing done. I was taking calls on my bed, on the stairs, wherever I could find a quiet spot, and he was just living his best life.”

Kate echoes that sentiment and says that although in some ways things improved, it also highlighted some inequities in her relationship.

“The domestic load increased, absolutely. I felt like I was cooking all the time, and running out of food resulting in more trips to the supermarket. The house got so untidy because everyone was there all the time. Some things improved. My husband got into the habit of clearing up a bit more than he was used to, but I don’t know if he even made me a sandwich the whole time. I would stop and make myself lunch, and would feel obliged to make him a sandwich and take him a glass of water, but because he’s happy to eat a peanut butter sandwich and knows I wouldn’t want that he never did it. I don’t think he’s done a single load of washing, and with activities like that I have to get involved anyway because he asks so many questions about what and how to do it. I miss the escapism of going into the office and getting away from domestic duties and looking after everyone else.” 

Fake flexibility

One of the positives to come out of COVID changes to workplaces is the increased flexibility. People who have been advocating for more flex and remote working for years got the chance to show that everyone can successfully work from home, and that flexible work is good for employees – whether they have families or not. But there have been some instances where the flexibility comes at the cost of much longer hours. Kate experienced exactly that.


   

"Finishing at 11pm and being up again to start for 5am became untenable." Image: Getty. 

 “There was no such thing as a work 'day'. I basically had to work day and night to make up the hours that I was doing schoolwork with children. My company was sympathetic, but I still had the same workload. The solution was all on you to try to juggle it, and stuff still had to be delivered. I was working a hell of a lot more and the days got very long. Finishing at 11pm and being up again to start for 5am became untenable.”

ADVERTISEMENT


Lauren’s partner works in tech sales – a male-dominated field – and the assumption was that everyone had a wife at home taking care of the children. 

“My organisation has a lot more women and they were flexible about getting your work done when you can. That helped, however it meant I was working between 6am and 10pm, flicking between work and remote learning and never feeling like I was nailing anything. In the end I rang the school and said I couldn’t manage remote learning, but even that was hard because we would both be upstairs working and the kids were fending for themselves. The guilt was real. Additionally, everyone took a 20 per cent pay cut and two weeks of forced leave. The benefit is that when pay went back to normal I told my boss I was doing five days work and wanted to be paid for that.”

Kate wants to see more women – and men – in leadership positions actually working flexibly and being involved in their home lives. 

Listen: Do we have a solution to the mental load? Post continues after audio.

“There are no women in leadership positions that don’t have a stay-at-home husband or a full-time nanny. The main thing is leading by example, but how can you when all the women doing really well don’t mind working 70-hour weeks? I don’t want to not be part of my kids’ lives. I just read an article about the new McKinsey partners, none of them have kids and they don’t want kids. There’s no partner in a professional services firm doing job share. Sometimes they say they leave at 4pm one day a week to go to yoga, but it’s pretend flexibility. If they were really truthful, if they leave the office at 3 to pick up the kids, the would have been back online at 7 to make up those hours.” 

It’s hard to know what the solution is when there’s a systemic problem with valuing parenting and allowing space to raise the next generation when you’re working full time, but clear boundaries is a step in the right direction. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Putting boundaries in place

Kate noticed even when schools went back that her life was overtaken with work. They use a messaging system at her office that means everyone can see who else in online, and she was taking work calls at 7am, and after the kids were in bed at night. 

“We’ve actually got to set some boundaries. It’s not acceptable to get a work call at 7 in the morning. It felt like you were never off. I never packed my computer away, so over breakfast or dinner it was always sitting there, there was no escaping. It’s easy to say we’re all adults and should make our own decisions, but then everyone was working 5am to 11pm. If there are no boundaries maybe the more confident people will say not to call out of hours but not everyone will do that. It comes from the top. What people say and do is really important. There was also much less control over how much people were let into your life, because of the number of Zoom calls where people could see dirty socks on the floor in the background, or children would interrupt me.” 

Lauren wants offices to be more open about how families manage things, because the juggle is real but not everyone is dealing with it in the same way.

"I think every man should have to pick up his kids two days a week." Image: Getty. 

“We need to have transparency about how men in positions of power have their family life set up. Let’s be fully transparent. Do they do the dishes and pick the kids up sometimes, or do they have a wife and a nanny who does it all? Likewise, we need to see women in senior positions leaving at 3pm without it affecting their ability to perform. My work has put in place core hours of 10am – 4pm and meeting-free Fridays. Work should be output-based rather than hours based, and women should be paid equally. At home, how do we balance the output between men and women and what’s expected? I think every man should have to pick up his kids two days a week.”

ADVERTISEMENT

As Kate highlighted, if you leave it to individuals to set boundaries, then strong characters will end up in a better position than people who are less assertive, or worried about job security. Workplaces could put clear guidelines in place to help support flexible working, and the desire for outcomes-based work is brought up in interviews again and again.

It’s not all bad

Despite the challenges, more people working flexibly is a good thing for women and for families. Kate’s husband works in aviation, and for the seven years he’s worked there he has said he couldn’t possibly take a day working from home. Now, he has no desire to go back to the office full time and will be more involved in after-school activities. 

“The positive is that the male contingent has seen you can actually do flexible working and don’t need to be in the office all the time. We spent so much more time with the kids and as a family. We were having breakfast all together and playing Uno, which never ever would have happened before. I like the little routine we’ve got into.” 

Isiah is also seeing positives with her couples, and says those handling it the best are keeping communication lines open. 

“Good communication always makes the biggest positive difference to the challenges that couples face. The couples who are managing well have been able to have difficult conversations about how to manage the increased workload and hear each other’s perspectives.”

Lauren also benefitted from the general slowing down of life. 

“I did love that there were no school activities. I wasn’t having to carry the mental load of who’s got swimming so needs money for icy poles, who’s got a birthday party on the weekend so we need to buy presents etc. We got to spend a lot more time with our kids, and a lot more time outside. I loved the little routine we got in as a family, and the kids loved the whole thing. The slower pace really made us reassess what’s important, what we do with our lives, and it opened up that next level of conversation because all the noise died down.”

Have your say

If you want to have your say about your experiences during COVID and what you want to see in the future, complete this ten minute survey. Five lucky participants will receive a $250 voucher for your time. 

Samantha is passionate about inclusion and diversity in the workplace and the home. She runs female leadership development programs, workshops building inclusive leadership capability and coaches women in negotiating at work. She is a change and strategy expert, and host of Women at Work Podcast. You can find her at  www.samanthasutherland.com.au.


00:00 / ???