The Pandemic: Getting to the Other Side

By: Regina F. Lark, Ph.D.

“Calgon® – take me away!” said Loretta. “There’s not enough Calgon® on the planet,” replied Jill. And thus began the joyful noise at the first in-person gathering of my close women friends since the start of the pandemic.

You remember Calgon®? The product you sprinkle in the bathtub to soak away your cares and woe, with the promise to take you away! Although Calgon® isn’t explicit about what it will take you from, you can rest assured that women knew, and have always known, that a man can work from sun-to-sun, but a woman’s work is never done.

My friends were talking about the toll of the pandemic – how it snatched our best-laid plans for graduation parties, and weddings, family reunions, and longed-for vacations. Beneath the surface of disappointment, we also felt fear – of not being able to protect those we love, or paying our mortgage, or keeping our jobs.

The day-to-day slog through this pandemic created a whole mountain of extra work at home. Loretta’s Calgon® remarks got nods all around.

What exactly is “women’s work” and why is it never done? 

The answer is found in the never-ending work of emotional labor. You know what that is: the unseen, unnoticed, unwaged, unwritten, and unanticipated work, performed mostly by women in the home. It is thinking about what’s coming up, tracking birthdays and anniversaries, buying gifts, sending cards, worrying about elderly parents, planning family meals, organizing holiday dinners, noticing when the ketchup is low. The work of emotional labor is mostly invisible and much to my surprise and concern, the invisible did not become visible through this pandemic, even with the whole family at home.

I began researching and writing about the impact of emotional labor on the lives of professional women since well before the pandemic. Within a few months of the shut-down, articles and blogs appeared about the creeping nature of emotional labor on professional women. The list of job duties expanded ad nauseam, from teaching how to zoom and do math, to maintaining a full pantry and cooking 3 meals/day, 24/7 child-care with no break; upgrading bandwidth to power four or more computers, making sure there’s enough juice to power the computers for your day-job – the work that pays for tuition and keeps food on the table.  No need to go on; you lived it, you’re living it. Suffice to say, during the first nine to twelve months of the pandemic, outsourcing wasn’t happening. At All. Well, okay, there’s grocery delivery.

By October 2020, economists and others began writing about the crash-landing of the “she-cession,” when (at last count) 2.3 million American women left the paid workforce to care for aging parents, dependent children, and the whole host of others who previously benefitted from day-programs designed for cognitively and physically impaired family members. Experts describe this massive exit from paid employment as an economic backlash – for women, families, and corporate America. Calling it Congress’ $64 Billon mistake, Julie Kashen, et. al., wrote in October 2020 that the exodus has had a significantly negative impact on family economic security, and set gender equity spinning back a generation of gains. Kashen and her colleagues considered how the absence of safety nets, resources, and a very clear understanding of and appreciation for women in the paid workforce, underscored “generations of inequitable social policy,” and of the division of labor, both at home and in the paid workplace.

My pre-pandemic research on emotional labor led to the development of the Emotional Labor Survey to gather data on the gender division of physical and emotional labor at home. Respondents revealed an eye-opening, not-new normal.

Pre-pandemic:

  • “If my husband and kids can’t find stuff or don’t want to look for stuff, I’m the one they ask for everything.”
  • “I am the only one doing the emotional labor and it is completely unappreciated and unacknowledged by my spouse. It is exhausting and my spouse’s refusal to acknowledge, value and respect the emotional labor I do has left me ready to leave the marriage at the point that I can financially afford to do so.”

During-pandemic:

  • “I’m exhausted. I’m working two jobs from home, paying all the household bills, doing all the cleaning, cooking, and dealing with any issues. My husband has worn a spot on the couch.”
  • “With a preschooler and husband and COVID, I’m the one who had all the childcare duties because of my husband’s work hours. All day, every day, it’s all on me while my husband gets to maintain his self care (running/meditating) because he is the grumpier of the two of us. Our house is a mess. I can’t keep it all up and I’m tired!”

It appears that some things are not changing at all, or at least not fast enough. What is it going to take to feel that we’re on the other side of the ubiquity of inequity?

When the world shut down, I gathered my notes, my thoughts, and data from the Emotional Labor Survey, and began writing a book in collaboration with Judith Kolberg, my friend and colleague and a thought leader in my industry. Scheduled for release in October 2021, Emotional Labor: Why A Woman’s Work is Never Done and What to Do About It take readers on an exploration of the historical underpinnings for the largely invisible mental load of emotional labor that weighs heavily on the shoulders of women. Emotional labor is generally thought to be women’s work, whether at home or in the office, but it is actually not gender specific. It’s just, well, work!

The book offers tools and exercises to promote gender equity including on-going dynamic dialogues, a brand of delegating that directly eases emotional labor, and a ground-breaking reference tool called The Emotional Labor Lifecycle. It also calls for support of social action that addresses women’s rights and equality.

A call to social action (or, getting to the other side of this) is also a huge component of my new hero in the blogosphere, Reshma Saujani a lawyer and entrepreneur who notably founded the international non-profit, Girls Who Code, whose mission is “to close the gender gap in technology and to change the image of what a programmer looks like and does.” Through the worst months of the pandemic, Saujani brain-stormed and launched, the Marshall Plan for Moms – developed to close the gender equity gap in the paid workplace. On January 26, 2021, Saujani and 49 colleagues took out a full-page letter in the New YorkTimes to President Biden, urging the adoption of the Marshall Plan for Moms by creating a task force to explore deeply and widely policies for affordable child care, parental leave, and the long-overdue equal pay. It would not surprise me that the heft of the other 49 signatories of the open letter (all activists and leaders across the country) may have given weight to President Biden’s “The American Families Plan.”

Released in April 2021, the Plan, in part, addresses the systemic nature of the inequity of caregiving with a radical idea: to provide direct support to families to ensure that low- and middle-income families spend no more than seven percent of their income on child care, and that the child care they access is of high-quality. It will also provide direct support to workers and families by creating a national comprehensive paid family and medical leave program that will bring America in line with competitor nations that offer paid leave programs.

The week of July 21 2021, Saujani released the the Marshall Plan for Moms playbook: The Bill of Rights for Working Moms, a list of ten rights working moms should come expect in the paid workplace. It also speaks to the social and economic responsibilities of company owners, business leaders, human resources professionals, to, quite frankly, do better. Every mom should have, or deserves to have:

  1. maximum control over her schedule
  2. support for child care
  3. workplace policies that promote gender equality at home paid time off
  4. an employer who supports her mental health and well-being
  5. have fair pay and a living wage
  6. free from facing a motherhood penalty at work
  7. adequate time to recover from childbirth and bond with her babies
  8. on-ramps back into the workforce
  9. time off to care for herself or her loved ones when they are sick
  10. an employer that advocates for them publicly

If we continue to insist that a woman’s work is never done, then getting to the other side of this pandemic will have to include a major disruption of this historical and current narrative.

I hope you’ll read Emotional Labor: Why A Woman’s Work is Never Done and What to Do About It, then let me know what you propose to create change in your life. I wish you good luck!

August 2021

Regina is a featured speaker and educator on issues ranging from productivity, hoarding, and women’s leadership. This past October, Regina published her third book, Emotional Labor: Why A Woman’s Work is Never Done and What To Do About It. She earned her Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California, writing a dissertation on interracial marriages between Japanese women and American GIs after World War 2. 

For fun she plays golf and tennis, and writes goofy songs about clutter.

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