Moms Do More. A Pandemic Won’t Change That

Many questioned whether Covid-19 would tip the scales of gender equity in the household. According to psychologist Darcy Lockman, the answer is a hard no.

by Andrew Burmon
Originally Published: 
A photo of a dad separated from his wife and kid ripped down the middle

Darcy Lockman isn’t a household name, but she could be if she wanted to. She’s one bestseller or podcast away from being synonymous with the tangle of labor relations within marriages — from becoming the Barefoot Contessa of household resentment. But Lockman, the author of All the Rage: Mothers, Father’s, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, is burdened with integrity and unwilling to offer easy recipes for difficult dishes. She allows not only her background as a psychologist but history to inform the answer she provides to the question at the core of her work: How do we help women and mothers overwhelmed by their perceived obligations?

Historically speaking, we don’t. Historically speaking, there’s no “we.”

This makes reading Lockman — much less speaking to her — difficult for men. She’s funny and generous and insightful, but she’s also an implacable realist. She is in the truth business and the truth is that men aren’t always good to the women they love. Many men intend to be. They think the right things and act on a smattering of those thoughts, but they don’t build true partnerships because… it’s hard and/or not in their interest. It’s hard to own up to that selfishness. It’s hard to entertain unflattering ideas about ourselves.

Of late, Lockman has been wondering the same thing everyone else has been wondering, the all-caps question that hangs in the air over Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Tuscaloosa. DOES THIS CHANGE EVERYTHING? People (including us) keep asking Lockman if Covid-19 changes unpaid labor and sexual relations forever, if it shifts the balance of the so-called mental load — now incorrectly called “emotional labor” — that burdens women. This idea doesn’t make her laugh outright, but it makes her giggle a bit.

Fatherly spoke to Lockman about quarantine, lockdown, and the suddenly visible truth of labor inequality in American homes.

There has been a lot of talk that quarantine and lockdown and the pandemic generally might serve as a catalyst for changes in behavior inside relationships. Specifically, talk about how the experience might inspire men to pull their own weight a bit more. Do you find that hypothesis interesting or does it feel like a reach?

We live in this culture that’s about optimism and what can we do. It drives me nuts. Optimism isn’t realistic society-wide. I was recently on a call about these issues and I was told, ‘Please don’t to focus on the negative.’ I respect that, but… when I’m asked what we can do, I think the first thing is be realistic.

Broad societal change is really hard. Our values are in the water. We value men’s time more than women’s time. I value my husband’s time more than my own. That’s uncomfortable to admit, but it’s still there. We just need to name for ourselves what’s going on.

That makes sense. Misogyny can’t be inconvenienced out of the mainstream. But do you think this is possible on the sort of atomic, single-relationship level?

Again, I’m not big optimist, but I had this experience really early on in the pandemic: We were home and I was making all the meals and doing all this stuff around the house, which is how I deal with my anxiety. I wasn’t resentful of this at all, but my husband said, ‘You’re doing everything and I want to do stuff.’ I don’t think this whole experience changes our culture, but I wonder if this changes things because it’s simply easier to ignore inequity when everyone is out and about.

At the point at which you notice it, you engage your innate sense of justice — that thing that makes even kids want things to be fair. When your values are egalitarian and your behavior doesn’t match those values, it becomes uncomfortable and that spurs discussion. You think, ‘Maybe I’m sexist….”

That’s a tough thought. It seems particularly hard to entertain because it recognizes that men’s interests are potentially at odds with their partners’ interests, which is something it feels like progressive language often obscures.

There’s always pressure to have “10 Steps to Fix Inequality.” I hate that. It’s dumb. Problems that easy to fix don’t warrant discussions.

There’s this idea that women need men and you’re lucky to have them. I think that’s in the culture. There’s a lot of emphasis on attracting a guy. Your value isn’t at stake if you’re a boy without a girl, but if you’re a girl without a boy… that’s different.

I’m sure that is true broadly and even more so in particular subcultures, but I wonder if the not-inconsiderable percent of the male population raised by feminists might not see those sorts of values as regressive and want to push back against them — whatever the hell that means in practical terms.

Right, but values don’t predict behavior. The segment of the population I focus on has been couples that would say that they are egalitarian. Couples that aren’t egalitarian don’t have an issues because there’s a clear arrangement. Couples trying to be equal tend to fail because when behaviors and values don’t match, values tend to change. Millennial men say one thing about equality before they have kids. They believe in it. Millennial men with children say something different. They shift.

We’re all good guys until it gets hard. I have no trouble believing that. But I wonder what that means for couples. Is that a bear trap that’s just sitting in the middle of the path and cannot be avoided?

I think there’s an idealistic notion that of course we’ll listen to each other. And we can ignore the fact that we don’t for a long time because, on a basic level, we don’t do laundry by hand. There are easy options for meals. We order in. Men and women both spend less time on housework than they used to so there’s that as well. Prior to kids, I fought with my husband every six months about cooking — I wanted the occasionally home made meal — but it wasn’t a big deal. If you’re not drowning there’s no reason to fight.

Then you have kids and the workload changes. The seeds are there before kids, but it just doesn’t matter that much. The demands become immediate and significant.

The resentfulness that emerges from miscommunication of just failures of communication can push women into the role of martyr and men into the role of defensive layabout. This strikes me as a particular poisonous dynamic because it’s so difficult to recover from. Any thoughts on resetting relationships where the labor dynamic is poisoning the pot?

He has to think, ‘She’s not crazy. There’s something to what she’s saying.’

To have relationships, we have to be able to hold our own position and see where the person we love is coming from. They have to be heard even if there’s not agreement. You can’t just leave the room. That’s not a long-term solution. Martyrdom becomes the only available position for women when their husbands won’t listen. Husbands often don’t see that they can listen and engage rather than just agree or disagree.

This dynamic seems more common in the age of intensive parenting. There’s just so much to do for and around and about the kids. There’s no time.

It exacerbates the problem, but it’s not a choice. I have fathers say she could do less and that’s not wrong, but if you look at the cultural pressures, they are enormous. You have to be willing to face the social shaming to make those choices.

So the pandemic might lead to a few uncomfortable conversations, but it’s not going to change the game. Is there anything that will? Is there anything that women and mothers and men whose values are maybe out of whack with their behavior can get excited about?

Inequity starts from the biology of pregnancy, but it can be mitigated. Solo paternity leave makes a massive difference. Those dads are contributing four hours more a week than dads who don’t. Competency is the core of that. Time alone with a kid makes a difference for men.

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