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How to Support a Spouse Who’s Returning to Work: 4 Things to Remember

It's a major transition. This is what to keep in mind.

Working parents have had a tough 18 months thanks to the pandemic’s upheaval. Teleworking while keeping kids on-task with online classes proved impossible for some. When schools didn’t reopen last September, 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce in a single month, as did 216,000 men.

The Delta variant has kept the workforce in a state of upheaval, even as schools reopened. Still, women’s unemployment rate ticked down from 5% in July to 4.8% in August, when kids started returning to school in person. Overall, the economy added 235,000 jobs in August, with more robust growth expected later this fall.

As the economy slowly adds more jobs, families will be hit with another transition: Primary caregivers returning to the office. Whether it’s you or your spouse returning, experts stress that the best way to make it through another period of upheaval is advance planning and keeping lines of communication open throughout the transition.

How the Pandemic Changed the Picture 

The pandemic affected parents of all genders, but especially hurt mothers, who were far more likely to drop out of the workforce. Men were more likely to reduce their hours than to leave the workforce altogether.

School closures were particularly difficult for mothers, too, who tend to have more responsibility for childcare in couples, RAND Corporation economist Kathryn Edwards explained. “The person who we think is most likely to leave the labor force is whoever is the childcare specialist within the couple,” Edwards said. “And it’s often the mom.”

Women will have a hard time regaining what they lost during their COVID-19 career upheaval. “I do not think women will ever recover what they lost,” Edwards said. “I mean, maybe the next generation of women will do better, but you cannot spend this much time out of the labor force and not have it matter.”

These are tough conditions for restarting a career and a spouse returning to work in this context will need as much support as they can get. Here’s what to keep in mind.

1. Expect Mixed Emotions

One way to support a spouse who is returning to work is to expect that they will likely have a set of contradictory feelings about the transition, explained Kimberly Panganiban, LMFT, a San Diego-based couples’ therapist.

“There’s a mix of emotion. There’s excitement, finally getting back to normal and having your life again or that part of your life again,” Panganiban said. “But also some anxiety and fear and hesitation. There is still a lot of uncertainty there,” because the pandemic isn’t over yet. Schools can close again, and many have since the start of the school year, albeit temporarily.

Regardless of gender, parents have the same worries about returning to work in COVID times, explained Lisa Sturm, LCSW a couple’s therapist in New Jersey. “They’re worried about their safety and bringing COVID home, especially if they have young children who are not vaccinated. And they’re worried about breakthrough infections if they if they are vaccinated.”

Typical concerns about starting a new job will be layered on top of these COVID-specific concerns. “We all worry about doing a good job,” Sturm said, “when you start a new job, there’s always a learning curve.” Try reinforcing this sentiment for your spouse, she suggests: “We make mistakes and that’s normal.”

One of the best ways to be supportive is by “allowing space for every emotion and everything that they’re feeling,” Panganiban said.

2. Make Time For Regular Check Ins

For couples, communication is crucial in these times of transition. Working out logistics like who will pick up the kids is important, but so is being there emotionally for a spouse when a family is working through a big change.

One way for couples to tackle the latter is through what Sturm and Panganiban is the “stress relieving conversation,” popularized by Dr. John Gottman. During it, partners take turns sharing the highs and lows of their days, without any effort to problem-solve or offer advice.

“A very crucial aspect of a relationship, specifically the friendship aspect of the relationship, is making time to have those conversations and really support one another emotionally,” Panganiban said.

Setting aside 10 to 15 minutes a day for these conversations helps keep couples emotionally connected, especially during a big transition.

3. Touch Base About Household Labor

Couples should be having regular discussions about household chores and how they each feel about the workload shouldered. But during times of big transition, it needs to be had even more often. If one spouse wasn’t working outside of the home, they may have taken on more labor in the household. Heading back to work means it’s time to check in to see if the load needs to be rebalanced.

It’s important that the balance feels fair to both partners. “It doesn’t have to actually be fair in terms of like 50/50,” , Panhaniban said. “It just has to feel like they’re both contributing in a way that feels good to both of them.”

Try to work out the logistics three weeks or so before the transition happens, Sturm suggests. Decide if you need extra help, like hiring someone to clean the house every few weeks. Then, check in regularly once the transition actually begins, to see if any adjustments need to be made.

4. Make Good Use of Your Leave

We’re still in the midst of the pandemic, and it’s almost certain that disruptions, such as outbreaks at school that require quarantine, will happen. When there’s a disruption like a quarantine or an illness, each parent should shoulder part of the childcare burden — if they can.

“If you have leave, take it,” Edwards said, noting that paid leave is not a luxury all parents have. “We don’t have [mandated] paid family leave, we don’t have affordable and accessible childcare and we don’t have universal afterschool programs,” she noted. In this context, Edwards said, “there’s no amount of individual effort that a good husband can do to make the world a fair place.”