No matter how modern opposite-sex couples can be in their views on equality, old habits die hard. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this abundantly clear to parents who already struggled to find balance.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, mothers and fathers both left the workforce earlier in the pandemic in April 2020, but nearly all fathers eventually returned to work, while many mothers stayed home . And a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that recessions typically lead to a gender wage gap growth of 2 percentage points, but a recession caused by a pandemic grows the gap by 5 percentage points.
This leaves a generation of career-driven women facing many of the same obstacles that kept previous generations of women underpaid or out of the workforce entirely. Working through these issues comes down to exploring your biases, modeling the behavior you’d like to see other families adopt and treating your partner with empathy.
COMPARE YOUR STATED VALUES WITH YOUR INGRAINED VALUES
Ed Coambs, a financial therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina , asks clients to tell him about how money and work were viewed in their families growing up. He finds that while your stated values may include equality, the values of your family and community influence your views, too, and those values may not match.
Coambs can relate. When he met his wife, she was in dental school and he was working as a firefighter. Once she graduated, she would earn more than him. At first, Coambs was in full support.
“Then we got into the reality of living life together,” he says. “It exposed insecurities about not being the breadwinning partner and not conforming to my internalized gender roles and expectations.” In Coambs’ case, his father was the breadwinning parent when he was growing up.
Culture affects your value system, too. Melissa Daroszewski was active in the Black Law Students Association when she was in law school. “We’d often discuss the increase in Black women earning higher degrees,” she says.
Many Black women she knew said they wanted to marry a Black man, but had difficulty finding someone who earned the same or more. Daroszewski — who graduated in 2009 and now lives in Laurel Springs, New Jersey — said that the men in her class were predominantly white.
“I can see it being problematic the further you get into your career, especially if you have aspirations to be a partner or a high-ranking member of whatever profession you’re in,” she says. “You’re going to want someone that’s going to be on equal footing or be OK with the fact that they’re going to earn less.”
The pull of family, race and community are strong, and your partner comes to the relationship with a cultural background of their own. As you work to resolve disagreements, it’s OK to admit that something feels off to you because it’s different from how you were raised.
“A lot of couples don’t take time in the development of their relationship to think through these really critical issues,” Coambs says. Talking about day-to-day money management is important, but also discuss things like how money was for you growing up. This can give you insight into your partner’s way of thinking.
BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE
By challenging your own biases, you and your partner can begin to model the behaviors you wish were more widespread, which can bring about change even in a small way.
Darcy Lockman , author of “All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership,” looks to history for an example. During World War II, more women worked outside the home, paving the way for it to become more commonplace. “Behavior didn’t change because attitudes changed,” Lockman says. “Attitudes changed because behavior changed.”
Because of the pandemic, she says, we’re seeing something new play out. In families where the man can work from home and the woman has a job she has to do in person, men’s participation at home increased dramatically. Lockman credits women’s physical absence as a reason men stepped up. “That means millions of children and neighbors will see men at home,” she says, a new shift in behavior that may bring about another shift in societal attitudes.
TAP INTO YOUR WELL OF EMPATHY
Larin Brink worked in the TV and film industry as an assistant props master before she had children. She now works at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, a job that allows her to be more available to her family. Her earnings no longer match her husband’s, and his frequent back-to-back meetings mean she often handles things like virtual schooling or trips to the pediatrician.
“I don’t make as much money so my job’s not as important right now, and that sucks to say that, but that’s the truth,” she says.
But Brink recognizes that her husband is facing his own struggle: a fear that coworkers without young kids at home will be more available at work than he is. “He wants to be engaged to show and prove his worth,” she says.
Seeing things from the other person’s point of view is a great way to put out metaphorical fires. “Does empathy fix everything? No,” Coambs says. “But is it a great starting point? Yes.”