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Could Covid-19 lead to a shift in gender roles?

11 August 2020

In the past few months, Covid-19 has thrown us a curve ball. We’ve seen people from all walks of life suddenly job-less. Millions lining up at Centrelink. Kids pulled out of school. And families across the board frazzled and overwhelmed.

Historically there’s been a stigma around men being out of work or taking time out to look after their kids, but that could be changing due to the uncertainty thrust upon so many of us at once. And experts hope it could lead to couples reinventing how they manage family life. 

“It’ll be very interesting to see what comes out of this period – from our health and wellbeing, to finances or even divorce rates,” says psychologist Marny Lishman.

Changes on the home-front

One thing’s for certain: having the entire family isolated at home 24/7 is a great way to highlight exactly who’s pulling their weight and who’s not.

There have been provisional results from a University of Melbourne study that have found women have taken on more of the additional domestic burden created by homeschooling and childcare than men did, and experienced stress levels that outstripped their male partners. Long-term, however, researchers say the shift to more men being at home could have implications for gender equality.

Psychologist Marny Lishman agrees. “The good thing about the disruption the pandemic has brought to our society, including with so many men suddenly forced out of that traditional breadwinner role and into new roles involving housework and childcare, is that there’s more transparency about the mental and physical load many women do carry,” she says.

“And it’s a heavy load for one person to deal with. As a species we’re supposed to be more of a village, we’re not wired to do everything. Men who might normally be conditioned to work 9-5 and leave the rest to their partner are actually seeing what needs to be done on a day to day basis – and hopefully that’ll lead to a shift in what happens on the other side of the pandemic.”

Dealing with financial issues

Finances have been tight for many families during Covid-19, with studies showing 1.4 million Australian households are suffering from mortgage stress.

Communicating about your finances and workshopping solutions is more important than ever right now, says Lishman. “A lot of my clients find having all the debts and bills floating around in their heads a massive stress, but if you get it down on paper and look at the figures, it may not be so overwhelming.”

“And once you know what you’re working with you can come up with solutions together, which might be asking each other questions like: ‘Do we need to put the mortgage on hold for another three months?’ ‘Is there a way we can release income from other assets?’ ‘Can we investigate payment plans for loans?’ ‘Should we talk to our utility companies and look into hardship assistance?’ ‘Can we ask our parents for help?’ Work together to manage things and come up with a plan.”

Supporting each other

Of course, none of us want to go through hard times and we avoid it and resist it when it happens, adds Lishman. “But, because change has been imposed on us without us having a say, it’s making many couples look deeper into their roles and their relationships as well.”

While some couples have rode out the crisis without much change, for others the stress of the disruption has exacerbated what was already going wrong in the relationship, explains Lishman. “We’re also seeing couples where the stress and anxiety is actually making them re-examine what’s going on in their relationship, and realise what really matters in life.”

The best way to support each other right now is to communicate as much as possible. “Talk about how you’re feeling and realise that when people are stressed and panicking they often don’t act like themselves. This is a situation no one has dealt with before and we’re seeing a wave of mental health issues coming out of it. So if you’re struggling and not communicating well, get some counselling. Even just one or two sessions with a psychologist can help you find new ways of doing things.”

Keeping the good bits from #isolife

One big thing to come out of self-isolation is that our regular support networks just haven’t been available to any of us. We’ve had to pull together and manage the family unit and its needs as best we can, says Lishman, and many couples are realising that they like aspects of the ‘new normal’ and haven’t been looking forward to going back to stressful commutes and long work hours.

“We’ve been moving towards a different era of fatherhood where a lot of dads don’t want to be away from their children, and now is the time to sit down and assess what needs to change going forward in your life and as a family,” she says. “Talk about what you enjoyed doing, what you didn’t. About all the things that need to be done so the workload is really clear and you can plan how you will all pitch in as a family unit. The idea is that it doesn’t have to fall to one person or be all or nothing. Now is the time to work towards a bit more balance, if that’s what’s required in your family.”

You might also look at changes you want to make across the board overall, she adds. “Maybe you’d like to shift to both working part-time and sharing the parenting equally. Or perhaps you’ve realised you’re more productive and creative working from home and want to make changes there. Now’s the time to have these conversations.”

What next

While it’s been a hard period for everyone, the difficulties we’re all dealing with and navigating around as part of the pandemic could actually be a good thing in the long run, says Lishman.

“Adversity stirs the pot, it brings things to the surface and perhaps makes us deal with things we didn’t before,” she explains. “Disruption like Covid-19 is creating learnings for all of us, and the key now is how we as individuals and couples use those learnings to create a better way forward.”