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Parental Arts

Eve Rodsky On The Crisis Facing Working Mothers

As district after district announces online learning for the fall, a patchy return to school is shaping up to be a nightmare for parents, especially working mothers. As Jessica Grose recently reported in The New York Times, “A Syracuse University research brief examined data from the Census Household Pulse survey, conducted in late April and early May, and found that over 80 percent of U.S. adults who weren’t working because they had to care for their children who were not in school or day care were women.” This is, for better or worse, a moment of reckoning. We caught up with The New York Times Best-Selling-Author of "Fair Play," Eve Rodsky, on why women’s time is an undervalued commodity, giving yourself permission to be unavailable and the three most important things couples can do to keep things fair in these fraught times.
Interview By
Liz McDaniel
Covid has created a real crisis for working women as many of them are being forced to drop out of work to care for kids who are out of school and day care. How will this affect their careers long term?

Yes, we’re heading to a real crisis right now, and I think a few things will happen. We can look at it in a really dystopian way but I like to expect the worst and fight for the best, that’s my mantra.

The problem is that we believe that men’s time is to be guarded like diamonds and that women’s time is infinite and expendable, like sand. That’s the core finding of Fair Play. If you’re not going to value women’s time and you’re going to protect men’s time, then men are going to end up with the most important asset of this crisis which is a lack of interruption. We’re allowing women to be interrupted and we’re going to put all of the unpaid and undervalued work on them and we’re going to inherently compromise not just their careers but their mental health and their longevity. That’s the bad part.

The good part is that we’re not in this alone. The invisible is now visible and it’s going to be very hard for cisgender men in hetero relationships to ignore the fact that there is a ton of domestic work to get done, including homeschooling your children right now, and that it’s just not going to be acceptable to expect women to do all of that work. So that’s the really big silver lining.

Your movement really portends that the solution begins in our own homes and we’ve seen it during this pandemic. What tactical advice do you have for couples on how to balance the increased burdens of this moment?

These are the three things that I’ve been talking a lot about lately that are key to surviving this crisis: Boundaries, systems and communication. That’s it. If I had to tattoo something on my arm for my survival guide for my life and what’s been working for me, it’s those three things.

First, boundaries: We have to, as women, believe that we have permission to be unavailable. That’s much harder than we think. I have interviewed almost 250 people for my next book and I ask that question, How do you make time for your Unicorn Space, which I define as uninterrupted attention for something that you love. And the majority of people I’ve asked are confused by the question, like what do you mean carving out boundaries for something I love? That would never happen. Especially now. So it starts with this idea that you have permission to be unavailable. That requires letting go of guilt and shame over doing something for yourself. That’s what I mean by boundaries.

The second, systems: This is what Fair Play is all about. Systems are going to save you. You have to treat your home as the most important organization right now or you will die in decision fatigue. You will drown. I did a survey of over 100 women in Covid and that was the number one word they used, drowning. What I had to do was identify the domestic tasks that were making them feel that way. That’s what I call the Dirty Dozen. If you don’t have a system for dealing with the Dirty Dozen, it is going to be worse in the fall. The Fair Play system is about ownership. You customize your default tasks, so you’re not the "shefault" parent, and you know at all times who is doing what.

And finally, communication: Communication is a practice and it is the most important practice. We need to invest in communication the way we invest in hand sanitizer. It is the key to life in a pandemic. The number one thing right now is to recognize when emotion is high and cognition is low. This is especially true for me on the weekends, so this is not when I want to be communicating anything. So all weekend, I write notes to myself in my iPhone. That way, I can come back to my husband, Seth, and do a check-in. We typically don’t do it on the weekends but we do check-in at night five times a week. We set a timer, we bring alcohol or cookie dough and we check in. Some of the things I wrote down furiously are not things I even remember anymore but that’s our window when cognition is high and emotion is low. It should be a practice where you come back and you come back and you come back, just like exercise. Otherwise it’s going to feel really uncomfortable.

The stimulus portion of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance which offered help for those who could no longer work because they were caring for children who could not go to school or day care is set to expire at the end of July. Yet many students will not return to school full-time in the fall. How do we close this gap?

What I am fighting for is what I call Fair Play, Fair Day and Fair Pay. Fair Play is to recognize that women’s time is as valuable as men’s time. Fair Day is that employers have to recognize how important it is to offer flexible work right now and that work from home and flexible work are different things. Number three is Fair Pay. If we recognize that women’s time is as valuable as men’s time, we will pay them equally, and once we do that, women’s jobs won’t be the second careers anymore. So often right now, what’s happening is that the second earner is the one who’s taking the step back and doing all of the extra work and giving the primary earner all of the time in the world to do their uninterrupted work. So those are the things that I’m fighting for.

You recently called out an article in The Wall Street Journal that cited critics belief that the stimulus funds were discouraging many lower-wage workers from returning to work because they were MORE than they usually got paid—$2400/month—you wrote that some people being paid less than only $48,000 taxable income is the real headline. You also shared a tweet about the school situation in the fall that the administration is poised to pit unpaid women (mothers) against low paid women (teachers) rather than all of the things it could be doing to make it safe and equitable for women to thrive. What are the most important things that the government should be doing now?

Number one is we have to start valuing women’s time. That is it. It’s unsustainable to build societies on the backs of unpaid labor from women. We do 10.9 trillion dollars of it a year. Men have to do more. That’s a movement. Having a Fair Day for women, they need access to affordable and free childcare and flexible work. Flexible work is not always an option but day care can be. So many women have said to me that they opted out of the workforce. We have to stop saying that. We have to start saying we were pushed out. Because we can’t do this all. And if it’s expected to be done by women, we are going to crack. We are going to literally lose our mental health and our longevity.

Also the Drisana Rios case, she brought a lawsuit against her former employer when she was let go after her supervisor complained that her children were being noisy during meetings. Do you think we will see more of this?

I do think we’ll see more of that and I think it’s great. I love Daphne, who represents Rios, she’s a colleague and she’s amazing. Workplace discrimination is key but I want to unpack that for a minute and say why is there discrimination against women? It’s because we’re the default caregivers at home. That’s where the motherhood penalty is starting. We lose 5-10% of our wages for every child that’s brought into the world because we’re seen as the default parent. So that’s why it all starts with Fair Play. We are not the default parent and if society would not view women as the default parent then there’s no motherhood penalty. So it’s about getting men to do more unpaid labor. The key to breaking the cycle is really inviting men into the home.

I also want to talk to you about how race plays into this movement and how policy can be effective in that regard as well?

That’s so important. We’re doing a convening soon with some other organizations on the state of the black mother right now. If you think there’s systemic inequities that need to be fixed for white women, there are systemic inequities that need to be fixed times a million for black women. For me, it’s looking at the Fair Play, Fair Day, Fair Pay agenda through a black woman’s perspective. Getting men to do more in the home when black men are being systemically incarcerated and you’re more likely to be the primary breadwinner or a single mother, obviously that’s going to be a lot harder. From a Fair Day perspective, flexible work is going to be less possible for you because you’re more likely to be an essential worker. And when you look at Fair Pay, look how much further behind we are on that, black women make 61 cents on the dollar compared to white men (according to The National Women’s Law Center’s analysis of 2018 Census Bureau data). We have a lot of work to do but these are intersectional issues and there’s nothing that we’re fighting for in this world that doesn’t also work intersectionally.

And what about Unicorn Space? What is your advice for mothers trying to protect their own time and interests in this moment?

I’m researching my second book now, which is really diving into the idea of Unicorn Space and women’s permission to be interested in our own lives and not have to lose our identity to take over the domestic labor. If you look at all of the happiness research, happiness and meaning for women don’t correlate as much as it does for men and I think it’s because we get a lot of meaning from our work, but we don’t always get a lot of happiness. The way I’m defining happiness is optimal experiences, focused attention on things that you love. Nobody in my data set right now, no woman I know, is getting their Unicorn Space or optimal attention or being able to focus on anything without being interrupted and to me that all comes down to this idea of how we view men’s time. You have to treat your own time like diamonds and you deserve as much choice over it as men have right now.

Eve Rodsky is working to change society one marriage at a time with a new 21st century solution to an age-old problem: women shouldering the brunt of childrearing and domestic life responsibilities regardless of whether they work outside the home. You can follow her @everodksy or @fairplaylife.