A few years ago, when my son was rushed to the NICU by ambulance at four days old, my husband and I were thrust into tough conversations about our work and caregiving roles. Our frayed emotional attention was torn between mounting bills we hadn’t budgeted for in my 8-week unpaid maternity leave, the expectations we felt from employers to return to work expediently, and untended household responsibilities. My husband’s cache of personal days lasted only a week, while our son’s stay in the hospital was indefinite. In light of these unforeseen circumstances, how would we manage? And, who was going to care for our 15-month-old daughter?
We have seen how the pandemic has exacerbated these same conversations and questions about work, gender, and family in households across the country this past year. Countless articles have been written about the pressures parents have faced amidst the collision of work and home. Buzzworthy topics include: women leaving the workforce to care for children whose schools and care options closed, the shift away from gendered household responsibilities, and migration toward workplaces that prioritize work-home balance.
In light of this increasing societal introspection, it is no wonder that Ball State Department of Sociology Professor Dr. Richard Petts has stepped into the national spotlight. His collaborative 2017 research into gendered caregiving and 2018 examination of parental leave anticipated the current conversation. While his initial research focused on gender inequalities and caregiving expectations after the birth of a child, Petts intuited the connection between his research and the circumstances families across the country were facing in light of COVID-19. Suddenly everyone seemed to be asking questions his research had been posing—who is responsible for childcare and household maintenance when both parents work? Why are there disparities in expectations between genders? What is preventing a more equitable division of labor?
“We live in a society that values work above leisure and family. Workers are expected to dedicate long hours and be available at all times. But, the pandemic has revealed how unhealthy that is. Zoom has essentially given us a front-row seat to families trying to balance the responsibilities of work and childcare, and essentially shown us all how impossible our expectations of work are when we factor in caregiving,” says Petts.
This is where Petts’s research offers valuable insights. Petts and his colleagues have found that a more equitable division of caregiving responsibilities between opposite-gender couples results in healthier children and parents. Rather than all caregiving defaulting to the mother, families thrive when fathers share caregiving roles.
But, Dr. Petts notes that a shift toward more equitable caregiving is not as simple as knowing the research and acting upon it individually. Current policies offer inadequate maternity leave, unpaid parental leave, and/or nonexistent paternity leave, despite their popularity being on par with chocolate. In order to enable this shift, society at large must enact policies that communicate the value of caregiving and destigmatize workers who desire a work-home balance.
“Ideally, we would create a national parental leave policy,” says Petts. His research and insights into the benefits of such policies have been recently cited in The New York Times, USA Today, and featured on the BYU national radio show “Top of Mind with Julie Rose.” He notes, “There’s definitely growing momentum and interest in policies now, but people have been talking about it since 2012.” In fact, as a testament to growing national interest, Petts was additionally cited by Fatherly in a May 2021 House Ways and Means Committee meeting on in paternity leave.
“The next question,” Petts notes, “is whether or not fathers will choose to take the leave if it’s offered. Behavior changes follow value changes, not just policy change.”
But Petts believes the pandemic has troubled the water in ways we’re now seeing in the American workforce—desire for more flexible schedules and hybrid work environments that allow work-home balance. He expressed interest in pursuing further research into the pandemic’s effects upon attitudes toward caregiving roles and parental leave. Have our values truly shifted in a way that will lead to societal change?
As one of the millions of parents thrust into the impossible balancing act between work, school, and caregiving of two early elementary-aged children this last year, I’m ready for change. And I’m hopeful that change will come as more and more people are listening to experts like Dr. Richard Petts.
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