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How To Handle Child Care Disruptions Equally With Your Partner — Because We All Know They Happen

Three tips for gender equality from researchers at the Better Life Lab.

by Haley Swenson, PhD, and Emily Hallgren, PhD

Janet thought she’d survived the worst. She and her husband had been working from home and juggling care and remote school for their three kids, a 7-year-old and 4-year-old twins, but the lockdown phase of the pandemic was ending. The Friday before child care centers would be allowed to reopen in their area, she got the news: The twins’ day care wasn’t reopening, it was closing. Permanently.

Janet and her husband are among the millions of U.S. parents who survived lockdown and emerged to find their once-trusted child care plans tattered, unreliable, or altogether broken. These parents are more aware than ever of the limited infrastructure available to working parents of young children and the value of affordable child care.

We met Janet at an October 2020 happy hour event for real-life moms and dads who are trying to figure out how to juggle it all and do it fairly, with the help of our community of experts at the Better Life Lab. At that time, millions of women had already exited the workforce and millions more, like Janet, were hanging on by a thread, a crisis that has only deepened since. The child care crisis created by the pandemic has saddled parents, especially moms, with near-constant care responsibilities at home and thrown countless families into survival mode.

Janet and her husband immediately fell into patterns of conflict around who would care for the kids and how, with Janet feeling the sole responsibility of making it work weighing on her shoulders. Janet told us: “I thought we were a pretty darn well-balanced family before all this hit. This maybe sounds a little harsh, but it’s really exposing all the little fault lines in everything.”

Though the lack of child care infrastructure in the U.S. is not something any couple can solve themselves, no matter how hard they try, they can take steps to ensure that the next time their child care is disrupted, they aren’t caught so flat-footed. How?

1. Talk to your partner about how you’ll handle a care disruption before it happens.

Our research on equal parenting suggests the best way to ensure your child care disruptions don’t become gender equality disruptions is to talk about how you’ll address disruptions before they arise. Come together as partners or a whole household to make a plan about how to address any unexpected changes to your current child care arrangements. What will you do if there’s an outbreak at your child’s day care center or school or if a family member who helps with care becomes ill? Will you take turns? Will one partner shoulder the load, reducing hours or taking time off? How will the caring partner’s time be acknowledged and valued? This might include studying each of your employer’s leave policies and having conversations with supervisors ahead of time about flexible arrangements or time off that each of you may need if your child care plans fall through.

2. Think about child care disruptions in the whole context of your family values and career goals.

Center your shared ideals for your family and your careers in these discussions. If you and your partner each desire to stay in the workforce and build your careers, then that goal should be your joint North Star as you plan for any potential disruptions to child care. You may need to have tough, open conversations about equally sharing child care, even in the face of a crisis. William Scarborough, a gender researcher and father of a toddler, describes how he and his wife have been splitting their workdays in half (alternating morning and afternoons) during the pandemic and making up work time after their son goes to bed. It’s exhausting, but the arrangement has allowed each of them to keep a firm foot in the workforce.

3. Avoid short-term trade-offs that will hurt your career and your whole family in the long run.

In a crisis, we sometimes make decisions that seem efficient and like good sense. But once we stop and breathe, we might realize we gave up more than we meant to. For example, when families find themselves in a tough spot without adequate child care, it’s usually mom who steps back from work because, thanks to the gender wage gap, she typically makes less money. While this may seem to make short-term financial sense, it could hurt the whole family’s financial well-being in the long run. Weigh the pros and cons, envisioning life beyond the immediate crisis. What might the short-term relief of one parent devoting themselves to child care mean for their long-term career prospects? If you’re having trouble making this concrete for yourself, your partner, or other family members, check out this calculator from the Center for American Progress, which can help you see how even short breaks from the workforce today add up over a lifetime.

Ultimately, we remind families we work with that they can’t do this alone: The key to long-term child care stability is in public policy, which can create and maintain infrastructure that even the most equal-minded and proactive families have a hard time doing. Thankfully, the Biden administration has made this a priority in its first year. In the meantime, the only way to fix our broken child care system is to recognize that it isn’t your fault and it isn’t just your problem. So raise your voice, share your story with others, early and often, and find support from others, like our BLLx community. Join an advocacy organization like MomsRising or call your lawmakers, so that men and women, whole households, and eventually whole communities can share the demands and joys of parenting and caregiving. It’s up to everyone — men and women, employers, policymakers — to create the conditions where we can thrive as both workers and caregivers. No one can (or should) solve it alone.

Better Life Lab Experiments is a behavioral science tool for families that is working towards happier, healthier, and fairer lives at home.