Up All Night Mom: The Second Shift


If you aren’t familiar with the term, “The second shift,” it refers to the domestic labor that mothers perform after returning from jobs outside the home. The “equality” of this labor has improved somewhat over the years, but most studies agree that even when women work outside the home they also complete most of the domestic labor. This work is often referred to as “invisible.” It’s the small tasks like filing doctor’s records, keeping current on the addresses of all friends and family members, remembering everyone’s birthday and buying thoughtful gifts, transitioning old kid clothes out and new ones in when they grow, and so on. In some households, these tasks are divided more evenly than in others. This isn’t to make fun of dads. Dads are great. The pandemic has just brought the “second shift” that mothers face to the forefront of conversations again.

I’m a college instructor and since the pandemic I’ve dealt with shifting the rest of the semester online over Spring Break, battling job insecurity, applying for part-time summer work, and trying to meet some of the emotional needs of my students. Oh, and I’m a mom to a 3-year-old boy and 9-month-old daughter. And my husband still works outside the home. What does this look like?

When NAU was still in Spring session I checked emails in the morning while the kids ate, did office hours on the phone while holding my baby and distracting the toddler with a tablet, and then did the bulk of my grading and lesson planning after the kids went to sleep. This meant I woke up at 8:00 a.m. and didn’t sleep until after 1:00 a.m. 7 hours of sleep would be okay, except that my baby still doesn’t sleep through the night.

What about my husband

Why didn’t I pressure my husband to help more? Well, once he got home from work he was pretty much in charge of the toddler. I felt bad leaving him with two kids while I went upstairs to work. I couldn’t focus, because I could hear the baby screaming periodically. She only wants me to hold her. You know that phase. It just wasn’t worth it.

When I was able to leave the house to work, I didn’t have to hear and see my family’s needs. I knew that everything would work out, and I’d jump in when I got home. But once the pandemic hit I could hear my son yelling that he was done pooping, and I could hear the baby crying because she was teething. How could I not help my husband?

Hard choices

I recently read an article about a small business owner who let her business go. She felt horrible for letting down her employees but felt she had to choose her family. With kids at home and no daycare options, she made the best choice she could. Here’s the kicker…she was married. Her husband tried his best to pitch in more, but they just couldn’t make it work. Their marriage was suffering.

Nobody can be prepared for a pandemic, but it is painfully obvious to me that many men are not prepared to jump in as primary caregivers. Many of them have not had to face days on end of caring for children largely alone. They don’t have the same experience in sheer hours logged.

At the same time, many women are finding it hard to “let go” and focus on work while their partners take on the bulk of child-rearing and domestic labor. I’ve seen memes saying, “Help me, no, not that way,” and I swear some of us can hear our partners putting away the dishes “incorrectly” from the other room. The mental load of trying not to offend your partner, but also to give them tips, but also trying to seem grateful is hard.

That’s why I opted to work at night. I also felt bad for my husband, who still had to wake up early, go to work, and come home to share the child-rearing. Obviously, with no daycare there are no breaks. With no way to reconnect, or spend much alone time together, couples with kids are under pressure. It’s not the easiest time to change family dynamics.

They want to help – and should

I know this view is only of a heterosexual couple, and a married one. Single parents are living a different story entirely. Families with no working parents are struggling greatly. I’m not trying to paint myself as a victim. My husband is a great guy. My point is that if you remove childcare from the equation, you see that many families are unable to “divide” domestic labor and work time evenly. Old inequalities are sharply brought to the surface.

The thing is, most male partners want to help. They want to step in and make it better, but it is a struggle. I think we need a society that supports fathers better. Brain scans revealed that male brains alter when they are the primary caregiver to a child. I believe fathers should be left alone with newborns for long stretches. They should have more bonding time, including more leave from work. They should have more opportunities to practice domestic labor by babysitting, being invited into the kitchen as boys, doing their own laundry from a young age, and managing all their own appointments.

These things might sound silly, but I grew up around a lot of guys who had moms who made their beds, never asked them to babysit, always cooked for them (not with them), did all of their laundry, made all of their appointments, and even ordered their meals at restaurants. What we pour into our children is what they can pour out to their partner. Nobody taught me to change a tire. If this pandemic were dependent upon me changing tires for 8 hours a day my family would be in trouble. I’d learn, but it would be difficult. Why are these gender traps still present for many (not all) of us? How do we honor each other, and give each other grace, but also set our children up for more success than we’ve had? These are the questions so many of us continue to grapple with.