Dads took on more childcare when they worked from home during COVID-19. Will a vaccine end that?

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Charisse Jones, USA TODAY
Published 12:01 a.m. ET Dec. 16, 2020 | Updated 9:29 a.m. ET Dec. 16, 2020

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John Tyreman had always helped around the house, but cooking and looking after the kids ramped up when he began to work from home full time during the COVID-19 pandemic.

His employer encourages work breaks that Tyreman often spends playing catch with his 5-year-old son while his two younger children nap. And if he were to move on to a different company after the coronavirus crisis ebbs, Tyreman says he’d want the same support.

“That kind of flexibility would now be a requirement if I were to take a new job,” says Tyreman, 30, who works for a digital advertising agency and lives with his wife and children in Culpeper, Virginia. “If a company did not provide that kind of flexibility, it would be a serious red flag.”

With the first COVID-19 vaccine rolling out across the country, life may soon return to some semblance of normal as parents who worked from home because their workplaces or children’s schools were shuttered increasingly go back to the office.

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John Tyreman (with wife Chelsea, and children from left to right, Billy, Bodhi and Joanna) wants to maintain the work flexibility that enabled him to spend more time with his children during the pandemic. (Photo: John Tyreman)

But some dads who took on a bigger share of chores and childcare during the pandemic, and enjoyed more quality time with their kids, may not want to return to their old routines.

“I’m sure some dads will take the first train back to their former lives,” says Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “But my guess is that at least some dads, because they have found real and deep gratification in their relationships with their kids during this time will work hard to preserve this closeness,” adds Weissbourd, who co-authored a study that found a majority of fathers felt closer to their children during the health crisis.

Will the balance last? 

Working mothers handled the bulk of household tasks during the pandemic, a burden that led many to consider dropping out of the workforce altogether because of the strain. But some fathers did take on a greater share of household responsibilities during the health crisis.

The number of couples who said their split of childcare duties was roughly equal rose to 56% during the COVID-19 crisis as compared to 45% who said that was the case before the pandemic, according to a study co-authored by academics at the University of Utah, Ball State University and the University of Texas.

“More equality in terms of how housework and child care is being divided is due to … dads being home,” says Dan Carlson, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah who co-wrote the report. Whether that was because fathers were no longer commuting to work, had their hours cut, took a voluntary leave or got laid off, “just being home more … was a major impetus for fathers to contribute more around the house.”

It’s unclear however whether that increased balance continued as the pandemic lingered, he says.

“A lot of the research that has been done looks at what was going on very early in the pandemic,” Carlson says, noting that his survey was in April. “So the question is, ‘were those short term gains made because it was a crisis, and have those contributions faded as the reality has set in?”’

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Research on the impact of paternal leave might offer a clue.

When men take time off after the birth or adoption of a child, studies show that they help more at home, and their participation remains higher even after their leave of absence ends. 

“So if we think about the pandemic in the same way … that because of the crisis they’ve had to take on more, it’s likely their contributions will remain higher than what they were before the pandemic,” Carlson says. 

Still, the lion’s share of household tasks and childcare fell on working mothers, according to a study by Lean In that found they were more than three times as likely as dads to take on most of those responsibilities.

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The report also found that 25% of women were thinking about leaving their jobs or making other professional changes because of those challenges.

“More women were not only deciding to leave their jobs because of these responsibilities,’ Carlson says, “but there was an increase in the fact they’d be fired or laid off if they had these responsibilities,” he adds, referring to the separate findings in his own research. “That schooling responsibility is driving a lot of the labor market inequalities that we’re seeing.”

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Dads took on more childcare when they worked from home during COVID-19. Will a vaccine end that?

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More dad time, and more quality

But the crisis also strengthened bonds, with 68% of dads saying they felt closer or much closer to their kids during the pandemic, according to the report  issued in June by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-authored by Weissbourd.  

A follow-up survey found that fathers “seem to be talking to kids more about things that are important to them … taking walks together, enjoying activities together,” Weissbourd says.  “The pandemic has been miserable for families in a lot of ways but this does seem to be a silver lining.’’

Now that vaccines have arrived, and more offices may be reopening, some fathers could face a choice.

“The question is, will the forces pulling them back to resuming their past lives be so strong that some of the routines and habits and closeness start to dissipate?” Weissbourd asks.

While some will eagerly embrace the return of their old schedule, he says, “other fathers will really develop a new lifestyle that involves much more time with their kids.’’

For those dads who want to hold onto that closeness, they can establish markers for a new routine.

“If they’re going for walks with their kids, they should commit to doing it every weekend,” Weissbourd says. “If they’re having meals, they should commit to having at least four meals (together) every week. If some of those things become habits, they’re much more likely to continue after the pandemic is over.’’

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New normal 

Tyreman, the father of three in Virginia, says that his company introduced a policy in the fall requiring that employees take at least one day off every two weeks to recharge.

Instead of taking off a full day, Tyreman says he’ll “take an hour every day and go out and cut wood or play with the kids, and I don’t feel bad about it because it’s practiced and preached from the top down.’’

When the pandemic ebbs, Tyreman says he will probably go into the office one or two days a week.

“There is a ton of value to me in working face to face with certain people at certain times doing certain things,” he says, “so there will be times when I do want to be back in an office setting.”

But Tyreman will continue to cherish the days when he is able to work remotely and spend more time with his family.

“Our home is super active right now,” he says. “There are all these messes and dishes …. Sometimes it creates conflict. But the benefits outweigh the drawbacks in that we are together.”

Contributing: Caroline Fairchild, Editor at Large, LinkedIn News

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