In a pandemic holiday, women still do it all

In a pandemic holiday, women still do it all

Originally published by The 19th

It was the morning after Thanksgiving when her body finally gave out. The layers upon crushing layers of loss — her grandmother two days prior, her job at the start of the year — tethered her to her bed. As did all the little losses, the in-between bits this year where structure dissolved, order vanished and sanity waned.

Amy Kugler had reached the point where the answer to her husband’s question — are you OK? — came out as a resounding “no.”

But Christmas was only 28 days away, and even as she said it, her mind wandered to the tree they were supposed to be picking out with their 3-year-old son and the Christmas lights. My God, she thought, she couldn’t put up the lights.

In her head it was a ping-pong between obligation and exhaustion.

Can I do this? Can I rest? Can I do this? Can I not? 

Kugler had to mourn the grandmother’s death, which was not caused by COVID-19, but was still affected by it, through a funeral broadcast on a Facebook Live video. Would she mourn Christmas, too? She wondered whether for the first time, she wouldn’t be able to complete all of the tasks — the workthat needs to happen to conjure up Christmas magic. It’s work that too often falls on moms to perform, the same moms who have already endured an unmooring year that has displaced them from work, tested the reaches of their patience, and still asked them to give more and more and more.

Kugler could already see how Christmas day could play out: She would be the one fielding texts all day about when to Zoom the grandparents and when to FaceTime. She’d be the one cooking dinner, an extra special version that said, “we survived a pandemic this year.” And she would have to make time to play with her son so he has a memory to tuck away about his pandemic Christmas.

“It’s going to be the most stressful holiday, in my opinion,” said Kugler, speaking on Zoom from a Starbucks parking lot in Seattle — the only place she could go to get some quiet.

“I’m not a bare minimum person,” said Kugler, 39. “And that’s where the rub is. I feel more guilt put on myself for not being able to be that person.”

Pressure and guilt, in all their forms, converge around this time every year, when the invisible work women typically do at home gets ratcheted up a few notches for the holidays. Add to that the pandemic, which has claimed more than 300,000 U.S. lives and, at its worst point, 20.8 million jobs. People are burnt out. Women most of all.

And yet, the household work — who keeps track of what groceries to buy, what appointments to make, the outfits needed for the holiday photos — continues to fall on women, as it historically has. In the paid labor force, women continue to make up the majority of caregiving positions. (They’re 95 percent of the child care workforce and 75 percent of the health care workforce.) In the unpaid labor force, gender norms ensure much of that same work was delegated to women in the household, said feminist sociologist Lisa Huebner, a professor of women’s and gender studies at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

“We’re gendering anything related to care, so the holidays become like, ‘This is how you show your love,’” Huebner said. “We don’t talk about those things in terms of workplace skills, like strategies and being creative and being intelligent. Instead we still frame those as being caring and focusing on family, and then we further attach that in gendered ways.”

Women are still socialized to be the organizers, cleaners and emotional managers — ideas that are further reinforced in the media, advertising, even at school.

“It’s not that men can’t or even don’t want to,” Huebner said. “It’s that they’re not practiced at it.”

All of that was already true before 2020, before the year that changed everything.

For Kugler, now it also feels like every task on the self-regenerating to-do list of the holidays will be mixed with grief and exhaustion.

For some, the pandemic has, somehow, impossibly, added even more pressure — the desire to give something positive to hold onto at the end of a year that has seemingly only taken away.

And for others, it has recalibrated the holidays, unraveling years of thinking less wasn’t enough.

Kristina Aleksander, for instance, is ready to cancel Christmas.

She had the talk with her husband, an attorney who promptly pulled out a yellow legal pad and started making a pros and cons list. It all boiled down to a simple flip: If he really wanted Christmas to happen this year, it would be his job to see it through instead of hers.

Reaching that decision feels like they’ve come miles from the time last year when her daughter was born and Aleksander plunged into postpartum depression. She’d hide away in her room at the end of a day working in communications at the Iowa State Capitol. Her husband once said her mood was affecting the entire house.

That labor, invisible and emotional, was hers alone to bear. Her husband helped with many tasks, but she was the center of the household for them, and that responsibility came with expectations about the work they relied on her to perform.

Not this year.

“There is a lot of forced expectation around Christmas and New Year’s where you just have to enjoy yourself and have fun. At least for my age group, women who are in their 20s to late 20s, it feels like a performance that we are putting up for Instagram,” said Aleksander, 26. “And I am just out of energy this year.

I don’t want to perform for anyone.”


The performative aspect is especially visible on social media, where people are spending so much more time as they stay socially distanced and quarantined.

“We have this very intensive Pinterest culture that backs up against these ridiculous expectations for homemaking,” said Eve Rodsky, who has spent a decade talking and writing about invisible labor. “Women were conditioned to have it all and do it all. And then doing it all is a lot higher level threshold because doing it is inspired by Pinterest and Instagram and a lot of counting and competing.”

But doing it all, especially at the end of the year, requires time — and at the source of the problem is the way we look at how men and women spend it.

“We’ve been guarding men’s time since the beginning of time,” Rodsky said. “Women’s time is infinite.”

Rodsky’s book, “Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live),” draws on her work talking to couples, most of them heterosexual, about the way they approach invisible labor and outlines a road map for addressing it. She usually guides couples through two key points.

First, there has to be buy-in. Most men Rodsky works with tell her the tasks their wives obsess over are unnecessary, and they don’t understand why they’re nagging them to do it or why it’s taking place at all. But, Rodsky said, part of it is men often don’t understand the unseen work: the cognitive load of keeping track of something, organizing it and executing it.

As an example, she told the story of Ed and Julie, a couple at a crossroads over a second grade DIY secret Santa project. Julie had to explain to Ed why it mattered: The girl their son got as his secret Santa had few friends — Julie, as the designated drop-off parent for school, knew this — and their son delivering on the gift would mean a lot. Once Ed understood the stakes, he could get to the second part of the equation: ownership of the task.

Watching Ed go to Michael’s, the craft store, and make popsicle-stick jewelry holder with glitter-covered hands changed their relationship that year. Julie felt Ed was really in it with her.

It started with creating room for a conversation most women don’t know how to start. It’s completely different in many of the same-sex couples Rodsky works with, she said, because many already have the context for starting difficult conversations — about coming out, or introducing partners or making health decisions for their children. “What a lot of same-sex couples will say to me is that the reticence of hetero couples to have these types of conversations because roles are already assigned feels sad to them,” Rodsky said.

I am just out of energy this year. I don’t want to perform for anyone.

Kristina Aleksander

This year, it feels like the pandemic has been the catalyst for some of the conversations to take place, she said. With so many people working from home, the labor that happened in the background is now happening at the fore, with everyone around to see it. And so more and more people are choosing to unburden themselves for the holidays, opting for a slimmed down approach to the festivities.

Laura Mayes, a spokeswoman for the City of San Antonio who has been working on the city’s COVID-19 response, is exhausted after a year that eliminated the concept of a break. That’s why she’s planning a smaller Christmas at home, far from her family and without the opportunity to really start creating memories for her 3-year-old, who won’t sit on Santa’s lap or see her grandparents this year.

But even with abridged plans and being tired from a long, stressful year, Mayes admits there’s a part of her that likes the control of doing most of the holiday work herself.

“When I let go of control, then I get all anxious and I want to know what’s going on,” said Mayes, 33. “Where I’ll accept the extra work, I also know at the end I would have wanted it done in certain ways, too.”

That’s another tension point, one some women whisper almost shamefully. By admitting they like the organization or prefer to do it all themselves, that could absolve their partners of needing to help.

It’s even more complicated for stay-at-home moms. Carly Gibbs stopped practicing law to spend more time with her three kids — a first grader, a preschooler and a three-month-old baby — while her husband kept his job as a doctor in Salt Lake City.

If she’s not going to be an attorney, she tells herself, she has to be an excellent mom.

“I am very bad at feeling OK with not doing everything,” said Gibbs, 37. “My inclination is I need to do everything and if I don’t, usually the consequence I am most fearful of or anticipate is my kids being disappointed in any way.”

It takes some mental fortitude for her to reason out of that sometimes. They won’t really care if they don’t build the gingerbread house this year — right?

The pressure women put on themselves is common, said Celeste Headlee, a journalist and author of two books on communication and overworking. So is the desire to want to take up the task themselves because they’ll do it faster, better — in a more organized fashion with less fuss.

Headlee suggests making a list that makes easily visible all the invisible tasks and then dividing it by strengths. Each person puts their initials next to their task for accountability, and the list goes in a public place.

“We are dealing with centuries of pressure that come from religious forces, political forces and corporate forces that led us to believe we have to be working all the time, and we will never meet the bar,” Headlee said. “Instead, I would approach this like you would a project at work — who is going to do what?

Liza Dube and her two sons are going to celebrate their Christmas on their own timeline, a liberation from the years of big parties and coordinated family Christmas caroling.

“What’s driving all of that is really that emotional labor and that tradition-keeping and magic-making, memory-creating and relationship-maintaining,” said Dube, 42. “So this year I feel like we’ve really been trying to kind of get a little bit closer to what the intent is behind a lot of those things, and figuring out simpler ways to meet that intent.”

She plans to celebrate with the boys on a day of their choosing, and they’ll spend Christmas Day with their dad, where they can bake the cookies and do the traditions without having to be shuttled from house to house in their small Massachusetts town. Dube, meanwhile, plans to spend Christmas Day doing something she’s always wanted to do: volunteer, this year with a crisis hotline.

She wonders if she’ll ever do it the old way again.

“I’ve been saying a lot this year, ‘Everybody has to make choices,’” Dube said. “We are all just making choices and we can’t even compare them with each other’s choices anymore.”

Can kindness heal a world divided by pandemic, protests and politics?

Can kindness heal a world divided by pandemic, protests and politics?

Video Courtesy of SSM Anaheim


When asked what she would write about if she could write about anything, Ashlee Eiland’s answer was immediate.

Kindness.

It was 2018, and the pastor said the divisiveness and contention in public conversations was weighing heavily on her. Eiland, the formation and preaching pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church near Grand Rapids, Michigan, said she felt a “holy discontent” to offer an alternative.

She wanted to help people talk across their differences and, at the same time, still be able to recognize each other’s worth as human beings created in God’s image and likeness.

“I wanted to recapture that because I feel like, especially two years ago, some of that was being lost. I was sensing that would take us down a really hard trajectory if things continued in that direction,” she said.

But kindness isn’t all holding doors and letting people merge in front of you in traffic. The goal of kindness is restoration and transformation, Eiland said.

“I think sometimes what kindness means, if we’re doing it well, is that we are righteously angry,” she said.

“We are lamenting, we are grieving and sometimes holding that grief and anger and lament with someone,” she explained. “I’m specifically thinking of people of color in this country and Black people, who, for generations, have endured an injustice. That should not be met with a pithy call to just be nice to one another, meet each other in the middle of this and this will all be OK.”

Eiland’s book “Human(Kind): How Reclaiming Human Worth and Embracing Radical Kindness Will Bring Us Back Together” was published in April of an election year, in the midst of a polarizing pandemic and not long before protests over the death of George Floyd would reveal even more divisions in the United States. Kindness can reach across those divides, she said.

In a series of short essays, the pastor and author shares her experiences as a Black woman in predominantly white Christian spaces. She writes of encountering both racism and belonging, of confronting her fears and offering kindness even in the face of radical opposition.

Eiland talked to Religion News Service about what it means to be kind, why it’s important to be able to speak to others across divides and how churches can play a role in that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does kindness look like in the midst of a pandemic, when fear and distrust are running high and people are unable to be in physical proximity to one another?

It is interesting talking about up-close kindness now that we are encouraged to not be so close anymore.

Before we get to this idea of outward kindness, have we truly sat with being receivers of God’s kindness toward us? Are we regularly coming back to self-kindness? One quick exercise would be over the next 24 hours just to actively note our own voice and how we speak to ourselves. And if that doesn’t reflect a level of transformation and reconciliation with ourselves, as God has offered it to us, then how are we ever going to extend that to the world around us?

I think there is a level of heart work involved before we look outward. I’m thinking of Paul’s words to the Ephesians, where he actually cautions the people of God away from hardheartedness. He says, “But be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God through Christ has forgiven you.” There’s something about maintaining a tender heart first, before we can look outward to the work of forgiving, to the work of reconciliation, to the work of truth-telling.

In the book, you share the pain you felt on election night in 2016 and your fear about “what this presidency and the rhetoric that accompanied it would mean for the poor, minorities and marginalized.” Afterward, you reached out to a Republican friend to understand why she had voted for President Trump. Why do you think it is important to try to understand and have conversations across differences?

I’m thinking of the greatest commandment — to love God and to love our neighbor — and maintaining distance in an unhealthy way. There are so many good reasons to maintain distance for the sake of healthy relationship in the way of boundaries, but I’m talking about choosing to stay distanced from one another just for the sake of maintaining our own narratives. It has great potential to create a hotbed for bitterness, resentment and hate. And if our hearts are hotbeds for bitterness, resentment and hate based on the narratives that we are persistently pursuing, then we can’t love God and love our neighbor.

I didn’t really have a desire to debate her because I knew where she stood. I really wanted to know why for the sake of seeing her humanity up close. Her being my friend is a key part of this, too. This wasn’t a random person I’d just met. This was someone I’d already done relationship with, had history with, who I’d seen lead teenagers out of addiction and into relationship with Christ — I mean, a stunning legacy. I wanted to act against the potential for bitterness, anger, resentment to grow my heart by being close to her and asking God to show me how he saw her.

Because we had a relationship, the beautiful thing was she was able to hear my heart when I was able to hear hers, and our relationship to this day is wonderfully intact, and not just intact, it’s thriving. To me, the end goal of my relationship with her isn’t to hold her close in order to change her mind or to prove I’m right. I’m pursuing unity, and unity requires truth telling, it requires the pursuit of justice and reconciliation, it requires peacemaking.

You also write about the importance of speaking out and taking action. How do you balance that?

Wisdom and discernment are key here. Spout out an issue, someone’s going to have an opinion about it. We all have opinions on everything, but for me personally, that doesn’t mean my voice needs to be heard in every single instance for a couple of reasons.

You talk about racism. There are times where I feel strong in my spirit to lead and to point others in the direction of how to be a better reconciler and how to do the work of antiracism in a way that honors Christ, how to speak up and to be strong and courageous, to use one’s voice in a way that doesn’t allow the people of God to suffer. And there are times when I feel like that’s not my work to do for that moment. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about it. And it doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion. But there are some times, for example, when you talk about racism and bigotry, where I feel more wrapped up in the community of God, when my white brothers and sisters speak up.

There’s discernment here. I don’t want to speak for the sake of just being heard. I want to speak for the sake of transformation. And that means I have to be attentive to the role my voice plays, whether in that moment I need to make room for someone else’s voice.

Social media is important, speaking outwardly is important and maybe a yard sign is important. I’m not minimizing those things, but am I doing the hard work within the relationships in the spheres of influence that have already been given to me? For some, the Thanksgiving table and the Christmas dinner table this year are going to be the battlegrounds because you’re talking across the table from someone who might hold a different opinion from you, and that might be the place that requires the most courage.

You also share a story about confronting your fear of police by inviting police over for coffee. What does that experience have to say to readers now in a moment of reckoning over systemic racism and police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others?

Again, I am careful not to be prescriptive. In that moment, that felt like a good next step for me. I felt like I had the energy and the desire to really step into an engagement like that with our local police department at the time. If I’m honest, there would have been other days that would have happened and I would not have had the energy or the desire because so much of what is happening is repeated trauma. So I’d say you have to be really discerning on whether that type of proximity is a good next step.

Fear was leading me, and I didn’t want fear to lead me. I know what happens when fear leads. When fear leads, the oppressed is in danger of becoming the oppressor. When fear leads, I am paralyzed (from) carrying out the mission that God’s called and placed on my life. For so many different reasons, I was sensing fear in that moment was not leading me to the flourishing and wholeness Christ desired for me.

I felt like the next step was to humanize individuals who are part of a larger system. It was also acknowledgement that not every single individual who’s operating within the system is interested in brutalizing citizens. There are good law enforcement agents who have protected and served really well. And so I wanted to counterbalance what I was seeing in the media and seeing around my neighborhood with my own eyes. To be open to it, exploring what would it be like to share with our local law enforcement how this feels for us and to be mutually curious, almost going against my natural instinct. It wasn’t like this Hallmark moment. I think what it did is it interrupted the fear that was festering in my own heart, and it gave face to a system. I was able to engage with individuals, not with a system.

In the afterword to the book, you mention the burden of being a Black woman in a “predominantly culturally white church.” We’re in a moment when many churches are saying they want to listen, learn and do better. What’s something you would share with churches about what it means to be culturally white and how wearying that can be?

Cultural whiteness says to every other culture represented within one’s congregation or staff that ours is the norm, that cultural whiteness is the norm. There might be room made for the existence of difference, but we might be hesitant to let that difference lead us in different spaces.

One is I think for church leaders to say, “How can we get a better perspective and move away from our own blind spots by listening to Black, Indigenous, people of color within our church and staff on their perspective of what whiteness is like in our church context?” If there’s a white staff or leadership team defining the culture, it’s like being a fish swimming in the water and not even knowing you’re wet. There has to be a different perspective to help inform what its impact is for others who are entering into that environment.

So a lot of listening and then examining spaces where there’s not just representation, but leadership. You can say, “Yeah, we’re a diverse church. We have 20% Latinx people. We have 10% African American.” You can say that and think you’re diverse, but unless there is someone who’s sitting at the table, not just offering ideas, but you’re actively asking to lead you, then cultural whiteness will remain dominant. And so there has to be a real reckoning — are you willing to give up some of your own space or for someone else to lead and shape and form culture?

And it won’t be just in one space, like Black History Month or an MLK celebration. Cultural whiteness, because it can be so deeply embedded in so many different church spaces, there has to be commitment to this over time repeatedly. It might seem like you’re talking about it too much or it’s coming up too much, but if it’s not revisited regularly, and if you’re not loving people well by inviting them to the conversation to help actively shape spaces, giving them leadership and authority in some senses, then we won’t see change over the long haul.

Specifically, this shows up on platforms, in the ways of worship and preaching and teaching, all the way to children’s ministry, what Bible characters look like, who’s teaching the story. Cultural whiteness impacts not just staff teams and the racial makeup of a congregation, but systems of how ministry is done. How ministry is done is directly tied to how people are formed and their view of God and life with God and each other. There has to be a willingness to be shaped and formed in any other way.