There’s a piano playing in the background when Monika Kochhar, CEO and co-founder of SmartGift, picks up her phone for our interview. Not a concerto, but the doleful tunes of a six-year-old banging on a keyboard. I recognize it well, because playing the keyboard at full volume is also a favorite pastime of my six-year-old, though her current activity of choice is laying down screaming in the hallway because her younger brother touched her legos. Neither of us mentions the chaos or apologizes for it. We’re four weeks into shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19, and this is our new normal. Life goes on, work has to get done, and we have no choice but to figure it out.
Kochhar, who lives in New York City, is now running her e-commerce business entirely from home, while also sharing the space with her husband and daughter, who started her “remote learning” curriculum set by her public school in Brooklyn last week. Kochhar is lucky in that her business is thriving during this time, with a high increase in folks turning to the site in search of gratitude gifts for teachers, medical staff, and essential employees. Yet, managing this unexpected boon in her work life while adjusting to remote work with family underfoot is challenging in many ways.
"My husband and I are literally taking shifts."
“My husband and I are literally taking shifts. Deciding who gets which room, who gets the nicer, sunnier side of the apartment and for how long,” says Kochhar. She tells a familiar story of how her daughter will often bypass her husband to come straight to her to get her needs met, whether that need is snacks or a listening ear. It’s a challenge when much of their work depends on being on professional calls, and there is a young child that needs attention, and now, schooling.
While Kochhar is quick to praise the teachers of her daughter’s elementary school for rallying to get resources to students quickly, that doesn’t necessarily make things easier for the legions of newly minted, full-time work-from-home parents. “The challenge is when it’s a six-year-old you basically have to sit there with them the whole time to get them through the tasks. This is turning into a full-time job in itself.”
I thought the same thing as I stayed up late last night organizing the remote learning packets that arrived via e-mail from my own children’s elementary school. I am already the type of mother who uses timelog excel spreadsheets to plan our weeks, and weaving all of the schoolwork into our schedule is still a struggle for me. My job as a freelancer is also more flexible, and much of my work has been lost as a result of this pandemic, so I also have the time to (begrudgingly) devote to isolation-schooling. Not every mother has that kind of time.
“I’m so stretched in every part of who I am: mom, boss, employee, employer—that it’s getting harder and harder to find time for myself,” says Kochhar. “All the hats that I was wearing before, I’m still wearing them.” Only now she’s wearing them all at once. “There’s no delineation.”
The blurring of lines between roles, however, is something most female founders are already very familiar with. Juggling multiple responsibilities, bearing the brunt of the mental load at home, and keeping everything moving forward—it’s sort of their specialty. Shannon Davenport, founder of Esker Beauty, says that the main concern with moving to fully remote work is that even those blurred lines really don’t exist anymore. “It’s very easy to not have any boundaries,” she says.
"I’m involving my husband in these conversations rather than just keeping them in my head, and I already see a glimpse of change.”
Davenport is currently running her business from her home in Austin, Texas and feels the pressure to keep Esker afloat, even as she simultaneously shelters-in-place with her husband and their 2-year-old, virtually completes her business accelerator program, and weathers the third trimester of pregnancy with her second child. The overwhelm, Davenport admits, led to an emotional breakdown that left her sobbing the night before we spoke.
“I had a very specific plan,” she says, recalling the events and growth she had projected for both her business and her family. “Mostly, the meltdown was about how am I going to keep the business going? Going from having these really calculated, thoughtful plans that I’ve been working on to not knowing how I can keep paying people or cover the inventory I just bought—that was the stress point that made me explode. The timeline of this year is blown to smithereens.”
The silver lining to this pressure cooker of a situation? It has the potential to create real, lasting change, not only in how we run our businesses, but in how we manage our lives. Karli Warner, co-founder and CMO of Garden Society, a Sonoma County cannabis delivery service, says that she feels like she had to resign herself to lowering her expectations on all fronts simply to keep moving forward. While she juggles a remote workforce in addition to supporting essential production for customers who use their product for medical purposes, she also finds herself managing the household for her husband and suddenly-out-of-preschool four-year-old. “The mental load is overwhelming at times,” Warner admits. “I’m the one really thinking through household responsibilities, childcare, food, cleaning, money, etcetera.” Yet Warner is hopeful this time will allow for more open conversations about the distribution of emotional labor in her relationship, because it’s already becoming so hard to forge ahead with the way it is currently split. “Since we are home together more, I’m involving my husband in these conversations rather than just keeping them in my head, and I already see a glimpse of change.”
Simply being at home and bearing witness to day-to-day invisible work can have a sizable impact on getting men to step up to the plate. Household dynamics are hard to ignore when you’re enmeshed in them 24/7, and most modern men want to see themselves as equal partners, so they’re finding ways to do more. Carly Cushnie, founder and CEO of the luxury fashion brand Cushnie, is another businesswoman who has found herself struggling to figure out how to run her company remotely while raising a one-year-old and expecting a second child, but says she’s seeing a heartening equal split in domestic duties with her partner.
Cushnie, whose production center is in New York’s garment district, barely got her spring collection out before the lockdown shut all factories and retailers, and the company now faces an uncertain future. “We can’t fit garments on a model right now and things are somewhat at a standstill with our local factories closed.” Still, she says that a fair balance and partnership at home has allowed her to focus more on the challenges of keeping her business afloat. “When I’m bathing our daughter he’s making dinner. When he’s playing with her in the living room, I’m cleaning the kitchen.”The way we split domestic duties and invisible labor during quarantine won’t simply affect the immediate future once we return to “life as normal,” it will echo through generations as our kids witness up-close how gender roles play out in their homes. As Warner aptly notes of her four-year-old, “it’s amazing how much kids sense and pick up.” That applies to the evolving situation with COVID-19, yes, but also to what they are witnessing with two parents at home for the first time in their lives. When both parents have to work, who gets the locked door, and who gets interrupted with requests for gummy snacks? Who sits down with them as they do remote learning? Who is noticing what needs to be done, and who is simply being told what to do?
"She’ll often pass off bedtime to her partner with a 'Good luck! I’ll be here doing emails.'"
The answers to these questions will shape the future in ways that impact far more than the immediate post-COVID economy. This is what will shape our cultural expectations, our notions about gender roles, for years to come. This is a time that has the power to calcify the inequalities that already plague our lives, or disrupt them in a powerful way. It all depends on whether our partners are willing to adjust their lives in equal measure with ours.
Madeline Fraser, founder of the custom e-commerce jewelry site Gemist, is married without children but has also been caring for her 85-year-old father for the past two years since her mother died. While she had previously adjusted to that role, it’s taking on new weight as they shift into this new normal where they are under the same roof day-in and day-out. “I used to be out the door at seven and back at nine. I’d be lucky to make it home for dinner twice a week. Now I’m trying to create an office and keep a schedule,” says Fraser, who has been figuring out activities for her father, from puzzles to podcasting, in addition to the workload of trying to find creative solutions to keep her business profitable. “It’s hard with my dad because we can’t get too close to him, he’s stir-crazy, and of course he wants to talk and chat.” It’s the regular planning and emotional labor of being a female founder, ramped up exponentially.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but in a situation as pressurized as isolation, it might happen more quickly. Fraser, who had to shutter her office space in downtown LA and has been fielding calls from investors worried about her runway, tells me that both her husband and her 85-year-old father have banded together to create an assembly line to help her churn out orders. They’re lifting the load, rather than adding to it. As Warner noted, these conversations about emotional labor that she might have put off for another day are happening now.
“He’s always done a pretty good job of taking on a lot of the mental load,” says Esker’s Davenport of her husband, “but the fact that I’m pregnant now and can’t even pick up my daughter anymore, plus trying to run this company and keep it on track, means a lot more of it is falling to him. I have to focus super hard on how we’re going to adjust and meet demands and keep revenue up.” She says that she’ll often pass off bedtime to her partner with a “Good luck! I’ll be here doing emails.”
It’s true that a lot of kids seem programmed to head for mom’s office when dad’s in the room, but now is the time this can—and must—change. Kids can rewire once they realize that dad can meet their needs as well. Of course, seeing dads physically may not be enough of a cue to ask him first if their default parent has always been mom. That’s why it’s important that partners step up to meet and even preempt needs to equalize parenting responsibilities. They need to remind their kids that they are available and also help enforce the boundaries when mom is not available (like while she’s in a virtual meeting).
If this pandemic has given us anything, it’s the opportunity to create lasting change. Not only is invisible work becoming visible to our partners, but also to the world at large. Suddenly, there is less pressure to hide our parenting or pretend that everything is under our control. We cannot act as if our kids do not exist when they are playing the keyboard in the background of our conference calls, and maybe we should never have expected ourselves to work as if we were childless in the first place. It’s possible this quarantine can become a catalyst not only to spark change with our partners—but also to dispel the myth that women are conditioned to carry this impossible invisible load. “This could be a long term situation,” Smartgift’s Kochhar says of the potential silver lining of a health crisis. “We have to live differently.”