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How Covid helped my husband and I split the household chores equally – at last

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Ben and Sophie: ‘After we recovered from the shock of having most of our work cancelled, we realised that it was now or never’

Ben and Sophie: ‘After we recovered from the shock of having most of our work cancelled, we realised that it was now or never’

It had all started so promisingly. In 2008, my husband Ben and I left our jobs – him as a BBC correspondent and me as a PR director – to start our own communications agency.

We had two small clients to start us off and we remortgaged our house. Little did we know the financial crisis would happen barely six months later, forcing us to abandon our plans and pivot quickly to selling what we knew we had the edge in – Ben’s skills as a media trainer and crisis consultant.

We rented out our London home and moved back up to Lincolnshire to be near my parents, who could help look after our three children, Charlie, Sam and Mirabelle who are now 17, 13 and 9.

The new strategy paid off. But it meant a life on the road for Ben, flying around the world advising senior executives and responding to crises. While I could advise him behind the scenes, the more he travelled the more disconnected I became from the business.

To make matters more stressful, shortly after we moved, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, swiftly followed by my father being diagnosed with myeloma, to which we lost him six months later. Ben was riding high, doing career-defining work. But I was left at home literally holding the babies, struggling with the loss of my father and caring for my mother.

This had not been the plan. A lot of the time I was a single parent and I can’t tell you how many school plays, sports days and parents’ evenings I attended alone. On one occasion we were all packed up ready to go off on holiday early the next morning when the telephone rang at 2am. A passenger aircraft had crashed in Russia and Ben was on a 6am flight to the company’s headquarters in Dubai. When they woke up, I had to explain to three small children that Daddy had gone to work and we were off on holiday on our own.

In 2016, my mother entered a care home, and the children were all at school. We started to look at ways I could be more involved in the business, while Ben really wanted to stop travelling so much.

Equality Check - childcare and houseworkEquality Check - childcare and housework

Equality Check – childcare and housework

But it was a Catch-22: if he stopped, our immediate income would dwindle but until he could spend more time at home we couldn’t reshape the business as we wanted. So the years slipped by with me essentially being head of wiping surfaces and laundry, still feeling unfulfilled. Ben tried to help when he was at home, but being absent so much of the time it was often simpler for me to just get on with it. It’s easily done and even more easily overlooked – you only have to look at the divorce case, in China, that has just seen the wife awarded 50,000 yuan (a measly £5,460) for five years of unpaid domestic labour to understand that.

Then Covid hit. After we recovered from the shock of having most of our work cancelled, we realised that it was now or never. Ben could stop travelling and I would be able to get fully involved back in the business with a husband around to help on the home front.

It has not been plain sailing – in fact, at times it has been a real struggle. Home-schooling in the first lockdown was not my finest hour by any stretch; there were many tears before teatime (mostly mine).

It was such a shock to have everyone in my domain 24/7. To suddenly have all five of us at home and actually try and teach my very reluctant nine-year-old daughter was not my idea of fun. At first all of the home-schooling and domestic chores fell to me, while Ben stared at our dwindling income spreadsheet.

Ridiculous home-school requests were my problem.

School: “Make a fossil using plaster of Paris by 11am.”

Me: “Now then, where did I put my plaster of Paris stash?”

Sleepless nights abounded and not just because we were worrying about paying the mortgage and school fees. I was so upset about being so rubbish, impatient and generally odious to my poor daughter that I was finding life really hard. The only things that kept me sane were my WhatsApp groups and rosé wine.

Slowly, though, as we formulated our new plan together, the balance started to shift. We agreed that we should alternate days at our office so we could both get much-needed time alone and the space to think. We divided up our domestic chores. Our cleaner was not able to come so Ben took on the job. He even wore a special cleaning outfit and called himself AnyaPlus as he reckoned he would do a better job. He didn’t. But it meant that chore was off my list.

When the children finally went back to school (the first time), Ben took on the school run, meaning I could tidy up the breakfast carnage before going to the office. Most of the ‘kidmin’ still falls largely to me in terms of who needs what kit which days, birthday presents to be bought, play dates (when allowed) to be arranged. We are getting there though – Ben now knows the names of some of Mirabelle’s teachers and on school pick-up he eventually stopped ringing me to ask which club she’d been to and where he needed to meet her. Baby steps.

In terms of my friendships this has been an interesting time, too. As I was at home all the time before I, like a lot of my friends, had carefully constructed my life to ensure smooth running of the domestics like a well-oiled machine; allowing me to get out and see friends for dog walks, coffees and exercise to balance out the drudgery.

With the children at school in September, I could finally go to the office every day, but I was mindful of not dropping my friends like a teenager who has a new boyfriend. I was exhausting myself going for early morning dog walks, lunchtime dog walks and meeting pals for coffee, lunch and tea on my day off. All while trying not to talk about work.

So this winter lockdown has come to the rescue, in a way. I have had a chance to reflect and decided I need to be honest: work has to come first for a while. We’ve had some good chats and my friends all understand, a couple have even said they are envious.

Covid has been hell for so many and life in lockdown, particularly in winter, is grim. Our family is also part of the statistics – in September I lost my poor mum to Covid. She died in her care home and I had only been allowed to see her twice since March. Thankfully the home allowed me to spend time with her at the end, so I did get to say goodbye properly.

In spite of it all, I am truly grateful for the opportunity Covid has presented us with, and as I walk to our office with my dogs, I feel like I am finally doing what we set out to do.

I keep asking Ben if he misses flying off to far flung places. His reply? “I can honestly say I would be happy to never get on a plane again, unless I’m going on holiday.” That’s our next challenge sorted, then.

Has Covid presented you with an opportunity to reassess your home life? Tell us in the comments section below

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