Rise in Pandemic Divorce Sounds Alarm to Address Gender Inequities at Home

A hidden casualty of the pandemic: U.S. marriages. Mine was one of them.

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Pew Research Center reported moms having “a lot” more of the childcare duties since the onset of COVID-19. This labor hasn’t gone away with the new school year. (Nenad Stojkovic / Flickr)

Six months ago, I logged into a Zoom room at the Skokie, Ill., courthouse. After 15 minutes of rote proceedings, the judge pronounced my spouse and I divorced. It was a strange but relieving end to a 21-year marriage that I had thought would last forever. I was just one of thousands of women who experienced the end of a relationship during the pandemic. I closed the computer and went back to check in on my son’s remote learning, joining multitudes of women doing the same with their children.

A new study reveals a 21 percent increase in couples initiating divorce in 2021 over 2020. With many schools shutting down in the past couple of weeks due to COVID-19 outbreaks, kids are needing more support at home and the number of unhappy couples are bound to rise.

While financial stressors and health worries contribute to the breakdown of partnerships, in many heterosexual partnerships it is the massive disparity in who does household labor, including childcare, that matters most. To put it simply, women will continue to get crushed.

Domestic partnerships, including marriages, are a major hidden casualty of the pandemic. By June 2020—just three months into the pandemic—there had been a 34 percent increase in couples contemplating divorce compared to 2019. Additional data showed that a large number of those strained relationships were couples with young children.

Inequalities in domestic chores are not new. Before COVID-19 hit, women were already doing twice the amount of household labor as men—regardless of whether they worked outside of the home full-time, were the main breadwinners or had children. The pandemic piled on a lot more, especially for those with kids.

Women take on the greater share of childcare when children are home all day—an emotionally and physically exhausting experience for many, but especially for those trying to also balance other jobs. Childcare involves the often-invisible labor of managing all things school and daycare-related: supervising kids with their remote schooling; setting up and managing pods; and providing learning support.

This labor hasn’t gone away with the new school year. Women are managing potential exposures to their young unvaccinated children. They are the main parent dealing with school communications about shifting regulations, potential exposures, and tracing. And of course, they are more likely to stay home with a child that has to be quarantined.

Many women find themselves having to take on the emotional labor of putting on a “good face” in order to help their kids stay happy and calm.

These additional and intensified gendered responsibilities have negatively impacted women’s participation in the workforce. Over 2 million women have left or have been forced out of the workforce in the pandemic. The effects in terms of job advancement and salary will be long-term, compounding long-standing issues with salary equity. Low income, Black and Brown women have been especially hard hit.

Research shows that couples with pre-existing tensions saw them escalate during the pandemic. The pandemic magnified the problems in relationships, putting them into clearer view. As Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed says, the pandemic revealed the “grotesque inequality” that exists within families. Many of us are saying to ourselves, “This isn’t how it was supposed to be.”


The pandemic revealed the “grotesque inequality” that exists within families. Many of us are saying to ourselves, “This isn’t how it was supposed to be.”


Of course, many couples thrived in quarantine. And certainly, some men do an equal share of the household labor. I know a few. But they are rare exceptions, who we praise as if they are not simply doing what is just.

Experts say that this pandemic will be with us for some time. Certainly, the mental health and employment effects will last longer than the containment of the disease. Women are bearing the lion’s share of these costs, along with the wider social ones imposed by the pandemic and will continue to do so.

As a society, it is time we face some real questions about how we want to raise the next generation.

Do we want to have our children witness mothers doing most of the household labor, completely exhausted, as if this is just the way things are? Do we want to have them see their mothers lose career opportunities as a result? Do we really want to continue raising our children in such grotesquely unequal households?

The divorce statistics suggest that many of us do not.

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About

Jessica Winegar is a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, where she writes and teaches about gender issues and social change.