Adapting Roles: Part 4

By Emily Blobaum, contributor & Emily Barske, associate editor

Editor’s note: This story, focused on relationships with partners, is part four in the “Adapting Roles” series looking at family and gender issues amid the pandemic. Topics for the series were selected based on a survey conducted by the Business Record about the most challenging work-life balance issues due to coronavirus.

Imbalanced emotional labor was identified as a key gender issue magnified by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Business Record survey. 

Some respondents indicated that their partner is not doing an even share of household chores or caregiving despite having similar levels of responsibility in their jobs. Others indicated that they have taken on a greater share because their partner is an essential worker or has a very demanding job. 

Discussion about emotional labor and how partners are working through challenges during the pandemic was prevalent in a recent Business Record panel discussion as part of this series. Here are a few key takeaways from each of our panelists about issues partners are dealing with. 

Tiffany O’Donnell, CEO, Women Lead Change

O’Donnell told the story of a man who recently told her that the pandemic has made him think differently about a basket of laundry. As he was working at home he realized, more than before, that if he didn’t fold the laundry in the basket, his wife would have to when she got home from work, which was considered an essential profession. 

“We need to own some of that ourselves,” she said. “We need to communicate our needs and how we feel. … The whole laundry basket analogy – how wonderful that that gentleman finally saw that. But I’m guessing up until that point, he only saw everything folded and put away in his drawer.”

She also said the pandemic may have an effect on young men and shaping their behavior when it comes to equity in the home. “If you talk to younger men today … they will say they understand that there’s equal roles at home. And I’d like to think of that as a real attitudinal change … about equity. … But once they grow up and get in the workplace, they’re seeing that there’s attitude change and then there’s behavior change.”

Once working, younger men may see women partners not getting as many opportunities as they do or see workplace behavior that doesn’t reflect how they thought equality was supposed to be, she said. The pandemic allows those younger men – and all young people – to see issues of equity in the home up close. More awareness of this means cultural barriers that limit women from ascending into leadership roles could be lessened, she said. 

David Steenson, founder, The Changing Point Counseling Center

Steenson said he talks to his clients, who are finding ways to better communicate with their family members and partners, about realizing that everyone is experiencing the pandemic with a different perspective.  

“Just to start with that understanding can help,” he said. “When we’re stressed … we just see it our way. But when we’re calmer, we can see that there are other points of view. … Couples in a relationship each have a different perspective and it’s not about who’s right or wrong.”

The pandemic provides an opportunity to figure out what’s important to your family, he said, and discuss what each person’s role has been. 

Courtney Reyes, executive director, One Iowa 

Reyes said it’s important to remember that everyone’s family situation may look a little different and isolation could be harder on some folks. 

“Many LGBTQ folks don’t have a supportive family. And so when I think about folks being quarantined or isolated in a household, I would think of a lot of students who maybe were at college and were able to be open and out, and then you have to move back home and maybe you’re not in a safe and affirming place.

“That’s causing a lot of harm for folks. … And then absolutely, keeping your LGBTQ friends and family in mind. … Maybe you’re not out at work. And now you’re on a Zoom call in your home, and your partner is there and the fear that would be brought up about being outed. I think it just brings a lot of layers into where not everybody’s home is really safe, or maybe that’s your only safe place and you don’t want anybody in there either.”

Additionally, some may be dealing with domestic violence or other traumatic experiences. Or some single parents may be feeling strain due to limited help with caregiving, she said. 

Denise Oles-Acevedo, associate teaching professor, Iowa State University

Oles-Acevedo said a lot of her gender studies students may feel the world is already equal and then through more experience realize it isn’t. One key solution toward gender equity is reshaping the norms around career paths, she said. 

“We’ve got to grow the number of women in leadership positions. We have to get away from this linear career path. Right, that women can work different hours, work part time in the office and part time at home, just to help with that. 

“Because when you’re comparing a woman’s career trajectory compared to a man, it’s not really comparable because the majority of that child care often falls on the woman. So there’s these gaps in their career path that shouldn’t be looked at as negative, but maybe part of the conversation is what sort of skills did get developed during that time that can then be transferred into the workforce.”

Watch the panel

More coverage of the panel discussion will be included in future stories. You can watch the full discussion by registering for free at

IN THEIR WORDS: Melissa Butler

Melissa Butler is the communications director at Progress Industries in Newton. Her husband, Matt, lives and works in Denver. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The first two weeks after Progress Industries shut down, I was in tears every night when I would go home. Not because of work but because when I would go home, there was no one to talk to. There was no one to vent to. There’s no “How was your day?” I’d walk in and there’s my three dogs and I’d have to go take them for a walk. It just hit me hard. 

My husband took a new job with his company in the fall and moved out to Denver, Colo., in January. Ever since, he’s made two trips back home and I have not been out there. 

A lot of my friends and co-workers have said, “You have the best of both worlds. You get to see him on the weekends and then when he’s gone, you can live your life.” While that all sounds good in theory, in the end, it’s difficult. I went through every emotion possible over the last eight weeks. It was a grieving process because I couldn’t see him. I knew he couldn’t come home. Before the pandemic hit, I thought he’d come home every other weekend. So when this hit and he couldn’t come home, that changed things. I thought about all the people who are locked up in their homes with their kids and their spouse and they can’t leave. And then you’ve got this other side of life where there’s a lot of people in my situation where they are living alone. It’s a lonely existence. It’s hard. 

He calls me every morning on his way to work and just checks in. We do FaceTime and we both have Instagram. Basically that’s how we keep in touch. We’ll get on the phone and our conversations will go, “Hi, how are you? How was work? What’s the weather like? Do you have any cases at work? Are you guys locked down?” And that takes four minutes, and then we’d have silence. We’d say, “I love you, but I don’t have anything else to say.” And so that’s where we’re at, which is a good thing. Our relationship is solid and we’re committed to each other, so that eases the burden. 

On the flip side, I’m here taking care of the house and the dogs and the bills. I said to him over the weekend laughing, “Just so you know, and I don’t mean this to be negative, but you have an apartment so you don’t have any maintenance. You drive to work, you work all day, come home and then you play your guitar.” I don’t begrudge it by any means, but I feel like my days are just filled nonstop. I don’t have a minute to breathe sometimes. So that’s where we’re different. We had an agreement when we got married. I said you cook, I’ll clean. Now that he’s gone, I have to cook. But I don’t cook, so I just get something quick from a drive-thru or something like that. Basically I have to take care of everything. Snow removal, mowing the lawn, calling a service person to do something.

He said, “Don’t ever think for a minute that I don’t realize what you’re doing back in Iowa. I don’t ever take that for granted.” And once I heard that, I’m like OK, that’s all I needed to hear. It’s my kind of personality to take charge. And then I had to think about him. He left our house here in Iowa. Our backyard, deck, our three dogs. He’s living in a one-bedroom apartment and has relatively no freedom so I thought that’s not perfect either. And I think his days are long and lonely. He doesn’t have a lot of connections. He has his work people, and that’s it. 

I don’t have any close family here in Iowa, so I have always relied on the kindness of strangers. My friends and my neighbors have really become my family. I am surrounded by good neighbors who take good care of me and they look out for me. If I can’t get home, they let my dogs out. If it wasn’t for one of my closest friends who does live close, talking to her every day for the last eight weeks, I don’t know what I would have done.


Matt Butler has worked as the continuous improvement manager at Vermeer in Denver, Colo., since January. His wife, Melissa, lives in Newton. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

When I moved to Colorado, I took two things. I took all of my fly fishing gear and I took my guitars. I can’t fly fish because everything is shut down. So it’s just me and my guitars. My social group is a Les Paul, a Stratocaster and a Telecaster. But they don’t answer back when I talk to them.

I’m locked up in an apartment. I go to work, and I drive home to an apartment. Because of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, I have not been able to do anything. I feel like I’m on another planet. I haven’t been able to meet anyone, so there’s no one else to talk to. I don’t know anyone. My only social interaction is to talk about work with people at work. You go stir crazy. 

I know that Melissa is at home doing every single thing. Taking care of three dogs, taking care of the house. I can’t do anything. I can’t physically be there to fix the door latch. I’m cognizant of the fact that she has to do every single thing. I said, “I don’t want you to think that I don’t recognize or appreciate that, even though I go home and sit in an apartment with guitars.” 

She is an exceptional person with all of the things that she’s managing right now. I’m a lucky guy. I’m married to an exceptional person that puts up with what we’re going through right now.

We’d been thrown into this not-normal situation because of my work. And then you send the world into an extreme not-normal situation. It amplifies the fact that what we’re doing isn’t normal in a relationship. We’re nine hours away from each other with no end in sight. We don’t see each other as often as we had planned because of travel restrictions. They stopped some of the flights to Des Moines. 

You’d really better have a solid relationship when you disappear for three weeks at a time and all you have is FaceTime and a telephone. Fortunately we have that kind of relationship. We always talk, every day. It’s communication, communication, communication. Even if it’s to call and say there’s nothing going on. 

It’s starting to ease up a little bit. But being in isolation is tough. It’s lonely. It really is. We were the people that hung together all the time. Now I don’t have that person to hang with all the time. Even if we were in different parts of the house, we knew that we were together. It’s not the same with nine hours between. Sometimes we just turn FaceTime on and leave it on.