“It’s so second nature,” said my friend Barbara Graham, a Marin County novelist and playwright, when I asked why she’d spent four hours on the Sutter Health system website, while working on online crossword puzzles, to cadge an appointment for her brilliant and accomplished writer-spouse. “I’m obsessive, and I’m more patient than he is.”
For all sorts of reasons, women historically have done much of the scut work for men, and despite some improvement, we still do, spending an average of about 90 minutes more per day than men on unpaid work, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
This is the “second shift” famously described by Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. In her 1989 book by the same name, she detailed how even as women were moving into the labor force, they were still doing much of their workload at home, including the most disagreeable tasks, such as cleaning the toilets.
When I emailed Hochschild for an interview, she quickly agreed that the coronavirus is “very second shift-ish.” The pandemic, as she elaborated on our subsequent phone call, has greatly increased families’ toll of child care and housework, and women are shouldering the brunt of it, especially since many more women than men have lost jobs outside the home.
Hochschild said she hadn’t seen data on who’s making those vaccine appointments and doubted that anyone had yet explored this issue. (Representatives of CVS Pharmacy and the Kaiser Permanente health system said they don’t track genders of the schedulers.)
Still, Hochschild said she suspects women are making most of them. “Women are planners,” she said, “and this is a plan.”
The frantic hunting and pecking for vaccines, with its life-or-death consequences, is also the kind of disagreeable, anxiety-provoking job — distinguished by deadlines, unpredictability and lack of control — that researchers have found is more commonly assigned to, or volunteered for, by women.
“I know people who’ve had near mental breakdowns while on hold on the phone, thinking, this is my family’s life,” Hochschild said. “There’s a desperation and an urgency, and she’s the one who’s doing it.”
There may also be other documented gender differences at play. Women of all age groups are more likely than men to see a doctor about their own health concerns, as research consistently has shown.
“I think he would just put it off,” said Patti Scheurich, a mechanical engineer and mother of two in Frisco, north of Dallas, explaining why she went to bat for her go-getter husband, a purchasing manager. Scheurich is 56 and her husband is 55, meaning they needed to be resourceful to get early vaccines. Scheurich got hers by signing up for a Pfizer trial. Then she volunteered at the Texas Motor Speedway, where county officials were giving out vaccines, and persuaded her husband to join her so that he might get one of the shots left over at the end of the day.
Many studies suggest that women are naturally more empathetic than men, possibly due to our evolutionary history as caregivers to infants. Several accomplished women I interviewed told me — with pride or resignation — that they were their family’s nurturers. And what is more nurturing than chasing a potentially lifesaving vaccine?
“I would do it over and over again,” said Dylann Forsyth, 26, an educational assistant at an elementary school in Castle Rock, Colo. Forsyth calculates that she spent more than 25 hours on 14 different websites — hospitals, pharmacies, supermarkets and even the Denver Arthritis Clinic — to schedule vaccines for her retired parents, ages 55 and 61, herself, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s grandmother.
Everyone except maybe the grandmother could have done it alone, Forsyth said, but she worried that they’d get “overwhelmed and burnt out.” She and her boyfriend have an egalitarian relationship, she added, but he’s a busy local government worker, whereas she has the kind of job that allows her to keep eight tabs open on her phone and computer screen during the day.
“It takes so much dedication to get an appointment,” she said. “You can’t just do it in the morning or after 5 p.m. An appointment will fill so fast that while you’re frantically writing your name and birth date, it may already be gone.”
I wouldn’t say there’s no satisfaction in this task. As Barbara Graham noted, “The world is so wacky and out of control right now, and this gives a certain sense of control.” It’s that instinct, surely, that has put me in charge of my family’s finances, despite the good arguments against it.
And of course, there are men out there making appointments, as well.
A Facebook query produced several men taking pride in making their own vaccine dates and two women noting their husbands waited on the phone for more than four hours to make dates for themselves and their spouses.
Scott Hipp, 33, a Los Angeles screenwriter and director, told me he spent at least eight “manic” hours trying to schedule appointments for his father, 72, and stepmother, 65, in Kansas before they planned to set out on a road trip.
“I don’t see that many women in my age group leading the charge,” he said. One reason, as Hipp speculated, may be that so many men and women of his age remain unmarried, so it often falls to a son to make appointments for his parents.
Come to think of it, my 74-year-old husband ended up making his own appointment once I gave up trying after an hour. All I’d been able to find had been appointments requiring more than an hour of driving, which my husband nixed. Acting on a tip, and highly motivated by his dislike of venturing far from home, he found one at a pharmacy in a neighboring county.
So does this mean I can’t come to any stirring conclusions on the state of gender relations from this informal poll?
Maybe I need to put some more thought into it — as soon as I get our taxes off to the accountant.