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Guilt and fury: how Covid brought mothers to breaking point

“It is so hard, I cannot describe it.”

“I burned out, completely.”

“It feels like a grand conspiracy against mothers.”

“It’s absolute torture. I feel hopeless.”

I have spoken to a lot of mothers in different circumstances. Mothers who run businesses. Mothers who are key workers. Mothers who are on zero-hours contracts. Mothers who live in one room with their kids. Mothers in four-bedroom houses. There are striking similarities, however, in how they describe the past 12 months. What I keep hearing is a sense of guilt, a sense of anger, a sense of deep unfairness, and a sense that they are not being heard.

Many mothers I know were hit much harder by the effects of lockdown. Julia Margo is the co-founder of the company Hot Octopuss, an innovative sex toy business. She is also single mother to three children aged four, nine and 12. Before the pandemic, she managed pretty smoothly, relying on a careful jigsaw that covered her children’s needs during the hours she worked. The pieces were made up of school, nursery and help from her parents who live nearby. The pandemic threw the whole jigsaw into the air. “I’m in this situation where I’m running a global business, and I’m now the only carer and teacher and social life for three children. It’s a huge weight.”

I ask Julia to describe a typical day for me since the start of the school closures. I start feeling breathless as she talks. “I get up at 7am, I get the three of them set up for the day: get them dressed, connect their laptops, print out their paperwork. I get breakfast for them, and as I’m doing that I’m already on my phone and I’m taking calls and reading emails. As soon as they are occupied with their home school, I’m in Zoom meetings. Yesterday I was in a global meeting and I had what my colleagues call a perimeter breach, my four-year-old needed me. I had to leave the meeting and come downstairs to play with her. I realised a couple days ago I’ve stopped eating lunch. I make lunch, and as soon as they are distracted by their food I’m answering emails. I try to make time to play with them. I try to keep the house nice. I still want our home to feel warm and loving. Once they are in bed at 9.30pm, I’m on my laptop, finishing everything that I didn’t do during the day. I finish at about 2am. It’s like that all day, every day. It’s absolutely relentless.”

Julia is talking quickly and articulately, but there is a deep current of emotion in her voice. “This pandemic has exposed something about our society. There is a huge undervaluing of mothers. An ignorance. Or an active decision to ignore their needs.”

Julia split from her husband just before the pandemic, and he now does just one or two days’ childcare a week. Hard though it is, she sees her situation as pretty typical. “I have a WhatsApp group of friends, we were at school together. We are all in good jobs, we’re GPs, lawyers, lecturers. In every single scenario, it’s the mothers doing it all. Whatever the setup is, the husband gets away with less. You hear: ‘My husband is self-employed, so he won’t get paid if he doesn’t work, so I’ll do the home school.’ But also: ‘I’m self-employed, so I can be flexible, I’ll do the home school.’ ‘My business folded due to the lockdown so I can home school.’ But also: ‘My husband lost his job, so he needs to look for work.’ What’s going on?”

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What’s going on is that before the pandemic we were papering over the cracks of a still unequal society. Women had changed their lives to move into paid work in greater numbers and at every level. To accommodate these changes they built up complex frameworks of both formal and informal childcare. But men have never taken on the equivalent responsibility for unpaid childcare and housework, even as women moved into paid work. Now that those fragile frameworks that supported women’s employment have collapsed, many women are being crushed.

The ONS found that women took on 78% more childcare than men in the first lockdown.
The ONS found that women took on 78% more childcare than men in households with children under five in the first lockdown. 

Linda would agree. Her husband has always worked long hours in a factory. Still, she had a flexible job and her parents, who live near her in Northumberland, helped with her children, who are six and nine. The first lockdown was a challenge, but one she could weather. There was that novelty element, and the long sunny days, and the lack of pressure from the schools when everyone thought this was just a blip.

“This time, it’s absolute torture. It feels like there is no end in sight. They are in school half the week, as I’m a key worker, but the other days I’m expected to home school them and because the teachers seem to be too busy to teach much when they are in school, there is so much work to get through. That’s on top of all the cooking, the cleaning, and trying to keep them happy when there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to help. Being a teacher and being a parent are very different roles. I don’t want to force them to work when everything is so bleak for them. One of them has developed extreme anxiety. She is lonely, she is falling behind with her education. I hate seeing them suffer like this. I feel hopeless. I simply cannot go on.”

Linda is also not slow to see that this is part of a bigger picture. When I ask her why she thinks so much has fallen on to mothers, she doesn’t hesitate: “We like to say we’ve progressed, but we haven’t. In my mum’s day, girls were expected to leave school and cook and clean and look after the little ones. I don’t think we’ve moved on as much as we think.” I ask her if she has had this conversation with her husband, and her voice drops. “There’s no point. His dad was the provider of money and not of care. He has fallen into that same stereotype. He will never change.”

There is a sort of weariness that comes over women as we share and listen to these stories. I understand this weariness. Nobody really wants to talk about this, about how, despite all the glamour of contemporary feminism with its fiery rejection of old stereotypes, there is still a gulf between women and men when it comes to caring. And few of us want to confront the fact that this gulf still underpins women’s continuing economic and social inequality. “There is no pay gap, there is no glass ceiling, until women have children,” Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, tells me. But Mumsnet has become a byword for the feminism that wearies us, the feminism of drudgery and nappies and dishes.

This weariness is dangerous. This is not a time to sit back and be fatalistic about what is going on. This is a scary time for women’s rights. While we had still not reached a place of true equality, over the past 25 years – ever since I started being an active feminist – things have tended to move in the right direction. Women’s employment rate had reached a record high, at 72% compared to 78% for men. with. And men’s participation in unpaid work in the home was also steadily increasing, up to around two hours a day compared with women’s four hours.

Perhaps because progress seemed to be trudging muddily along, in this absurdly slow but generally positive direction, many feminists had moved on. You don’t get any fame or followers these days for banging on about the second shift or the feminine mystique, so who wants to be associated with that kind of feminism today?

Pop-art illustration of a woman having anxiety dreams about work
 Illustration: Jacquie Boyd

And, to be sure, many individuals who have now created new kinds of lives will simply not recognise the experiences of Julia and Linda, or all the other mothers I spoke to for this article. But if you look at the statistics, you can see that Julia and Linda are still more typical than one might hope. One ONS survey last year, found that women took on 78% more childcare than men during the first lockdown.

A Mumsnet survey of more than 1,500 women found that 79% agreed that “responsibility for home schooling fell largely to me” and 77% agreed that “it was impossible for me to work uninterrupted” when schools closed. In a recent survey from the TUC, nine out of 10 working mothers said that their mental health had been negatively affected by school closures and less than half said that they shared the care with a partner. A recent ONS survey found that 67% of women compared with 52% of men were taking charge of their children’s education at home.

This crisis for working mothers has been treated with extraordinary glibness by government. A few weeks ago, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said, “We owe mums everywhere an enormous debt of thanks for… juggling childcare and work at this tricky time.” That statement jumps right into the complacent myth that women will always be there to care – and never want any reward but love. But this crisis is not a nice tea, to be acknowledged with a breezy thanks to mum, this is a nationwide crisis that has laid bare hidden injustices, and needs action to put right. Roberts says about the government’s response: “The central team in politics is very male, and policies are not going through the lens of the working mother.” A report published by the Women and Equalities Committee last month called it “astonishing” that the government did not even mention childcare in its recent economic statements. Linda agrees: “With the policies they make, it’s a man’s world. That’s totally obvious.”

This dangerous mixture – of lack of will from the government, and lack of urgency in our responses – makes the current crisis extremely dangerous for women. Without more solidarity and energy, we will never summon up what is needed to combat the inequalities that the pandemic has exacerbated. And then this unexpected crisis will have the power to affect women’s equality for years to come, and the progress made so slowly over the past few decades could not only founder, but even go into reverse.

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Indeed, the measures that have been put in place to ease the crisis haven’t worked for too many women. Furlough has provided a lifeline for some of us, but far from all.

The TUC found that more than seven out of 10 requests for furlough from working mothers had been turned down, and so women were still being forced into impossible choices. “A quarter (25%) of mums who replied to our survey were using annual leave to manage their childcare – but nearly one in five (18%) had been forced to reduce their working hours and around one in 14 (7%) are taking unpaid leave from work and receiving no income.” Twice as many women as men believed they would have to take unpaid leave to manage this extra care. That has led to some mothers leaving work entirely, and evidence that is coming out from the US is sounding a further warning about what is happening to mothers. One survey from the US in June 2020 found that “12.7% of mothers versus only 2.8% of fathers were not working due to Covid-19-related childcare issues”.

What makes me angry about the complacency shown around this crisis is that this isn’t just about getting things right for women who are otherwise OK, women like me and my friends who are seeing pretty comfortable lives upended temporarily. This is intersectional. Women who were already poor or marginalised are bearing the brunt of trying to support their kids and shore up their insecure working lives during lockdown – and the effects on them shine a light on even deeper failures in our society.

Let’s not forget how poverty still too often wears a female face in this country. Even before the pandemic, 22% of women as opposed to 14% of men had a persistent low income, and 64% of low-paid workers were women. A report published in February by Centre for London showed that 48% of women saw their disposable income drop in January, compared to 41% of men. This new crisis for working mothers is also happening in a recession that is skewing female, with many job losses occurring in female-dominated industries such as hospitality and retail. In spring 2020, in the UK, women were five percentage points more likely than men to lose their jobs due to Covid.

A woman helping her children with home schooling
The ONS found the 34% of women, compared with 20% of men, felt that home schooling negatively affected their lives. 

The sharpest impact of inequality affects black and minoritised women, since BAME households are two to three times as likely to be in poverty than white households. And since the pandemic BAME women were far more likely to say that they had lost other sources of support than white women.

I have seen some of the harshest aspects of this reality up close. As well as looking after my son, during the first lockdown I was managing a charity working with women seeking asylum. Refugee women are among the poorest in the UK, and even before the pandemic many of the women we work with at Women for Refugee Women were completely destitute, and others just scraping by on benefits or on minimum-wage work. The pandemic snatched away even the flimsiest of safety nets. We were getting so many calls from women in desperate situations, women who were hungry and homeless, and still trying to protect their families.

It was heartbreaking to see how the small gains the charity had helped them with were being pulled away. For instance, I’ve known Bella for some years. She came to the UK from a conflict zone in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and a few years ago she was given refugee status. She lives with her five children in east London. Just before the pandemic, their lives were improving, She had been a businesswoman in Africa but was glad to have a job as a cleaner working night shifts in the City and to be volunteering and training during the day in social care.

The pandemic hit her and her children hard. At first, when government instructions were to stay home and save lives, the cleaning company was asking her to come into Liverpool Street and work. “Now,” Bella explains sadly, “they have furloughed us, and I get less than 80% of my previous wage.” It was always just minimum wage. “I am paying all the same bills – the rent, the council tax, the water, the internet, the food – with less money. We’ve gone hungry. I was queueing at the food bank last week, and I realised I will never move on with my life. I just broke down. I feel desperate.”

I have spoken to so many women like Bella. One woman, Madeleine, who lives in one room with her teenage son, has just £75 a week to support the two of them. Many of the charities and drop-in centres that used to help them have closed their doors. There is no money for her or her son for anything other than food. “It is like being in prison,” she told me. “We have no privacy, and nowhere to go.”

If we listen to women like this we see how the urgency and solidarity that we need now cannot just aim at getting back the semblance of equality that we accepted before the pandemic. These lockdowns have exposed too clearly that we need a new recognition of what is needed for women – for everyone – to live equal and safe lives. It cannot be left to the individual mother, whether she is a businesswoman or an asylum-seeker, to try to plaster over the gaps in the responsibility left by others, whether her own husband or society as a whole. That slow, muddy path to progress is now looking more like sliding backwards. To get out of the mire, we need a new recognition of the value of care.

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All of those I speak to who work at the frontline of this issue are clear that the action that needs to be taken must be genuinely revolutionary. Maria is a social worker who lives in Shropshire. She has faced her own challenge at home during the pandemic, caring for her two-year-old as nurseries shut and grandparents were unable to help. Her husband did step up at home, but what hurt is the way that her public sector employer treated her. “Their idea of flexibility is just to say I can catch up on the office work in evenings and weekends. As a social worker you always have to work extra hours anyway. This just meant that I was working for hours in the evenings and weekends. In the end I collapsed. I burned out. I was signed off sick for a month.”

Maria is back at work now, but floored by the way that she sees fragile families being let down by a society that does not value care. “The pandemic is making everything worse. All the services are fraying. I shouldn’t have been forced into an impossible situation in my own home, and I shouldn’t be trying to plug so many gaps for other children and families without proper resources either. When you are on a call trying to help a vulnerable child who has basically been abandoned by society, with your own child scrabbling and crying at your door, you just realise in a very visceral way how caring is so undervalued. We need a complete political shift.”

The change that has to happen as we emerge from the pandemic must be transformative. We need true investment: in childcare, in parental leave, and not just in benefits to help the poorest, but also all the services that make up a caring society – the mental health services, the youth clubs, the health visitors, the social care, the after-school sports. For too long, we have allowed that Conservative mindset to take hold, which believes that caring for anyone vulnerable is the responsibility only of the private family, too often, in effect, that of an overworked woman who will be given a swift thanks if the men remember. But it takes a village, it takes a country, to raise our children and care for our most vulnerable members.

Every woman has experienced this pandemic in her own unique way. But unless we also recognise the common ground shared by many women, we will never be able to build a more equal society as the pandemic recedes. We need to reclaim a materialist feminism that isn’t afraid to talk about parenting, pay and poverty, a feminism that seeks change, not accommodation to the status quo. We have to learn from this crisis. It has reminded us that, under a flimsy carapace, women are still poorer and still less powerful than men. It has exposed to us that women are still doing most of the caring in a society that doesn’t value care. It’s reminded us that we need urgency and solidarity if we are to make change. And it’s reminded us that change is way overdue.

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