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Covid-19: lockdown means juggling the impossible for parents

Sarah Wrack, Socialist Alternative England Wales and Scotland

In my local Mutual Aid Facebook group, most posts are asking for help getting shopping, or offering to pick up medicines. The solidarity between ordinary people has been really inspiring – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a problem asked about that hasn’t been solved by other group members. But then one Friday night, a different sort of post jumped out at me - one that people, while kind and sympathetic, were less sure of how to help.

Rebecca wrote: “Sorry if this is the wrong place to post this but I’m a single mum and I’m finding it a bit hard. The lack of adult contact, and dare I say physical contact (desperately in need of a hug) is driving me a bit crazy. As much as I love my daughter, I’m finding it really hard cooped up in a flat with no outdoor space and not being able to have even a minute to just collect my thoughts is driving me a bit dolally. My daughter is not a big sleeper, she sleeps from about 10pm-8am so I feel like I’m always ‘on duty’. If anyone has any advice as to somewhere I could get a bit of sanity, or just vent, I would really appreciate it. Thank you! Just to note it’s been really hard for me to say I’m struggling a bit.”

Rebecca isn’t alone. The scale of the shift in patterns of daily life that lockdown represents for millions is enormous. For everyone, the reduced social contact can have a big impact on mental wellbeing. The merging of personal and work life brings difficulties, especially for those with limited space at home. But the closure of schools and nurseries is perhaps the biggest shock to the normal functioning of workers’ lives.

Families being forced to be together, and with no one else, fulltime and for several weeks if not months, is undoubtedly causing an increase in stress, tiredness and tensions in family relationships. Socialist Alternative has written elsewhere about the rising domestic violence that is one extreme outcome sparked by this dynamic. But for many more families, relationships will remain safe and loving but under enormous pressure as they try to juggle the impossible. Many parents are experiencing a huge mental and emotional strain as the expectations of what they can achieve in a 24-hour period spiral completely out of sync with reality.

Double work

To state what should be obvious, it is not possible to work fulltime and also look after young children fulltime. While some workers are furloughed completely and some may have a reduced workload when working from home, many report being expected to complete their usual contracted hours, despite having children at home to care for. It is common, for example, that workers have been provided with work computers which allow the employer to monitor how much time is being spent on work.

At the same time, parents - whether they are working or not - also face an unrealistic pressure to be providing a full day of dynamic, fun and educational activities for their children. The work that has been set by schools varies hugely – including a lot assuming access to computers and the internet. No doubt many are appreciative of some suggested activities and guidance on what would be useful and interesting to their children, but parents are not, and do not need to try to be, teachers. Neither do they need to attempt to offer some kind of summer camp. One look at social media or any parenting forum would suggest any good parent is having an hour-by-hour timetable for each day full of arts and crafts, homemade science experiments and amateur dramatics. There must be no shaming of parents who struggle to or choose not to get their kids doing organised activities – particularly given the anxiety that many children will be feeling in the current situation and the impact on their own mental wellbeing and behaviour that this can have.

Biggest burden on women

This issue is impacting everyone, but it is particularly acute for women, single parent and lower-income families. Increased pressure on household tasks inevitably means more pressure on women. This is because of the pre-existing inequality that exists for women, including within the homes, which will be exacerbated in a crisis like this. Survey after survey shows that despite all the legal rights women have won, and the influx of women into the workforce over the past three decades, women still do the majority of unpaid work within the home - cleaning, cooking, shopping, laundry, all things that are more complicated under lockdown. The capitalist system relies on reinforcing traditional gender roles and the idea that women are ‘natural’ carers and homemakers. This then justifies low pay for the employment sectors performing these roles (dominated by women) and also women providing the bulk of unpaid work on these tasks within the home.

As with so many aspects of this crisis and others, the poorest are hit hardest. Many are trying to handle these commitments in overcrowded homes with no outside space. Over 86,000 homeless families, including 127,370 children, are living in temporary accommodation such as B&Bs and hostels, with parents and children living in just one room. The number of single mothers (who make up 90% of single-parent families) living in temporary accommodation has increased by 75% since 2010. The chief executive of housing charity Shelter said at the start of March “we talk to mothers who are worried there is no space in their cramped, dirty room for their baby to learn to crawl.” These conditions are clearly a huge obstacle to parents being able to ‘homeschool’, and keep their children entertained within the home setting.

Meanwhile, it is reported that there has been a surge in demand for private tutors and even nannies offering to supervise children over the internet. For those with a bit of expendable income, many classes and events are available online for a fee, which undoubtedly gives some brief respite for overworked parents. But none of these things are an option for many low paid workers, particularly those who have had pay cuts or suffered redundancy as a result of the crisis. And that’s not to mention that some nurseries are still charging parents to reserve their child’s place, despite them not being able to attend for the foreseeable future.

Trade union struggle

We must demand realistic expectations of working parents. Socialist Alternative calls for trade union oversight of workload to take into account increased pressures, including the lack of childcare. The question in each case should not only be can this work be done from home, but does it need to be? We call for all non-essential workplaces (as determined by the workers themselves) to be closed to help stop the spread of the virus, but non-essential work should also be stopped completely if workers are no longer in a position to carry it out because of the lockdown – while guaranteeing full pay for all. Any attempt at future disciplinary action against workers who were not able to complete work during this period must be fiercely resisted by the trade unions.At the same time though, they must also organise to ensure that when it is safe and possible for workplaces to reopen there is no attempt to use what workers have managed to achieve in this extraordinary period to force new working arrangements in the long term - for example attempting to save money by having big sections of the workforce work from home on a permanent basis.

Many parents will be counting down the days until things return to ‘normal’ and kids go back to school, or can visit grandparents and friends, or just when families can have a day out of the house together. But the lockdown has brought into the general conversation an issue often behind closed doors - looking after children is hard, and can be isolating at the best of times. Raising the next generation, not just providing them with a formal education, should be a collective responsibility of society.

Socialist Alternative calls for a system of free, state-run, flexible childcare to meet need and want. This should be to enable parents to have some free time, not only to facilitate working. The Coronavirus crisis has revealed that work can also be much more flexible than employers would like to claim. Working parents should be able to work from home, part time or on a flexi-time basis to whatever degree is reasonable and works for their families. Ending poverty pay would ease the financial strains which can lead to increased tension within homes, and also offer all families the chance to enjoy days out and activities together. A mass programme to build and renovate council homes, including outdoor space such as private or communal gardens or playgrounds, would make a big difference to quality of life for many.

A socialist alternative

The conditions of life under lockdown have highlighted the problems with relying on the nuclear family to provide for all material and emotional needs. This is an extreme situation, but the reality is that even under ‘normal’ conditions the capitalist system propagates the idea that the full burden of all tasks associated with childrearing should fall on individuals, and particularly on individual women. It teaches us to undervalue the essential and tough work of caring for children and other vulnerable sections of society. A socialist world, where resources are publicly owned and democratically planned to meet the needs of all on a collective basis, would lay the ground for all tasks and relationships to be genuinely voluntary and collaborative. The Coronavirus crisis is therefore highlighting that a socialist feminist perspecive is essential to make clear that the daily struggles currently facing parents under lockdown are entirely bound up both with class oppression and the oppression of women, and that only a working class-led struggle for a socialist alternative to capitalism offers a way forward.

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