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Working parents are feeling the strain of lockdown

The logistics of working from home while juggling childcare duties is leaving many parents challenged with an impossible juggling act. They will need the support, trust and understanding of employers to get through it, says Queen’s PhD student Caroline Millar.  

With the UK and Ireland in lockdown to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, many working parents have found their home and professional lives blurred in a way that would have been unimaginable just months ago. With schools, nurseries and childcare facilities closed to the majority of children, working parents are suddenly tasked with video conferencing while simultaneously supervising a maths lesson, or working late into the night as penance for an afternoon spent with the kids.

Caroline Millar, a final year PhD student from Queen’s Management School has researched maternity leave return experiences, discrimination and the impact on career trajectory for working parents, especially mothers. She says the unrealistic expectations currently placed upon working parents overlooks the complexities of the situation. “This is not the standard childcare conundrum faced at the end of maternity leave, or the headache of how to ensure a child is adequately cared for during a temporary illness,” says Caroline.

"In many countries, efforts to minimise the spread of coronavirus have resulted in a complete collapse of childcare institutions outside of the home, for a period which extends well beyond the capacity of even the most generous annual leave entitlement. In addition, many grandparents have been automatically classed as ‘vulnerable’ in relation to the pandemic because of age, never mind any underlying health conditions, and this stark reality has eliminated another vital source of childcare for working parents. In this perfect storm, many parents of young children are rightly perplexed about how to manage their commitments to work and family.”

Child seated at a desk

Unrealistic stereotypes

Parents may be feeling extra pressure having to compete with child-free colleagues who can put in the hours and are not facing the extra burden of simultaneously trying to supervise schoolwork, referee squabbles and manage meltdowns.

“The conventional working-from-home image of an office worker on a laptop and mobile phone in their home does not account for any children,” says Caroline.

“With school buildings closed, there is an expectation on working parents that some form of distance learning will continue during term time.”  

And, while the Disney Plus channel can distract bored offspring to a point, it is not a substitute for parenting.  “Many children will be amused (some delighted) by unlimited access to gaming and television screens for a while, but this is not a sustainable solution to working parenthood, especially as we already know that coronavirus social distancing protocols are set to last for an extended period,” says Caroline.

Kid and games controller

Gender imbalance

While parents attempt to muddle through, mothers are also battling age-old stereotypes that the majority of the childcare and home-schooling responsibility should fall to them.  This is unfair, not just to working mothers, but to working fathers too, says Caroline, and it’s a trap we should actively avoid.

“You only have to Google ‘working motherhood’ to see that there are too many images which suggest that mothers can somehow juggle all of this responsibility,” says Caroline.

“This is grossly unfair and perpetuates cultural norms which also serve to prevent and disable fathers from participating in this important work. Women have worked hard and made sacrifices for their careers and jobs, and mothers have suffered the discrimination of their obligations to home and work because of their need to navigate both roles simultaneously since they joined the modern workforce. We need to determinedly resist propagating such stereotypes at this pivotal moment, so all home-based working parents participate in care whilst maintaining their respective obligations to their employer as far as possible.”  

Support from employers

In order to navigate these uncertain and stressful times, parents and employers need to mutually agree what the new normal looks like. For employers, that might mean actively acknowledging childcare responsibilities and asking working parents to prioritise essential work; while for parents, it might mean recognising that their children must come first.

“Both employers and parents will need to co-operatively engage with their shared responsibilities to families and children at this time,” says Caroline.  “Employers need to reconsider what effective and productive work looks like during this (hopefully) temporary, once in a generation pan-social experience. It will be impossible for working parents to maintain their normal levels of productivity whilst simultaneously caring for their children, especially if they have some additional duty to actively support their children’s education via new media. Employers will have to trust their employees to do their best, and understand they are navigating equally valid obligations to work and family.”

2 children near a lake

Amidst all the chaos, it is worth noting that children are also trying to navigate a new world in which life as they know it has been temporarily upended. 

“Children are faced with a huge disruption in their life experience, possibly for a considerable period of time relative to how long they have been alive,” says Caroline. “Looking after them and responding responsibly to this global crisis is important work, both to slow the spread of the virus and to ensure that our children understand that they are valued within our society, as capitalism, our social rhythms and life as we know it are thrown into a tailspin.”

She adds, “This is not the same life lived differently, this is a different life. We need a shared understanding of our parental and work obligations to match it.”

Queen’s Management School