It took a pandemic to show my partner what I usually accomplish in a day while working remotely from home for the largest non-governmental organisation (NGO) provider of clean water in the developing world. Working remotely before the pandemic you say? (Well yes, I advocated and lobbied for remote work with my employer too so I could manage childcare and work).
Fast forward to Covid-19 and the lockdown in Cyprus: When my partner and I were both working from home along with our little one having had online classes; the idea of home and work became completely blurred. While it should have been a relief to see my partner doing more co-parenting and additional care in our home, a part of me found it completely infuriating to see that it took a lockdown for this to occur [Note: cleaning assistance and babysitter gone]. The ‘this’ was being on equal footing with my co-parent.
Numerous studies have shown that women are still often pushed into unpaid domestic labour in the household due to stereotypes about whose job it is to cook, clean and care for children. Oxfam’s research showed that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities. Particularly experiences that are raced as well as gendered. One group of women whose challenges are currently exacerbated in invisible forms are those of single mothers. Single parent women become a homeschooler, a full-time cook and primary caregiver with a gap between single parent women and non-resident fathers.
While I am not a single parent woman, I often have felt alone in my co-parenting due to the gender gap.
The pandemic has opened the debate about the value of childcare work and the invisible labour involved in care giving. The mental load and the general invisibility of my labour in the role as mother and woman parent as well as primary caregiver has led me to question how we prioritise the well-being of women. Mental fatigue has long set-in three weeks into lockdown and I have been unable to release myself from its grip entirely. During Covid-19 research found that women were experiencing increased levels of anxiety depression and chronic fatigue. The need to have an honest discussion around depression and mental health has never been greater. Breaking open some of the taboos and myths around mental health and its importance especially during this pandemic is long overdue and mental health conditions have often gone undiagnosed during this pandemic. Especially when women are taking on a disproportionate burden of parenting and caring for children and the elderly. In-home support systems in domestic work are done by women and if they are not done by the owner of the house they are outsourced again to women employed as domestic workers.
Oxfam offers a solution in the need for real policy discussion around universal basic income, which would provide unpaid caregivers – such as stay-at-home parents and caregivers – with economic recognition and real compensation for their essential work. The key is to continue challenging norms and stereotypes to create lasting change. As I write this, I know that many of my friends will leave their current jobs to care for children, the sick or the elderly in the pandemic. Some have even chosen to quit working so they could home school. It took a global pandemic of epic proportions to hit Europe and the rest of the Western world to have a discussion around the value of care and household work that predominately women do and the impact it has on their lives. Whether you outsource your labour to other domestic workers, or you choose to conduct this essential care work yourself, the invisibility of this labour has been until now the norm. Reality check: even economists do not address unpaid work. Shifting the gender norms that perpetuate inequality and empowering fathers and engaging them in this mental and physical load is paramount if we intend to see women in the workforce. My partner and I talk about this a lot. I continue to talk about what primary caregivers mean, what is required of the mental load of childcare and how we can better create a household that allows both of us to flourish equally. It took a pandemic for my co-parent to meet me on equal footing. The process is ongoing on how we can empower men as primary caregivers and change the narrative of what it means to be a man parent. It is time to push for a society that prioritises the lives of women and their mental health in this pandemic. This needs to be the new normal.
Nicosia, August 2020