Working from home, childcare, and invisible labour, how have mums been coping under lockdown?

I’m currently sat in my basement office, after a relaxing evening drinking hot chocolate, and watching a Christmas film. I am living through COVID with four of my friends, all of us in our early 20’s, and self-sufficient. Whether you’ve been working on the front line or working from home, we’ve all been adjusting to working through a pandemic. I have been lucky enough to be able to work from my home office, where I am largely undisturbed. Despite this, as we all have, I have found it, at times, incredibly difficult to focus on my work; becoming distracted by my COVID-driven anxiety and thinking about the state that our world is in. For parents, this is only the beginning of their worries. They have had to adjust their working patterns whilst looking after their children, and worrying about COVID19. 

Invisible labour is a term that comes from a 1987 article from sociologist Arlene Daniels. It refers to the unpaid work that goes unnoticed and unacknowledged, and, largely, relates to the running of a household.

Research that was published in the journal, Sex Roles, found that men are taking on more invisible labour than in the past, however, it is still largely women that take on the additional labour, even when in full-time work. Senior relationship therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari observed, “we live in a culture which still places high expectations about parenthood on the mothers – an attitude that has been passed down through generations. Whilst there has been movement in that fathers are far more involved these days, there is still a long way to go with regards to our cultural expectations.”

3 in 10 mothers with a child 14 years or younger said they had reduced their working hours for childcare reasons

The Office for National Statistics, 2019

Researchers from Arizona State University and Oklahoma State University surveyed 393 women with children under the age of 18 and found that taking on the majority of invisible labour was leaving women feeling overwhelmed. Couple this with a global pandemic and there is no question as to why Working Families, a UK-based work-life balance charity for parents and carers, received 6 times the number of online queries to their helpline as they usually do. 

Shona Chambers is a marketing consultant and mother of 2 children, one aged 12 and the other 5. She has been working from home since 2011, but prior to COVID, she would usually split her time between working at home and working at co-working spaces. During the first lockdown, her eldest child had online classes to keep them busy, however, Shona had to juggle working with entertaining her 5-year-old, who would usually be at nursery. When I asked her how she felt juggling both of these roles she responded, “at times a bit fed up. As the self-employed person in the home, I have had to cut back on work at times.”

It is not unusual for women to reduce their working hours to look after their children. A 2019 study by the Office of National Statistics, found that 3 in 10 mothers with a child 14 years or younger said they had reduced their working hours for childcare reasons, compared with 1 in 20 fathers. 

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels

When I spoke to Catherine Gregory from Working Families she told me that when COVID-19 began, “one worrying trend we noticed on our helpline when schools closed in March was that some employers were not allowing mothers to work from home with children present, while fathers from the same organisations were allowed to work from home unquestioned.” This shocking statement is just one example of how invisible labour is not taken into consideration when we observe women in the workplace.

Dr. Kalanit Ben-Ari observed that the lack of recognition women get for taking on the majority of the invisible labour in family life, coupled with the immense pressure to excel at work, can lead to feeling stressed, anxious, and worried. Her advice to mothers dealing with this is, “don’t pressure yourself into striving for perfection – there is no such a thing and you will just bring suffering to yourself.”

There’s no going back to business as usual, and employers will need to adapt if they haven’t already.”

Catherine Gregory, Working Families

On the 5th of November, the UK went into its second national lockdown, however, early years settings, schools, and universities remained open. The government said this was because, “it remains very important for children and young people to attend [school], to support their wellbeing and education and help working parents and guardians.”

For Lesley Thomas, director and mother of two, schools remaining open was a help for her and her husband. “This made a huge difference in not feeling as though we were having to split our time between looking after the needs of our children and our businesses. Having a full day means we have a good period of time to get on with our jobs.” Shona agrees stating, “When nursery reopened it made a much bigger impact on my ability to work.”

With the second lockdown now at an end, we’re all thinking about how our new lives are going to look. Catherine from Working Families says, “Something we hope employers have learned during the pandemic is to measure performance not by the number of hours sitting in an office or at a desk, but by output and agreed objectives.  There’s no going back to business as usual, and employers will need to adapt if they haven’t already.”

Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva from Pexels

“I hate to say it,” Shona admits, “but from talking to many other working mums, it does feel like this year has put the emphasis of the bulk of childcare back on the woman. Often, we have chosen work that works around our families, but ultimately that is the reason we’ve all been able to stop working or minimise to look after the children with the lockdowns.”

I have no doubt that men also do some forms of invisible labour, but my hope for the future is that we begin to value the work women do both in the office, whatever their form of office may be, and in the home. It’s the only way we will begin to bridge the working gender gap and begin moving towards equality.