Today marks the start of my fifth week in lockdown. In the four weeks that have passed, I have emerged from my house to go to the supermarket twice, get takeaway sushi once, visit my doctor, collect a couple of pizzas, and, on the days that my husband’s shift work allowed it, go for a short walk in my neighbourhood. Thrilling, no?
As the kind of writer who thrives on the happenings of the outside world – on excursions to new places, visits to cool bakeries and cafes, and eavesdropping on people’s conversations on buses – life in lockdown has been particularly miserable. The first three weeks were lonely and difficult – I had given up Instagram for Lent and had very little contact with others in the same boat as I attempted to navigate my life as an employee, full-time student and mother with zero to very little help (usually afforded to me by school, childcare and, one day each week, my mother and mother-in-law).
On the rare days that I had a solid adult conversation, I joked that my current circumstances would probably kill me before COVID-19 did. My already-fragile mental state suffered as I read articles and saw social media posts that detailed that now was the perfect time to take up a new hobby, upskill, bake bread or whatever. My sense of self-worth all but collapsed as I realised that the PhD thesis I had been close to finishing would need to be shelved in favour of a six-hour homeschooling program across multiple websites and apps that gave me new grey hairs and the sense that my child was getting dumber under my tuition. My insecurities magnified as I realised I was never going to be the kind of mother that my children deserved, because it seemed, now more than ever, that I was bitter, irritable and angry.
My already-fragile mental state suffered as I read articles and saw social media posts that detailed that now was the perfect time to take up a new hobby, upskill, bake bread or whatever.
All of these sentiments, it seemed, came back to that thing that working mothers have been talking about for years but that everyone seems oblivious to because it’s just so hard to fathom: the juggle. We might watch shows like Motherland and movies like I Don’t Know How She Does It, but unless we walk a mile in a working mother’s shoes (stopping to fill out school enrolment forms, make vaccination appointments with the GP, buy them swimmers in a bigger size for the carnival and order the kid from playgroup’s birthday present along the way), we really don’t understand.
Most of us thought the struggle was real when we had to do the school dropoff enroute to a work meeting in the city or when we had to organise a bowling birthday party on our lunchbreak, but it turns out that the juggle in a time of pandemic is magnified by about 8000 per cent. Now, we can’t read on our commute, go to the toilet without being disturbed or concentrate on drafting a report without Frozen blaring in the background for the umpteenth time. But it turns out that we can spread ourselves even thinner than previously thought, juggling full-time work (if we’ve been lucky enough to keep it) with full-time care and doing an abysmal job at both.
Truth be told, I did my best. I wore clean clothes and washed my face and sometimes I wore makeup. I cooked healthy meals (but we still ate comfort food), took my kids for walks, baked cookies with them, put on cinema nights and let them ‘help’ with the cooking. We video-called friends and family, read books, made pizza and even set up a tent in the backyard for a night out camping.
But those fun things formed a fraction of our days, and through my childrens’ frustrations and my complete misery, all my previous thoughts about home life ruining my productivity increased a hundred-fold. To top it off, I was also potty training the one who was in the throes of the terrible twos, so I felt quite literally that I was ankle-deep in shit.
I am, despite all my above whining, immensely grateful for my health, the workers on the front line, and the fact that these measures are designed to keep us safe.
It’s not that I can’t see the bigger picture. I am, despite all my above whining, immensely grateful for my health, the workers on the front line, and the fact that these measures are designed to keep us safe. I am even more grateful that my essential-worker husband still has his job, even though it has kept him away from us a lot more frequently than usual.
But a mother who has fallen apart from a complete lack of rest and empathy is just as bad for her children as a mother who has contracted a life-threatening illness. There are so many mothers out there who are already battling mental health issues, and just because the mental consequences of coronavirus can’t be measured by a thermometer, it doesn’t make them less real.
I once believed that my generation of women was the future.
I once believed that my generation of women was the future. But we present a more poignant example of the great divide. Most men have kept on keeping on, aided by a patriarchal economic system that understands their needs more than it does ours, while we have taken more on.
On Easter Monday, I finally gave in. I gave up on my work and on my studies, because there was only so much I could do. I had reached the point where I had to make a choice. It is unfair and unfeminist and unrealistic, but this is where our ignorance of the needs of working mothers has gotten us.
Being in lockdown gave me perspective, affirming for me what others have been saying all along – that the juggle is impossible, and that women and children deserve better than women splitting themselves in two trying to do the equivalent of two full-time jobs.
Sarah Ayoub is a freelance writer.
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