AS the world implodes, people are saying: “We might be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.” Front-line medical workers occupy a unique boat. Daily wagers are harder hit than most. And there’s women — mothers, single mothers, working mothers — longingly flicking through the ‘back to school’ calendar, struggling to make toddlers running through Zoom calls appear cute and customary.
Covid-19 has placed many families in a time capsule, evoking the marvels of the 1950s, by smashing up the gender-role bargain that women were desperately trying to strike, to get a seat at the table without the imposter syndrome kicking in. Early warnings suggest that women are rapidly becoming tongue-tied victims of the pandemic.
This isn’t necessarily how it felt when the turmoil began. Initially, working from home ignited marvellous possibilities: no school runs or late work sittings, reduced commutes and social pressures. Surely, that meant more time with the kids; time for creative, cerebral experimentation, to focus on all that had been pushed back in daily frenzy, perhaps even have a go at becoming South Asia’s Marie Kondo.
Social media posts offered a motivational spur: of Shakespeare writing King Lear whilst the plague ravaged England, and of Newton’s theoretical breakthroughs under hostile conditions. Working mothers, too, felt the guilt wearing off, assuming that the dance between homeschooling, meetings, the kitchen, etc was plausible. The children’s effusive reactions made each moment — despite its unsustainability and insanity — appear worthwhile. The myth of having it all was winking from behind the curtains.
Working women are straining under the pressure to do it all.
But as the longevity of school and office closures began donning a timeless, unpredictable reality, the photoshopped image of the idyllic ‘working from home mom’ came into slow focus, introducing in its place a stark realisation. The expectation that an infectious outbreak could be turned into an opportunity to produce a magnum opus was preposterous.
Prior to the pandemic, dual earning couples had carefully curated arrangements to support their working parent goals: schooling, daycare, house help. Covid-19 demolished the foundations on which this provisioning rested, posing the more urgent question of which parent experiences the greater fallout. Going on to discover that the odds are stacked heavily against women is hardly surprising.
In societies steeped in patriarchal tapestries, such as in Pakistan, the quadruple burden of physical isolation — childcare, homeschooling, housework and day jobs — feels even more unfair. Nonexistent negative sanctions against men for neglecting shared care duties amplifies pressure on women. Historically, misplaced expectations — the ideal South Asian woman can be a Fortune 500 CEO but must always be an available mother — threaten to trip up a woman in her allegedly most important role; she must not fail or quit.
However, it isn’t just about cultural gender norms being briskly reproduced; practical considerations are at play too: who is the breadwinner, whose job is less dispensable, who might get less flak for requesting flexibility? Are fathers willing and even able to miraculously step up for childcare duties overnight? Single mothers are in greater crisis, alternating between earning and care work. Worse still, early reports suggest a spike in domestic violence, triggered by stress, drug and alcohol consumption, and monetary challenges.
While it is tempting to be nostalgic about the ‘bright side’ — such as how nature is healing, which in all likelihood it is — and view this as a welcome return of a ‘golden age’ when gender roles had a simpler split and men came home to freshly cooked dinners and strikingly embellished wives, that analogy is misplaced. Women who are desperately shoving the first, second, third and fourth shifts into the same finite hours as before, while struggling to keep families safe and sane, cannot be counted as part of an inadvertent Covid-19 ‘upside’.
Would it then be accurate to call this a patriarchal pandemic, one that is taking a toll on the mental health of so many, but of working women in particular? Is anyone listening to those women quietly completing budget sheets and research papers past midnight, after the chaos of the day finally subsides? Unlikely. We expect women to always pick up the slack, somehow magically figure it out — which they almost always do, but human strength too eventually meets its precincts.
This time, by turning a deaf ear, we are complicit in allowing an extraordinary crisis to let us crawl back in time, re-enter the age of pinks and blues, supermen and damsels in distress, when women went to college to get an ‘MRS degree’. Unless the boat with women on it is rescued quickly, such apathy and imbalance can only harbour apocalyptic thoughts.
The writer is author of the forthcoming novel Skyfall.
Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2020