‘Southern Voices’ is a reader-submitted platform for stories from the heart. Today’s submission comes from Dr. Katherine A. Foss, a media studies professor at Middle Tennessee State University. If you have a story to tell, see our guidelines for submission here.
When it rains a lot, a roundish plot of grass in our backyard sometimes fills with water. We casually refer to it as “the pond,” but it is dry half the year and thus, lacks both space and creatures for an official label. Nonetheless, it is small, and even when flooded, quite shallow and full of small trees and brush — not a body of water for recreational enjoyment.
One week after school was canceled, I had the epiphany that we should buy a boat for our pond. In our normal reality, this idea would be absurd, akin to purchasing a jetski for a swimming pool. However, in this moment, it was perfect, serving the dual purpose of giving my kids something to do and (in my dreams) providing me with a floating isle of refuge in which I could gather my thoughts.
This strange period of isolation has been difficult for everyone — but especially women. Guidelines from the United Nations emphasize global gender disparities during this time, as girls and women are more likely to suffer financial insecurity, domestic violence and other profound impacts. Additionally, women make up 70 percent of the health and social sector, increasing their professional demands and risk of exposure during this crisis.
On the home front, while non-parents have been blogging and posting about their extra spring cleaning and bursts of productivity, this is a tough period for working parents. Let’s face it, women are especially bearing the brunt of this quarantine. Helen Lewis thoughtfully articulated this façade of social progress in The Atlantic, demonstrating how the burden of epidemics falls harder on women. At our house, we are privileged to still be employed. My job as a professor is flexible, at least compared to my husband’s. Like many other working mothers, though, I am the one to attempt to balance work and parenting our two daughters (8 and 11), and I am expected to succeed at both.
This is not to say men aren’t doing household tasks or some child care. My husband is a great dad and does a lot at home. What I’m referring to is the larger, unequal gender divide known as the “second shift” — sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s term for the extra time working women — not men — are forced to spend on domestic responsibilities. In our current crisis, the second shift is now doubling down on the first, leaving no time in the day for anything but paid and unpaid work.
Even with approximately 72 percent of mothers participating in the labor force, the majority of whom work full-time, a traditional division of household duties exists for most families. A 2019 Pew Research study showed that in 80 percent of households surveyed, mothers do the grocery shopping, planning and cooking, spending an average of 68 minutes per day prepping meals. Mothers, including those working, are much more likely to manage kids’ schedules and activities and to care for them when they are sick. It is not surprising then, that working mothers get fewer hours of leisure time than male partners, as they use non-paid work time to do housework and care for children.
This time of crisis amplifies the disparity in gender roles. Grocery shopping is more stressful and time-consuming with the added planning and precautions against disease. The short supply of food choices sometimes means going to multiple stores just to get the basics and more time spent on planning — not just one meal, but three, plus the endless snacks kids seem to request.
Added to this daily list is the pressure of working while caring for babies or toddlers. Or, for older kids, unexpectedly homeschooling. Although dads are certainly participating, media stories and ads for educational materials, paired with social media vents about the process, suggest women are primarily in charge. How does this affect the typical day? The impromptu homeschool teacher/parent/employee must feed kids, get them ready, plan out lessons and the day, have the kids start their worksheets and oversee the learning — all while trying to get paid work completed. And, let’s be honest, most days do not go this smoothly, even with well-behaved kids, who miss their real school, teachers and friends. More likely, it’s a disjointed schedule with focused moments interrupted by complaining about food, school, clothing, cleaning, other people and boredom, or siblings fighting about anything and everything and stuff mysteriously breaking.
Even when homeschool time is going well, it is still time-consuming to oversee. Kids have questions about their worksheets, which may include math taught in a completely different way than what we learned. Even in districts with online schooling, someone needs to monitor the daily grind of virtual learning, getting kids to log in, pay attention, follow the curriculum and complete assignments. All of this takes time and adds to the juggling.
The shift to working at home is likely an additional stressor, especially if you don’t normally work from home. Moreover, most jobs are not conducive to having child coworkers. It’s tough to Zoom conference with a baby on your lap or do a client call with a preschooler running trucks over your feet. Even when not doing school work, older children constantly pop in. Case in point, in the last 45 minutes, my kids have asked for a snack, asked for a better snack, inquired about where the other one was, told me they were both bleeding a little (but okay) and described a game they made up.
Underscoring all of this is the desire to be good at both work and motherhood. We have external pressure from work but also from media messages advising how to successfully work from home with kids. Social media posts reinforce the “supermom” image, making it seem like everyone has got it together. (We don’t. No one does.) Intrinsic motivation also pushes us to excel across roles. I genuinely want my college students to succeed, to make my writing deadlines, and do my best in my professional service roles. At the same time, while I would like to get work done without interruptions, I also need my children to have fun and feel happy, although we have to stay home. This crushing pressure to do both has taken its toll emotionally and mentally. I know I am not alone.
So how can we cope with this unfortunate situation? Unless they are also working from home and caring for children, our partners may not realize how stressful this juggling is and how much we need uninterrupted time to focus. If possible, we need to be vocal about what is doable and what is not, both domestically and professionally. I’m trying to identify what is mandatory for work and what is optional, passing on “happy hour” virtual gatherings and other extras I just can’t fit in right now. I would rather spend the hour actually working or with my family.
We also need to give ourselves permission to set aside time to just have fun with the kids. Not half-work/half-kid attention. Not school work monitor time. Not chore time. Just quality playtime in which they get 100 percent. I will admit that this is what I’ve struggled with the last two weeks — making sure I do something to brighten each day. We dyed our hair blue, started “picnic lunch Wednesdays” and listed out The Sound of Music and other theme days.
This brings me back to the boat. It rained most of our first 10 days home, making our yard a swampy, impassible mess and contributing to our growing social distancing melancholy. On the second Monday of isolation, I surprised my kids with the little, orange rubber raft, yellow oars and two life jackets. For three days, they gleefully paddled around the knee-deep water, exploring the nooks and crannies of the flooded brush. “Boat time” was the highlight of the day and an incentive for completed school work. Unfortunately, a stick punctured a sizable hole and ended our rafting adventures. But it served its purpose in the moment, helping us make it through the rain and into the sunshine at a tough time. We have moved on to other small joys, but the boat got us started — even if it was ridiculous.
Katie Foss is a professor of strategic media and journalism at Middle Tennessee State University‘s College of Media and Entertainment. Her upcoming book, Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in Media and Collective Memory, will soon be released.
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