“Getting back to life as before [lockdown]? I don’t want to…I’m fine, I just need the baby sitter and someone to clean my apartment…like before!”(Fina, April 2020).
Family life under Covid-19 lockdown has exposed some of the inconsistencies of work-family negotiation for working mothers, shedding light on the importance of social support to ease the organization of care. The measures enforced in Spain to contain the spread of the coronavirus were among the strictest in Europe, and started by closing the schools. This measure, combined with the obligation of social distancing, imposed an abrupt rearrangement of family lives, which found themselves deprived of the social support usually provided by the education system, the after-school activities and the extended network of families and caregivers. With many people losing their jobs because of the pandemic, the possibility to work from home could be considered a privilege. Families with one or both parents working from home, however, found themselves juggling their professional duties with the homeschooling and care of their children. These caretaking activities, as shown also by other researchers (Manzo and Minello, 2020), became an additional responsibility engaged almost exclusively by women.
Fina’s quote is drawn from an ongoing ethnographic project to report on the experience of affluent working mothers who worked from home while being confined with their children and partner, who did likewise. The research explores their discourses and coping strategies during the different stages of the lockdown. Using online interviews, we focus specifically on high/middle class women, a category overlooked by social sciences as it is normally linked to an idea of privilege that we wanted to debate. All the interviewees are resident in Barcelona although sometimes they migrated from elsewhere. They are highly educated and work in well-paid jobs that make them feel accomplished and provide them with a sense of identity. They live with their partner and have at least one child, two in most cases (age range 5-12), who attend a private international school whose community was the starting point for our observations.
Fina, like several other women who participated in our research, processed the peculiar confinement situation in a constant confrontation between the life she had before Covid-19 and how she managed now. Working mothers at first praised the immobility imposed by the lockdown, as they experienced the lack of displacement as a stress-relieving factor. In the first place, staying at home suspended the obligation to maintain a groomed physical appearance, considered necessary for social situations. In the second place, it decreased their mental load, namely in regards to the coordination of their children’s extra-curricular activities. During confinement, working mothers did not have to worry about taking the children anywhere, nor had they to pick them up, and could be independent from the “rigid schedule” (Mara, April 2020) imposed by the institutions and/or their support network of babysitters, au pairs and helping families. “I don’t have to rely on the Armengols’ anymore. My family arrangement depended on them!” (Fina, April 2020).
This “saved” time (Mara, April 2020) allowed, on occasions, for an improvised family brunch or some shared moments with the partner. Most of the times, however, it was used to make up for the work time they missed out because of childcare duties. “I wake up at 6 am, so that I can advance some work. My work availability is 7 to 9 am, sometimes we hold a meeting at 8, just before the kids wake up…” (Gloria, May 2020). The confinement situation inspires working mothers’ multiples strategies to manage an unexpected situation in compressed spaces and times. They described how they had to fit their working hours around the new homeschooling routine. During the pandemic, the international school attended by their children opted for distance education, sending homework through a variety of social media in absence of a specifically designed platform. In some cases, the teachers themselves expected the mothers to ensure their children followed, while the fathers were seldom engaged in the task. The interviewees expressed discouragement for the lack of implication of the male partner. “You reap what you sow”, said Mara (May 2020), noting how an already unbalanced situation was exacerbated by the lack of external aid. Many of these women confessed to ask teachers for a bigger load of homework, so that their children “could be busier for longer” (Gloria, May 2020). In absence of something structured to do, they found themselves searching on Pinterest for creative ways to entertain the children, something they wished they did not have to do: “I get so bored when doing crafts […] (Gloria, May 2020).
The sensation of gaining time by waking up early proved to be an illusion, as it did not necessarily translate into more time for self-care: “I don’t have time, I thought I would have more, I dreamt of playing the piano everyday (…) but it is a miracle if I manage twice a week” (Gloria, May 2020). Their attempts to concentrate on work were constantly interrupted: by their kids demanding food or screen-time, by the multiple chats with the teachers, private trainers, school-friends. The relative privilege of working from home did not lessen family responsibilities and demands: “the workload has not changed: how do other mothers do it?” (Gloria, May 2020).
Family reorganization during the pandemic uncovers the unbalanced gendered division of care in the household, highlighting the social expectation that women should be the ones in charge of the carework, even when they work and contribute to the family income as much as their male partners. The working mothers of our research confessed their struggle with an ideal of “responsible mother”, always present and performing, in part explicitly demanded by their partner, children, even schoolteachers, in part self-imposed. They recalled the sense of guilt for not being able to keep up with everything: “I lost my temper with the children the other day. I spent the whole day without talking to them” (Mara, May 2020).
Torn between the demands to be present and nurturing for their children while remaining efficient and high performing on their jobs, these subjects embodied all the contradictions of intensive mothering (Hays, 1998). Their experiences in times of lack of external support reveal the fragility of their professional status regardless of their work accomplishments, urging us to rethink conceptualizations of their classed privileges from an intersectional feminist perspective. Despite having jobs they love, a hard-earned reward for a successful university career and personal sacrifice; despite having the possibility to choose a prestigious international school for their children; despite having a solid network of paid social support, these working mothers found themselves struggling with the same old contradictions of their gender mandate. The lockdown situation has highlighted the importance of an economy of time in their lives, exposing their struggle to be recognized and respected beyond their multiple roles as wives and carers.
Manzo L. & Minello A. (2020) Mothers, childcare duties, and remote working under Covid-19 lockdown in Italy: Cultivating communities of care. Dialogues in Human Geography, 1-4. DOI: 10.1177/2043820620934268.
Hays S. (1998) The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. Yale University Press.
Serena Brigidi, Fabiola Mancinelli, Juan M. Leyva-Moral, Marta Ausona Bieto
SERENA BRIGIDI holds a Ph.D in Anthropology of Medicine. Her thesis on migration and mental health was shortlisted for the Marqués de Lozoya Prize 2009. She is adjunct professor in various Faculties of Health Sciences in Spain and a member of the Medical Anthropology Research Center (MARC) and Social Anthropology Group (URV). She works on gender, intersectionality and health, focusing specifically on the medicalization of childbirth/pregnancy, breastfeeding and obstetric violence. President of OVO– Observatory on Obstetric Violence and board member of Dona Llum, Serena co-founded MATER: Observatory of Contemporary Mothering and Fathering. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org | @SerenaBrigidi | @MObservatori
FABIOLA MANCINELLI is assistant professor, Department of Social Anthropology, Universitat de Barcelona. Over the past decade, she has been working on tourism and heritage-making practices in postcolonial settings. She is currently researching questions of precarity and privilege in the technology-enabled lifestyle of digital nomads. She is a member of GENI, research group on gender, identity and diversity of the University of Barcelona and co-convenor of ANTHROMOB, the EASA Anthropology and Mobility network. She can be reached at email@example.com| @FabiolaMancine1
JUAN M. LEYVA-MORAL is assistant professor, Department of Nursing, Universitat Autonoma of Barcelona. He has extensive clinical experience as a Primary and Community Nurse in both adult and paediatric populations. His research interests focus on improving nursing care for vulnerable populations, especially in terms of sexual health promotion, sexual diversity and HIV prevention. He is currently working on care improvements for transgender people, reproductive decisions for women living with HIV, and women’s sexual health after childbirth. He coordinates the research group on Vulnerability and Health.
Marta Ausona BIETO is assistant professor, Faculty of Education and Social Work, Pere Tarrés – Universitat Ramon Llull, Barcelona, Spain. She holds a Doctorate Degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology with a thesis on long-term breastfeeding and other uses of corporality in child rearing. She is a member of GENI, research group on gender, identity and diversity of the University of Barcelona and a founding member of MATER: Observatory of Contemporary Mothering and Fathering. | @MObservatori