Working mum guilt on steroids

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown up some terrible dilemmas for parents and the issues relating to schools and childcare are some of the hardest.

Woman and man in an office sit far apart and wear face masks for virus avoidance


The schools issue is throwing the whole work/family ‘balance’ thing into sharp focus. We’ve had many emails from parents saying they have been asked to go back to work when there is no childcare available. They’ve asked to be furloughed [as you can be if there is no childcare available], but their employer has said no. That’s a whole issue in itself, but in the next few weeks the picture could change, although it is unclear to what degree.

Already childminders and nannies can work for those other than vulnerable or key worker children, although only with one family. In a few weeks, schools could start to reopen and childcare providers generally will reopen from the first week of June. So there may be childcare available, although for specific age groups in many cases and only perhaps on a shift basis when it comes to schools. Also, the number of registered childminders has been falling for years and many are likely to be reluctant to reopen so they may be scarce on the ground. Only registered childcare attracts government subsidies so that will be a factor for all those who have used grandparents to reduce costs.

On the other hand many parents, especially those who are able to work from home, may choose not to send their children, although some who have been doing simultaneous work and childcare are clearly nearing the end of their tether. For those who have to go back to their workplace or feel they cannot go on working at home with the kids there there will be a huge dilemma if they are not convinced by the safety measures being put in place. For years we have been subjected to the idea of working mum guilt.

This is because childcare issues seem still to be seen as a woman thing, sometimes for economic reasons [women earning less, particularly if they have a subsequent child and have gone part time after or taken a lower ranked job after the first one] and sometimes for reasons of social attitudes. I recall not so long ago interviews on the radio where I felt I was having to justify going to work. That has changed in recent years, especially since the recession, because more and more women have to work. It is still generally thought that women should be the ones to work part time, however, when their children are small.

The current childcare issue brings the return of working mum guilt on steroids in a way that simply doesn’t seem to apply to men…still. The gender impact of lockdown is something that will be studied for years.

A recent survey in Germany suggests that the closures of schools is likely to widen the gender pay gap as more women reduce their hours to look after children. The Hans Böckler Foundation found that in households with at least one child under the age of 14, 27% of women have cut their hours to look after them, while 16% of men have done so. The survey also showed that 48% of people in two-parent households with children under 14 rated their overall situation in the crisis as “extremely” or “very stressful”.

Clearly employers are under tremendous pressure, but the reopening of some childcare in the UK will make for very difficult situations for many families who may well feel rushed into making a decision without sufficient evidence on which to make a risk assessment. On the news the other night an item about teachers’ concerns about safety was following by another about an emerging but rare condition linked to COVID-19 which is potentially fatal in children. It was not exactly reassuring even if the risk is very small.

Many parents will not have much choice, with employers threatening them if they don’t return. For those who do, it will come down to a difficult weighing of risks and what level of risk people are prepared to take. When it comes to their children, that level is not likely to be high. In an “unprecedented” situation, the guiding principle would seem to be, if at all possible, to proceed with care.

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