I'm writing this to the sound of thumps and jumps (and shouts to "move over!") as my younger two children start their day with Joe Wicks. I've long given up trying to join in having realised that pandemics are probably NOT the time to 'get fit', 'learn to play the guitar properly', FINALLY clear out the attic etc. Basic survival; that's ok. This also means that I don't even sit in the same room as I've found that saying 'keep your body upright, don't lean too far" etc. is not conducive, and young bodies are super supple/unlikely to strain, aren't they? (I refuse to google how true this is for my own state of mind but let's just agree that they are fine, and they have been warned not to break anything – bones and/or the TV, at least!).
So here we are, it is the 7th of May with a Bank Holiday and weekend time ahead. It has been eight weeks since I met with my students - for their final dissertation supervision. Just under seven weeks since schools closed and formal 'lockdown started'. It has been a difficult experience for all of us as we adjust. And this 'adjustment' has been different for all of us and occurs at different times. Although we may all experience 'lock down dip' and have worries and stresses – perhaps linked to the lifting of lockdown, perhaps around the health of ourselves or loved ones, around job security ... as well as practical changes to online teaching delivery and adjusting our research plans, including the challenges of conducting research in a pandemic.
But for this blog post I want to talk about a very specific issue in relation to parenting through the pandemic. The impact of caring responsibilities (and navigating parenting responsibilities AND work) have been something I frequently reflect on based on my own experiences, and those of friends and colleagues. When I first heard Northumbria’s maternity and paternity support for new parents, I was shocked. Northumbria has the second-worst provision for parental leave pay in the sector: only four weeks leave at full pay for maternity and merely one week pay for paternity. This situation lies behind UCU’s campaign to improve parental leave pay at Northumbria and I hope the current situation helps to galvanise the university to take action and to change their policy. The lockdown has highlighted just how valuable care-work is, and how difficult it can be to find sufficient structural support to find and fund childcare (often resulting in an over-reliance on grandparents and other relatives to help prop up the shortfalls in the system). Even without these long-term issues in the current crisis it weighs heavily on my mind that for expectant/new mums and dads across the University are so poorly supported. News stories are documenting new parents’ experiences following child birth, including 14 day isolation. For many staff at Northumbria this will be their only time at home with their baby before having to go back to work, whilst continuing to parent a new-born. I don’t think this is good enough.
I also think that we need to look beyond the parental leave packages to how we support staff with caring responsibilities as a whole. Considering the impact of lockdown we need to first understand what ‘working from home’ with children who either need full-time attention and/or full-time ‘home-schooling’ actually means for staff. We know there is already gendered impact: a higher ed piece published just a month after lockdown started shows that even in these early stages ‘Early journal submission data suggest COVID-19 is tanking women's research productivity’. Journal editors are describing increases in submissions by men, and substantial decrease by women – particularly for solo-authored articles. This not only has an impact on our ‘outputs’ but on our mental health and well-being – reading male professors write How I wrote and published a book about the economics of coronavirus in a month generates waves of emotion; from anger, to an exaggerated eyeroll, to wanting to crumble and cry because for most of this I had taken the advice from our University to ‘just do our best’ and I thought I was doing okay really – three children are alive, they aren’t traumatised, I’ve replied to emails in a timely fashion, supported students, did my teaching, finished my marking, pushed some projects forwards, allowed others to go to fallow (and made peace with this). Did everyone not get the same memo? Will we come back from this and my CV will be a poor comparator to my colleagues?
Whilst I recognise that for many work gives structure and meaning, and can be a way of coping in these unprecedented times. We must, however, address the structural inequalities underpinning all of this. I wonder at times if it is wrong that having been a single parent for so long my children are now used to me working from home and are (at times wonderfully) self-sufficient/independent
Yet the backstory to each of these experiences is emotionally draining and fraught with stress and uncertainty. For example, university policies often mean that they will fund a (more expensive) single hotel room than an apartment, which would be far more suitable for my family. I once had space on a ‘Women in Leadership’ course – it was in London and I could book cheap £40 train tickets and stay in a £75 Travelodge the night before, taking my children with me: the course was 9.30 – 4pm and I could arrange childcare in London to attend. Yet university policy was that they would not authorise expenses to stay overnight … but to travel there and back on the same day meant a 6am train and I would not be home until 8pm - childcare does not exist in those hours! A day return train ticket was £200 – more than I had proposed - It was cheaper for the university AND I wouldn’t have had to call in every last favour/scrap of ‘emergency’ childcare in order to attend. I was left frazzled, emotionally drained, fed up with fighting. Wondering why it has to be so hard? Parenting and working are both challenging in different ways – combined it is tough. Employers do not have to make it harder. We have failed again and again to appreciate the labour that goes into to childcare, that wraparound childcare does not exist, and what is there is often financially unviable.
There is so much more I want to write about, and I have so many examples like this – from myself, my friends, and my colleagues. But as I was writing, my 9 year old son came in wanting a big hug … he told me I could still type around him. I’ve done my best in both activities!
The pandemic and the closure of schools and some nurseries gives us the time to re-evaluate the value we place on childcare, and for us to understand the role that carers are doing. This means recognising that maternity and paternity leave is an important worker’s right. That flexible policies which recognise caring roles are vital. It must be recognised that the pandemic exacerbates pre-existing inequalities and therefore that there is a much greater impact on women and their careers with predictions that women’s careers may never recover. We need support from employers to ensure that those of us with caring responsibilities are not left behind.