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Mothers on Lockdown Week 2: The Balancing Act

A few weeks into the ‘new normal’, disaster struck: my husband and I had conference calls scheduled at the same time, and no child care. I found myself in our garden, playing as quietly as possible with my kids, and listening in to my meeting on my earphones. I wasn’t alone. Many of my colleagues on the call are mothers, and more than one or two of other children chimed in while we were on the call. One colleague remarked on this: all of this invisible work that parents are constantly engaged in is now being made visible, as we beam ourselves into virtual offices, bringing our children and our messy homes with us. How wonderful! How revolutionary!

It’s been months and the novelty of life in the age of the novel Coronavirus has worn off. Nerves are frayed, productivity is down, cabin fever has set in. Moms are stretched. We have too much to balance on our plates, and some, like Ncumisa who commented during our Mothering Sunday video, feel like they have plates way smaller than most.

The divide that used to exist between our work space and my home space feels like it’s been shifted permanently, and the porous nature of this line is no longer temporary in its feel. As Julie put it in a comment, “Do we work at home or live at work?”  In her Insta live chat with occupational therapist Aimee Isaacs, we spoke about how the disappearing boundaries between work and home have made it harder for us to switch off. The irony is that we’re working even more. Where before, we had the physical distance and distinction to enforce a mental boundary between work life and home life, we can no longer leave work at the office.

What does this mean for moms? In a sense, the work-life divide has always been a constructed one.  No-one is ever just one thing at once. For so long, people – especially mothers – have had to pretend away at least 60% of whom we are for the sake of our professions and our job security. The gift of COVID-19 is that it has stripped away the props we rely on in this pretense: the office, the meetings, the work trips. Without these, we can no longer pretend away crucial parts of our identities.

In our chat with Aimee, she told us that this should be liberating, in a sense. We now no longer have to maintain a pretended split between the many occupations we hold as mothers. Instead, she suggested, this is a chance for us to start giving ourselves a little more grace. We won’t be perfect at work or at mothering, but we can be present and give the time we have.

Whilst those of us who can work from home are reckoning with balance and boundaries, we heard from mothers who grappling with what the balancing act looks like when you can’t do your job from home. Janelle Isaacs-Ackers, whose story we shared this week, offered us a glimpse into what this looks like. Speaking to us from her home, with her two-year-old son Omar in her arms, she told us that lockdown has offered her more time at home with her kids. It’s also been stressful. Omar has Dandy-Walker malformation, a rare congenital brain malformation in which the part joining the two hemispheres of the cerebellum does not fully form, and the fourth ventricle and space behind the cerebellum are enlarged with cerebrospinal fluid. She told us, “Lockdown has been full-time for me in terms of taking care of the kids… I haven’t rested at all.” Janelle is a teacher who cannot work from home, and has found the stress of being away from her family during this time especially challenging.  Mom Tersia Anthony, who is a social worker, told us what working outside the home during lockdown looks like: “When I get home, I have to change my clothes before I greet my family. I am tired, frustrated and listless. Every so often I get home, sit myself down and stare into the ceiling, just to bring myself towards myself. Knowing that you are out there, risking your life for the mental health of others is draining. Knowing that you are the only one in the household earning a salary is frustrating. You are filled with anxiety and fear all the time, as you do not know when you will contract the virus and bring it home to your parents.” Both Janelle and Tersia live with family members who would have high risk cases if they contracted the virus.

As Janelle’s story shows, this isn’t necessarily understood and the space that essential workers should have to balance their families’ health and greater community’s health is not being granted.

As mom and podcaster Charlene Armstrong shared with us, “…the atomic bomb that is the COVID-19 pandemic [went] BOOM. Living a ‘balanced life’ blew up in my face before I could even get close to having a handle on it.” This is a difficult but exciting moment. It offers us all a chance to acknowledge the wholeness of our lives. It’s an opportunity to welcome whole people into work and home spaces and make room for nuance and complexities.

This week was about reminding ourselves of this, and cutting ourselves some slack as we get used to this ‘new normal’.