Tired all the time: caring, parenting and home working during Covid-19

Tired. All the time.
This is how we feel all the time, in general.
With the COVID-19 situation, we feel exhausted, all the time.
And this is extremely frustrating.

My partner, toddler and I have always been champions at strategising and are always extremely prepared. Planning for every major decision. This has been the case for as long we have been together.

Since fulfilling our personal and professional aspirations has always mattered to us, parenting was a very conscious decision. Living away from family means we generally rely on ourselves and do not have the support of close family networks in the UK. The closest family members are in France and our closest friends in London. Most of our family members live in Senegal, and we have siblings scattered in Northern America and France.

We have always had a plan b, a plan c and a plan d, and unforeseen events can be disastrous for our family and professional lives. This situation is similar for many immigrants in the UK.

Then COVID-19 hit.

We became ever more organised. One week before the UK government’s decision to impose a lockdown, we withdrew our little one from the nursery. We took that decision because we could not afford any member of our small household to fall sick. We simply could not afford to comply with Boris Johnson’s government risky gamble on herd immunity (however sexy the concept seemed).

As a team, strategising is what we do, so that was the choice we had to take—and organising as well. We decided to transform our home and our family rhythm. The decision not to work in the household set aside, we now had a morning shift and an afternoon shift. The one taking care of our child in the morning would also prepare lunch while the other one worked. And in the afternoon, the main carer would work while the other one replaced them and prepared dinner. Then the one who worked in the afternoon would take the little one to bed and read them a story.

This was more or less fun during the first ten days. Then we quickly began feeling exhausted and frustrated as well. We acknowledge the privilege of being able to still have an income by having flexible working patterns, but we were not asked by our employers whether we agreed to transform our “home” into “an office”.

At the very beginning, no one inquired if we needed additional equipment to be able to work. Workers with learning difficulties like myself were not approached to know how they could be supported. Instead, we received reminders from our employers, suggesting we manage our parenting workloads and not to impose our caring responsibilities on others who decided not to parent.

And after early promises of special paid arrangement for parents and carers, our employer decided to withdraw its promise and stuck to a few days of emergency paid-special leave. As if the world, and not just parents, were not facing an exceptional emergency every single day since March 2020.

Blame, and guilt, once again, rather than compassion and support. After all, parenting is an individual decision, why should the responsibility for it be collectivised? Why show empathy or solidarity? We have businesses to run, please.

And the burden of staying at home, and that of social reproduction (any activity concerned with life-making to paraphrase historian Tithi Bhattacharya) were “private”. 10 steps back, as feminist political economics’ important reminder that there is no such thing as a public-private divide, nor is there a divide between purely “productive” vs “reproductive” activities. And indeed, the personal is eminently political, and the pandemic is nothing short of a crisis of social reproduction.

We read the “top parenting tips” for kids and families wellbeing, and contradictory advice to prioritise our own self-care. I started frantically sharing every piece of advice with my friends and networks. Until this, too, became too tiring. More unpaid emotional labour.

We realised that we had always been borderline socially, as any disruption in how we organised care and support could potentially be disastrous. Now the pandemic is exacerbating our support system, and time “poverty”. Were we alone in this situation? No. But this had always been part of our life together as immigrant parents living betwixt and between the diaspora. It fed our long conversations about the meanings of home.

There had always been an unease to see how the personal and the professional or productive and reproductive keep being separated in our current working environments. As if we had the luxury to just keep up with our jobs as usual while doing parenting after our working shifts.

In addition to our feminist critique of the dual nature of the analytical categories highlighted here, we had also always been aware of an actual ontological difference in how parenting was perceived in theory and practice in different parts of the world. This “nervous condition” (to paraphrase Tsitsi Dangarembga) was mainly because of the mostly Eurocentric and individualistic conceptualisations of doing parenting, which were at odds with how we were both parented, so to speak, growing up in Senegal and elsewhere.

This is the reason we decided, with other parents, to write a collective book,  Feminist Parenting: Perspectives from Africa and Beyond, to reflect about our feminist parenting praxis with an intersectional feminist analysis of class, race, age, gender, sexuality, religion and location.

We considered a wide range of viewpoints by using personal narratives as a powerful methodological tool to evade Western ways of theorising, to render the plurality of feminist parenting and caring experiences including adoption, other-mothering and fostering. One of the book's main takeaways is that the decision not to parent is also a feminist one, and that one's masculinity or femininity should not only be judged by their being or becoming a parent.

Another important objective of our book was to pay special attention to the experiences of diasporic and migrant parents navigating the many worlds between parenthood and parenting in their imagined and real lives.

Parenthood is not just the sum of motherhood and fatherhood, as motherhood is a patriarchal institution in which men control women’s bodies for reproduction purposes. Parenting, on the other hand, is an active verb which focuses on parents' experiences and agency.

Last but not least, the majority of the parents in our book insisted on the eminently political nature of parenting, and its potentially empowering nature for societies at large to resist heteropatriarchal, racist and capitalist oppressions in their diverse manifestations.

There was something disturbing in those one-size-fits-all guides to parenting we found online. For instance, in most African societies, parenting is a collective effort. Significant others such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, close and faraway cousins and namesakes play a special role in constructing the child’s sense of being and belonging.

As we were ready to lose interest in such advice, I came across an insightful account of what it means to parent in a crisis, recognising at last that “parents are not all right” as Chloe Cooney puts it:

This current situation is almost prophetically designed to showcase the farce of our societal approach to separating work and family lives.

And as we quickly discovered, emotions became soon more contagious than the pandemic itself. Our toddler was anxious, worried, as if she could sense our grief. She would constantly ask about the “virust”, why we could not visit her friends, why we had to wear a mask while going out for groceries.

In reality, we were all grieving. We grieved as we realised the farce of it all. The precariousness and the fragility of it all. Our normal lives and our self-care routines.

We were grieving because we all suddenly woke up to this stranger world, which became more than ever a global village, a world-wide pandemic with very local manifestations. We grieved and mourned because like everyone else, I suppose, we do not know how this crisis will unfold, and what it would mean for how we imagined “home” and “we”, what we believed work should be for, its value as well.

Did we work to live or are we now required to live for work? With the crisis, we are re-discovering the value of certain jobs. Suddenly all those that heteropatriarchal and capitalist societies considered expendable and considered as "cheap work"  (including queer and racialised workers), became key or essential workers – the nurses, the grocery workers, the fresh fruits and vegetable pickers and... parents. But once again capitalism capitalises on the love and bond parents and workers have with their children to devalue such type of work.

My partner and I grieved, as we felt deep inside that everything we managed to build since meeting each other could fall apart once again. And there is nothing we could do to prevent it, except washing our hands, keeping healthy, and keep well.

Being away from family does not mean our bond with them is less strong. Homesickness hits even harder now. We grieve the presence/absence of our families and friends.  How does one parent their parents from a distance? How does one take care of somebody, while being absent? There is a famous maxim in Wolof which says: Bala nga naan naam ne fa (“You must be in attendance, in order to answer ‘present’”).

How does one care for their siblings from faraway? Despite having done that my whole life, I could feel the weight of time and space now more than ever – a situation that fiction writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has very well described in the collection of short stories The thing around your neck. We stay connected via Whatsapp, over the phone or social media.

We grieved with the international students who are away from their families and built radical kindness and solidarity with them. We grieved with colleagues who are far away from family. We grieved with family and friends who had to stay alone in another country because of visa issues, and others suddenly made redundant because there was no work for them any more.

As we plan post-Covid-19, it is about time that we recognise the political nature of social reproduction and who gets to decide which type of work is valuable and which is not.

We need to conduct a feminist political economy analysis of care and parenting and what this means for how we reform our approach to activities of life-making. What are the functions of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality and age in this?

Instead of blaming and shaming carers and parents, we need to build societies that are more sensitive to their plight and diversity of their conditions to offer more inclusive, empathetic and supportive policy approaches.

Instead of pushing and demanding that carers and parents fit the mould of our rigid and hierarchical labour markets and that we transform our homes into factories and offices, we need to rethink the meanings and value of work.

We need to care now, and create communities of solidarity and practice, and stop asking more and more of already exhausted parents and carers. Caring and parenting are indeed too serious to be left to parents and carers alone. There are entire families and communities behind them.

Societal change starts at home but extends far beyond it.

Dr. Rama Salla Dieng is an African mother and scholar activist. She is a Lecturer in African Studies and International Development at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. She is the co-editor of Feminist Parenting: Perspectives from Africa and Beyond (Demeter Press, 2020) and curates the interview series Talking Back: African feminisms in Dialogue.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.