27-year-old IT professional Fathima* adjusts her work timings with her team, so that she can attend online classes with her 7-year-old daughter Nikhita whose school “re-opened” online. “It is double the effort,” she says. “Usually I used to help her with the schoolwork after getting home, but now the classes are online and need supervision while she attends. She is not that attentive either. Being home somehow puts her in a leisurely mood.”
After the class, Fathima gets her child’s worksheets through the class WhatsApp group. She sits with her daughter to teach her the lessons for the day and helps her with the assignments. This, she gets done, with cooking and putting food on the table for three, and in between client meetings that go on for hours and working, struggling to meet her professional deadlines. On most weekdays, Fathima goes to bed by 2 am in the morning and wakes up by 6:00 so that she can cook breakfast for the family beforehand and can get Nikhita ready for her online lessons by 8:30 am and get her office work done.
As the classes have gone online as a part of Covid-19 regulations, multiple posts have come up in social media, lauding how technology has made things smoother. Some social media wishful thinking has gone as far as suggesting even when the situation gets better, two or three days a week, classes could be online so school buses won’t have to unnecessarily run. Zero points in guessing, these were posted by some men who assume the housework and childcare somehow magically gets done as they lounge in their couches, after their working hours.
In a study conducted by Cambridge University, it is said that, “the negative impact of the lockdown orders is entirely driven by a negative effect on women, thus contributing to widening the existing gender gap in mental health by 66%. The results further show that stay-at-home measures affect the mental health of women in the US, over and beyond their impact through increased financial worries and childcare responsibilities.”
According to ILO, on a global scale, women perform 76.2% of the total hours of unpaid care work, and this rises to 80% in Asian countries. As schools remain closed due to the Covid-19 restrictions, children are home and now that the online classes have commenced, childcare round the clock has piled on further to the responsibilities of women. The situation is especially harder on those with children under 10 years of age. Even before the lockdown, women of the house have been shouldering a major or the heftier chunk of the domestic and childcare duties. If dependent elders are present in the house, that too becomes the responsibility of the women.
Take a pre-COVID normal working day—an average middle-class Indian office-going woman’s ‘job’ starts before she reaches the office in most households. This includes morning tea, cooking breakfast and lunch for the family, getting the child/children ready for school, making sure they have taken their books and lunch and making it to the bus stop in time. By the time she is back, household chores still remain and the children would need attention as well. In a society where gender roles have been dictated by patriarchy, men often seem to gaze into this well-choreographed chaos that functions like clockwork, from the periphery while enjoying the high status of the breadwinner of the house.
The women who put in similar hours of office work are somehow expected to spin around and grease her elbows in all avenues of housework and child-care because men, simply by virtue of their gender are given a free-pass from domestic work. While a man’s inability or lack of knowledge in household chores or childcare is normalised, a woman lacking the same set of skills is an anomaly and she is stamped irresponsible.
If on a normal working day, her attention was only needed on professional matters during work hours, with the lockdown she should keep tabs on where her children are, the number of cooker whistles and approaching rains that would drench the clothes put out to dry and various other matters. To this mix, comes online classes, where she pushes her meetings with the timings of the class and attends it with her child, to go through the portions over again while she teaches him/her later. As Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and co-founder of Lean In.org puts it, the Covid-19 lockdown has now put working women on ‘double double-shifts’ and that is pushing them towards a breaking point.
In the case of online classes, the ones who have it the hardest are the mothers who have more than one child under class 4 or 5 who need to be present with the child during the class time, especially the ones who do not have the work-from-home option and cannot afford a nanny. According to Ms Radhika who teaches at a private school in Trivandrum, the online sessions for the lower primary classes are being handled by two teachers at a time. One conducting the class, and the other monitoring the students in the gallery view. For the children in this age group, adult supervision while they attend the online classes is imperative for mainly two reasons:
1. These classes are usually coordinated through their parents’ WhatsApp groups and need assistance to log into the system, and
2. The child gets distracted easily and can stray away or click something that can disrupt the whole class or, land them in some other avenues of the internet.
“This set up works pretty well in higher classes despite the inevitable delays and connectivity issues, but it is a tricky situation when it goes to lower classes. Lack of equipment in families where there is more than one child is an issue. We do adjust this with parents’ phones etc but I do not know how viable this will be in the long run.” Ms Radhika also suggested that at least for lower classes, the pedagogy should be altered in such a way that the students learn through reading lists, DIY projects and worksheets rather than online classes that need to be orchestrated painstakingly from both ends. Even with these alterations, the greater responsibilities would be shouldered by just one parent, but at least she does not have to be an acrobat who juggles the many hats she dons, all at once.
In the last decade, there sure have been changes in sharing the domestic work-load as well as childcare in households, but it still has a very long way to go so that it percolates through the many-layered complex strata of the Indian society. A change in the problematic power dynamics and a more egalitarian load sharing at the homefront alone might not be a solution that alleviates this sorry plight of the over-worked women; policy changes at workplaces that are more accommodative of the changing needs of people in the trying times of the pandemic should also be put in place to pull them from the brink of breaking under this tremendous stress.
*not her real name
Meenakshi Sajeev is a poet and Corporate Communication Strategist. She is the author of the anthologies “One Woman Island” and “The Unlabelled Happy Woman”. She can be found on Instagram and Facebook.
Featured Image Source: Vox