‘Flexible’ and stretched too thin: How mothers deal with work and family in a pandemic

Many mothers take care of their children while working from home.

MANILA — Working from home is a privilege not everyone can afford. It wasn’t even an option for blue-collar workers whose routines were brought to a screeching halt during the country’s first hard lockdown when major highways were emptied, factories were shut down and construction sites were abandoned.

As office employees warmed up to remote work, manual laborers warmed up the engines of 10-wheelers and industrial machines. The country needed the economy to be back up and running.

But there is just no workaround for some workers whose circumstances don’t accommodate WFH or going back to their traditional workplaces. And with schools closing down and families being forced into isolation, working mothers face new burdens on top of bearing the disproportionate share of housework and scrambling for ways to provide for their family during a pandemic.

Alma, 40, used to work as a janitress in a food manufacturer’s warehouse before the pandemic. But the strict community quarantine made commuting difficult for her, as old buses were replaced with fewer and pricier P2P buses.

“With the expensive transportation, I’d be short changed given the minimum wage I get,” Alma told Bulatlat in a phone interview.

So, she decided to leave her job, borrowed money from a ‘5-6’ lending scheme and started selling balut (steamed duck egg) and peanuts at night.

Alma and her husband, who used to be a fruit vendor, take turns in peddling balut and mani for a meager P300 (US$6) a day. Alma used to receive a monthly salary of P9,000 (US$188) as a janitress. Even if they worked on the weekends, their daily earnings would only amount to P8,400 (US$176) a month, still P600 ($12.5) short of what she used to get and barely enough to feed their family of six.

Three of her four children are students of distance learning. Her youngest is only four years old. With the absence of traditional classrooms, Alma juggles working at night, caring for her toddler, doing household chores and teaching her children to the best of her ability.

Becoming a teacher overnight

Alma finds teaching her children through the modules the hardest part during the pandemic.

Alma goes home at 8 p.m. when she needs to help her child with a lesson, while her husband continues peddling balut and peanuts. Then, her husband comes home at around 10 p.m. and she takes over the selling until 4 a.m.

“It’s so stressful especially if I myself don’t know about the lessons. I don’t know where to get the right answers,” Alma said.

When there are concepts she can’t understand, Alma messages her child’s teacher and asks for help. Then, she teaches her child what she just has learned herself. However, she still believes the setup to be ineffective.

“My Grade 2 still does not know how to read. We find it difficult teaching her. The classroom setup would be better,” Alma said.

Because they don’t own a stable internet connection for online classes, Alma convinced her children’s teachers to let them print modules instead so they can answer and submit them by the end of the week. Printing costs them around P180 ($4) per week.

In addition to the fatigue of working nights and stress of child care, she also worries about the military presence in her community in Sitio San Roque, Quezon City.

“It’s difficult to move, difficult to earn. It’s so stressful. When I step out of the house, there are soldiers roaming around,” she said.

Sitio San Roque is no stranger to military and police intimidation but since the pandemic started, uniformed officers have found new excuses to loiter around their community– to enforce curfew hours, social distancing and wearing of masks.

Like Alma, many women either give up their jobs, choose informal work or reduce their paid hours so they can attend to more responsibilities at home.

Forced to flexibility

Women, who have always shouldered the overwhelming burden of unpaid domestic labor, take the brunt of workplace disruptions. Mothers now also have to supervise their children’s e-learning and attend to their needs 24/7, all the while navigating new work arrangements.

As a young single parent, Jhem feels grateful for the assistance of her mother who helps look after her three-year-old child since she shifted to WFH. However, she admits her calls still get interrupted when her child asks for food or water or simply has a story to tell.

“My child always calls me whenever she needs anything,” Jhem said.

A British study reveals that telecommuting mothers are more likely to be interrupted during paid working hours than fathers.

Almost half (47 percent) of mothers’ hours spent working are juggled with other activities such as childcare, compared with 30 percent of fathers’ working hours, a survey by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the University College London Institute for Education shows.

Des, a first-time mom, juggles her work and duties that come with taking care of her three-month-old baby, including pumping breast milk and feeding several times a day.

She wakes up as early as 4 a.m. to pump and goes to bed when she finishes her responsibilities as creative team head in an advertising agency. Des said she only gets sound four hours of sleep in a day.

“It’s hard to separate work from home. There are times I work until 11 p.m, way beyond my working hours,” she said.

She also estimates that she spends almost four hours tending to her baby.

A 2020 Yale study also shows telecommuting moms spend 49 minutes more a day on housework and 33 minutes more a day working with a child present, compared to fathers working from home.

As Des already spends most of her time feeding her baby, her mother and husband who’s also working from home, do most of the household chores.

A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center reveals that mothers were about three times as likely as men to report that at some point they quit a job so that they could care for a family member.

Eight years later, professional networking site LinkedIn reports in its Opportunity Index 2021 that 45 percent of working women in the Asia Pacific believe their family commitments have come in the way of their career development.

Jhem plans to resign from her current full-time job to look for online opportunities that will let her work at night when her child starts school. Des also sees herself moving to freelance and working fewer hours to take care of her baby in the near future.

Oxfam estimates the global value of women’s unpaid care work to be more than $10.8 trillion.

Mothers need all the support they can get to run the household, and keep their sanity intact. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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