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Celebrating the Supermum in pandemic times

07 May 2020

If there ever was a time to declare Mother’s Day a national public holiday for the millions of Australian mums 2020 is the year to do it. Mother’s Day is traditionally a celebration of motherhood and the influence that mothers have on society and this year, more than ever, we are seeing the vital role mothers are playing during the COVID-19 crisis. What the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare is that the current all-consuming emotional and domestic labour is being shouldered primarily by Australian women in their role as mother.

It is true all parents are facing the challenge of balancing work, home schooling and childcare but women still do most of the domestic tasks (64.4% per day according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency) and COVID-19 has just added more to her to-do list. Hand up if you now have to get through four or five jobs a day  - home schooling, keeping house clean, trying to work and stopping to make recess, lunch and dinner plus keeping the family emotionally balanced.

As Fair Play author and lawyer, Eve Rodsky, told  “Imagine a giant social experiment where all the undervalued and underpaid women required to get through your day went missing—teachers, housekeepers, babysitters, grandmothers, nannies, home-care aids, you name it—and you and your partner are left to figure it out. Except that ‘experiment’ is reality now.”

And not all family configurations are as nuclear as Eve’s example. There are many different family units coping in different ways during this challenging time. 

Single mother of three Lee’s marriage of 17 years broke down in early March this year. “My husband walked out the door, I closed it, and the day after the Australian government pretty much started closing every other door too,” she says.

“In amongst all the weirdness my marriage breakup seemed like just another thing in the bucket but, to be honest, it has been very, very hard. Mum lives on the Gold Coast so I’ve got no back up and the kids are still reeling from the split. And even if Mum was nearby in Sydney, I couldn’t ask her for help as she’s over 70 and should not be out and about.”

Lee, who is still working, says she is also worried constantly about her financial situation as the split is still too new and raw to be discussing financial support with her ex-husband.

“We immediately agreed to contact the bank to put mortgage and credit card repayments on hold, but it wasn’t the right time to chat about grocery bills and general living expenses. I’ve had to take all of that on as I’m still in the family home with the kids. We also can’t even think about selling the house and dividing assets until things settle down. But how long will that take?”

Many Australian women are sharing their life experiences right now -- over the phone, in group chats, online and on social media. Facebook and Instagram feeds are filled with Memes about domestic life in the times of COVID and #homeschooling is a trending hashtag globally on all platforms including Twitter. Mum’s have also become TikTok stars, much to the horror of their kids.

A viral Tweet on April 8 from American archaeologist and University of Alabama professor, Sarah Parcak, ignited a conversation worldwide.

“We just wrote a hard email. I told our son’s (lovely, kind, caring) teacher that, no, we will not be participating in her 'virtual classroom’, and that he was done with the 1st grade. We cannot cope with this insanity. Survival and protecting his well-being come first,” Tweeted Parcak.

The responses to Sarah’s Tweet all sounded very familiar: “We’re all trying to adapt and survive”, “I’m hearing ya … and rage cleaning” and “I had a breaking moment where I had to lock myself in the bathroom and cry. It was just too much.”

Then there’s the mums who ask grandparents to FaceTime the kids several times a day so they can juggle study and fulltime work. The grandparents keeping the kids occupied for at least an hour or two. Or the colleague who has children with special needs and because schools are still closed, is now managing three different shifts of carers plus an aging mother, and her job.

The coronavirus has also changed the bargain that many dual-earner couples have made: We can both work because someone else is looking after our children.

Now, one parent’s taking the hit to their work and often it’s the mum. Is it any wonder some women have stepped back entirely from work right now to just focus on family over the next few months?

The question some women are fearful of is will this mean long-term we will be returning to the role of the 1950s housewife? Here’s hoping not but what has been revealed is that families are now looking for simpler and more communal lives.

A recent survey by The Lab Being an Australian today: What does COVID-19 show us about who we are now, and who we might become? found that Australians are in a survival mindset and that our key values right now are safety, honesty and freedom. Three additional key values have risen also as a result of COVID-19: simplicity, flexibly and community. 

Simplicity is being closely linked to an ability to decomplicate our lives and live simpler, happier ones with 62% of those surveyed agreeing with the statement that “this is the rest we needed to evaluate how we are living.” How this will emerge in society is likely to be a new appreciation of frugality, doing more with less and a re-focus on family time and enjoyment of being together. Stories of resilience and overcoming troubles are inspiring us all to get through this as a nation.

Which is why Australia’s Supermums need to be celebrated, and come Sunday, will definitely deserve a sleep in.