Alas, it’s not a question of repeating my no-one cares about us rant in a newspaper; a rant from me about what happened to mothers over the last four months isn’t especially newspaper-worthy (thank god for the internet! Sometimes).
But what has to happen next, I think, is that if it looks like schools will close their doors again, I think we are entitled to push back this time – now we know more.
There is a view undulating around that an entire generation of schoolchildren and their mothers must not be thrown under a bus for the sake of the percentage of the population that are very vulnerable to the virus and may die from it. In short I have heard many times people say: let the vulnerable stay at home and shield and let everyone else get on with their lives.
There is also the view that if younger children are asymptomatic with the virus and older children transmit the virus but don’t fall seriously ill, then what is the problem with the virus swirling around schools? Fatal meningitis breaks out in University campuses all over the UK every now and again without all universities being closed. Suicide – suicide! – is spookily common at Bristol University: why hasn’t that been shut? Considering that scientists have not been able to find a single confirmed case of a teacher catching the virus from a student of any age – really, what is the problem.
The answer of course is that although this finding above is a real heart-starter for people desperate for schools to re-open their doors and have them stay open, children are not a dead end for transmission. Just because there has been no confirmed case doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.
Older children do spread the virus, (something to do with exhaling more air, being taller and yet still likely to have the unreliable hygiene habits of young children), and you have to think about not just teachers but the busloads of support staff that work in schools, without whom a school cannot function. They are often forgotten or overlooked. And then how about parents gathering at the school gates or the bus drivers or just generally the miasma of virus-shed that particularly older students will dissipate if they are trooping in and out of the school gates every day?
But what I’m saying is that should there be a resurgence of the virus you, as a mother, are entitled to make demands of the council that schools try harder and find ways to keep their doors open despite all this. Closing schools doors again should not be the easy option. “It never was the easy option!” some people will cry. But they say that with hindsight. At the time it seemed to happen pretty easily. No-one, anywhere, in any position of authority must be able to think now that closing school doors doesn’t come with a serious price for the whole of society.
I know there are people who think “mums” sit about painting their nails and eating toffees while the kids are at school. Most mothers are flat out during the school day and if they sit down and put their feet up or go and get their nails done then it’s because as the main carers for our children, if we are losing our minds and hitting the bottle and shouting at everyone we are not effectively able to care for our children. That matters. Because children are so important it means that it is genuinely vital that we are in good sound mental health.
[I’d like to just put in here how grateful and touched I am for the support here from women who do not have children. Choosing not to have children or not being able to have children is its own serious problems and it is its own hard road – damned if you do, damned if you don’t – and your solidarity is noted.]
“As a mother” is a dangerous phrase. A few years ago it was held up as some sort of get out of jail free card used by smug whatsits who started phrases “As a mother”. There became a sort of trope where people said things like “As a mother, I am against fox hunting” or whatever. And those people I talked about, the ones who hate women and hate mothers above all seized on it. To say “As a mother” was suddenly verboten to any even reasonably sophisticated person.
I, too, avoided the phrase. Being a mother is not the thing that defines me. I am also a trooper, as are all of you. I chose to have children and I wouldn’t have it any other way and you know exactly what sort of crap I take, silently, every day.
I make jokes about parenting and the downsides of it because no-one needs help loving their kids and having fun with them and feeling smug about having the PJs clean and something for dinner. Where we all need help is when it’s bad and we’re down and our children seem completely savage and our husbands say things like “You could smile a bit, you know.”
But I really am extremely sick of people saying “It’s been hard on mothers, BUT,” or making pathetic jokes about wine. We can make jokes about wine but you can’t. Mothers have throughout history had to self-medicate to get through the bad bits – gin, valium – and everyone just shrugs and goes ha ha ha or thinks that mums are mad. Are we? Are we all mad? Or are we driven to it, like sailors. I suspect everyone is secretly pleased and relieved that the mums find a way to opiate themselves and just carry on.
I wouldn’t change my life. But I took this life on – as one commentor said – on the understanding that there would be some degree of infrastructure I could rely on: playgrounds, hired help, nurseries, schools. Would I have had children if I had been told that none of these things would be available? Hell no. Not fair on the children.
And do you know what? Teachers and social workers and nurses and doctors all chose their lives, too, and they are allowed – encouraged! – to stand up and say “Hang on, this isn’t right, this isn’t fair.” We chose our lives, but a goodly portion of us chose it 1) without understanding fully what being a mother means because the dark sides of it are hidden from most child-free people and 2) we cannot quit.
Teachers and nurses and doctors who have had enough can quit or threaten to. We can’t. And yet we are one of the most downtrodden, demeaned, put-upon and disregarded sections of society, most likely because we have no recourse, we have no other option. And everyone knows. Despite numbering in our millions we are utterly powerless. How has this happened?
Now, put that flame thrower down – no need to go all guns blazing to Downing Street just yet.
I say all this just because I want to put your own case to you: a little mustard in your sandwich. I want you to really think about what you want and need if the government threaten to close school doors again. You are entitled to make a massive fuss using whatever route you see fit and to encourage anyone else you know to do the same thing.
You must not worry that if you do this people will whisper “poor thing, she can’t cope”. Ignore that voice in your head that tells you that other people, better mums actually enjoyed lockdown and if only you were different, more efficient, more moral, you would have enjoyed it to. It’s partly those fears that have got us here in the first place.
You are not asking for a 2019 free-for-all, you are not asking for thousands to die so you can have a quiet coffee in your kitchen, (I know this is how everyone will make you feel). It’s not your job to come up with the solution, you haven’t got time and you’re not the expert! You are simply asking for the authorities to try harder, you are only standing up and telling them that they must try harder for US, because we do matter and they should care.
Hannah B says
Utterly brilliant. Thank you for voicing what I am unable to articulate myself.
Suzie Rowson says
I love reading your posts, but NEVER comment on them. However, I just had to come and say thank you, and that you are so right. We’re currently setting equality of childcare duties back about 20 years, as well as our poor children losing 6 months of education. There must be a better way, and we deserve better.
Thank you Esther
Suzie! Thank you for commenting! You can go back to reading quietly now.
Nananolife .. says
Toughest job on the planet bar none ! I help where I can .. family WhatsApp this am read ‘schools out – pray for me’
Love this. I also think help is needed for shielding families with kids. Help those mums who have had a crappier time than us anyway – stuck at home completely – inside for months with kids – and not really confident to send their kids to school in September just because it has been decided on a date in August they suddenly are allowed out in the world… So if we want schools to open for everyone else and stay open then those parents who may be back to shielding in the winter need lots of support if they are to be stuck at home again..or they really will suffer and feel even more sidelined by society. Now actually off to paint nails while baby asleep …
You are the best.
am in complete agreement with you, and the published research, which highlights the gender division of workload during the lockdown. It happens all the time anyway- mothers just are the ‘default’ for childcare, and housework, in most homes, whether those mothers have paid employment elsewhere or not.
I’m a teacher in a secondary school, and a mother to three, and have had to balance managing my own children’s learning with the six classes of thirty I’m also responsible for. I’ve also been working on a rota basis in a ‘hub’ with children of key workers from babies in nappies to vulnerable teens.
Please believe that I would have liked nothing more than to have continued to see my classes face to face, particularly those taking GCSEs and A levels. It would certainly have been easier!
But I don’t understand why there wasn’t a similar response to the education sector as there was to the NHS? I’m not comparing our work AT ALL just the creative and financial response from government and the groundswell of support. There has been no additional funding for extra teachers or teaching assistants; no call for volunteers or ex-teachers to return to the profession; no creative use of town halls, leisure centres or other large spaces which could have been used for education to continue and maintain social distancing. It is a political issue. Cuts in funding year on year has resulted in larger and larger class sizes in old buildings where social distancing would just not be possible if schools had been open to all.
As far as I can tell, government seem to be taking the approach that it’s all fine now anyway, so I’d be surprised if there were closures again.
Apologies! I didn’t mean to write a Woolf-sequel stream of consciousness. X
I would be the happiest person in the world if there were no more school building closures but I am not as confident as you are! You make very good points, thank you for taking the time to comment
I’m not a teacher but I agree with all of this. My three kids
go to a rural state primary where there are only 4 teachers. As parents we have ranted to each other about the lack of teaching given during lockdown (plus my kids had a year out in France last year, amazing but the guilt I feel about my 8 year old, youngest in his year being even further behind is v real) but they didn’t have the resources (though I think they really could have done more than they did) and the head took the view that they would rather the parents didn’t freak out trying to teach (we did anyway) and the school would bring them all back up to speed when the kids did return. However, the idea of them being off school again fills me with utter dread, from many perspectives! I really want to work and with three kids at home this is completely impossible (I do freelance marketing and had just won my first client after 10 years ‘off’ having kids, and then I lost it because their clients were putting projects on hold, gutted) and I don’t want my kids to miss out on any more of their education and socialisation, it’s just too important!! So to avoid this I think as you said, the government must throw money at the problem, bring teachers back from retirement, find more premises (we’ve got two village halls and we’re a village of 1,300 people) and pump cash into keeping schools running, enabling socially distant learning in bubbles if needs be, provide tutoring etc. Another upside being that if I’m earning money I’m spending more, ergo…
Oops, didn’t mean to write so much but thanks Esther for starting this conversation, I’m also in a position where my husband earns much more than me (now, wasn’t always the case!) and he’s freelance too so it makes sense for him to concentrate on earning (though it would be remiss of me to not mention that he also did a fair amount of the home schooling too)..
THis is spot on. The response to the NHS was astounding. Change was made in whitehall at an unprecedented rate (I know, I did some of it). Forces were mobilised because a sector of society and workforce needed our help. Because they were visible, unionised and, above all, valued. We need to work together to give mothers the same level of support. The impact on mothers of the last few months has been astonishing and invisible. Thanks for raising this Esther. You’re literally the only one talking about it.
All of this. ALL OF IT x
Having a cry! Just so tired then read this and thought god how do we let everyone get away with it. Why are we so nice. Seriously, working is easier than child-rearing. We have greater highs and we want to do it for lots of reasons but it’s knackering and incessant. And some of us (well me, at home at the mo) work full time too!
Lesley Somerville says
So true. Nothing will change unless we are prepared to be angry and demanding; the very things we try so hard not to be lest we upset anyone (men, children)
I absolutely agree with this and do not wish to somehow detract from the central message by getting stuck on ‘detail’. However there is one point of personal experience which I want to mention in the vague hope that it helps someone somewhere. When lockdown started, my youngest (age 10, at a fee paying school) was sent home with a schedule of homeschooling that relied heavily on a parent for structure / teaching / encouragement / marking etc etc, involving a whole raft of different online materials and suggesting the use of white boards etc! I – and presumably others – gave feedback that we just couldn’t sustain this level of parental input. So school responded and put in place a proper daily timetable of zoom lessons, so that the person setting the work, marking, teaching, encouraging etc was an actual qualified teacher, doing it all very expertly. And it meant that my son had daily interaction with his friends and teachers. This reduced my role to something much much more manageable. I think my point is that not all homeschooling is equal. Done well, it can feel sustainable- though obviously far from ideal- over a longer period. I’m really not knocking state schools who may not have the resources etc, nor am I in any way saying that school closure is ok. But if anyone is not receiving top notch help from a fee paying school it may well be worth having that conversation with the school.
Thank you for this Elizabeth – just see how one or two polite emails saw key changes being made! My point is that too often mothers just do as they’re told and don’t make demands and if this situation occurs again we all need to think differently
Perhaps this is the difference between the fee paying and non fee paying sectors? I, and several other mothers, at our south london state primary expressed our lack of happiness about the offer in general and specifically why they couldn’t transfer over to online to various poor excuses. As a local authority school, they are very hidebound, legally and culturally, to Following All The Rules.
All schools’ responses vary wildly, private or state. And even though our private school tried really hard, my kids point blank refused to join in the zoom lessons
Which proves that it can be done, if you have the resources! Imagine you had multiple kids and couldn’t afford private school and/or the kids didn’t have the space and the resources and support at home… I get your point but don’t you see that this situation is making the gap even wider between the state and private sector? Short term it’s a problem, longer-term it’s just too depressing to think about, from both a personal and societal viewpoint.
Jen of course of course. I am sure Elizabeth sees that very clearly. But what I am trying to do is give everyone the freedom here to speak for themselves without any “relative suffering”. So to say “I am suffering, I am in pain, I feed bad” without having to qualify it with “BUT we’re lucky because we go to a private school” or “BUT we’re lucky because we have a garden” “BUT we’re lucky because we are still allowed to breathe in and out.”
The concept of relative suffering “i.e. well it’s okay for you, but what about XX?” really shuts people down who have valid points to make
Yes, apologies, I went off on a tangent there, I genuinely don’t judge anyone re school choice etc, and totally agree the burden still remains the mother’s in the most part, regardless of income bracket. My sister in law calls it the emotional load, the remembering, and now it’s just got a whole lot heavier.
Jen you’re completely right by the way – even though my children point blank refused to take part in any of the online lessons provided by our private schools. The tech was so glitchy and crap it drove them crazy. And even if schools were providing a lot of online learning it still fell to the mum to be tech guy, printer guy & general on-call TA
I completely agree with the point about educational inequality between the state and private sectors. I don’t know what the answer to that is, other than to wonder whether there could be some sharing of resources / experience as between the two sectors, so that all children can receive the best home learning experience (should that be necessary again). Private schools are often charities and ought to be willing to help state schools, if there’s something that they could usefully do. (Incidentally I do have multiple kids and we had all sorts of trouble with too little space / too much noise / too few devices / very poor broadband etc etc. The point I was making was that if school does the heavy lifting involved in the home learning- so proper timetable of zoom calls rather than just worksheets etc – it becomes manageable to have the kids at home all doing their separate learning whilst we parents get on with our work.) I’m sorry if my comment sounded rather ‘Ivory towers’. That wasn’t the intention and I don’t think it’s the reality either actually.
I think perhaps you hit a nerve as it’s the first time I’ve questioned our decision of where to send the kids, and I’m not the only one of my friends to do so, but thank you for saying that.
Going back to the theme, it’s just exacerbating the burden on us as mothers to be the sorter-outers if you know what I mean. I honestly question myself about how much I’m part of the problem though – I honestly don’t think my husband (who’s a proper feminist btw, encourages me to work etc) thinks about things in the way I do, over-analysing the effects on our kids of the crisis/home-schooling/having a harassed, shouty mother..
Jen yes, the “part of the problem” thing is the issue and that’s something we have to work out in our own cool time – but we don’t have the time or the headspace to work on making our families more independent with domestic stuff if the schools are closed
“I suspect everyone is secretly pleased and relieved that the mums find a way to opiate themselves and just carry on.”
I have been saying this forever but never been able to articulate it quite as well. The mums and wine (or gin) thing is basically “don’t think too much about how unjust, unequal and unfair your situation is or try to change it – instead why not have a large glass of wine while you cook dinner for the millionth time and then do it all again tomorrow.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love wine! But I am not sure the way it is framed as a coping mechanism for mothers is helpful for any of us.
Claire I love wine, too. But the whole mum/wine thing has started to strike me as really really sinister
It’s a close cousin to the ‘give mum a rest. give her a day at a spa’. OH FUCK RIGHT OFF.
I want my life back, not to sit in overly warm rooms, being smooshed with sticky stuff in someone else’s bathrobe… for an afternoon and then just go back to the drudgery after my ‘treat’.
Yes, at a time when we are at risk of gender equality returning to the 1950s, I am more interested in mobilising for change (if that’s over a glass of wine, then fine) than anaesthetising ourselves through wine / spa day / chocolate or whatever “mum treats” are meant to be so that we accept the situation.
In fact, if you think of those 1950s Mad Men-esque housewives necking martinis / pills to survive it shows how far we have come!
omg you are right about the mum/ wine stuff being sinister. it is
Thank you Esther. This is SO important, almost never articulated and always pretty much ignored if it is. I just bloody well WISH you could get several sheets of the newspaper to yourself to write this up! Quite apart from the fact that we’d all like to read more of your writing more frequently, more publicly, this needs to get a mainstream airing STAT!
Just love this, thank you. I hope you get something on this theme into the papers too!
Thank you Esther for saying what so many of us felt but couldn’t articulate. Certainly for me, it’s hard to sustain a thought after 4 months doing 98% of the childcare and zero on site schooling, as well as the foaming incoherent rage, obvs.
Thank you also for creating a community of women who get it. Part of the process is raising consciousness that this is, actually and TBF, an issue. It’s not selfish or unreasonable or unloving, or that other people have it worse. That’s a version of ‘first world problem’, which is just a door in the face of valid concerns.
If there is another lockdown or significant interruption to normal schooling, I have decided I won’t accept the role of default parent. I will have a serious conversation with my husband about him reducing his hours in some way for a period. And not just, take a morning here or there but then work till midnight and be super tired and grumpy so now I have three grumpy ‘children’ in the house. I mean, like go to 4 days or take a sabbatical etc.
I’m not sure what I’ll do if he refuses, or is refused by his work, or fails to make good on promises. As you point out Esther, we are over the barrel because we will not leave our kids to be badly fed/ dressed/ cared for/ screen timed/ non- home schooled by husbands who have proven they are not up to or willing for the task.
I will also be making a fuss politically. To put my professional campaigning hat on for minute, it’s important to think about who has the power and influence in this situation. The PM obvs. The Minister for Ed, yes. And Women & Equalities possibly, but this whole situation suggests that Liz Truss either doesn’t care or isn’t heard, no?
At national level I’d be pestering Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner, Stella Creasy, Jess Phillips
But a lot of education is determined locally and the connection to the electorate is closer (and the local elections can be influenced by a strong anti campaign). Our MP is a local school mum. I will be pestering the Mayor of our Borough and the local cabinet member for Education. There is no point fussing at the school direct. They either cannot or will not go against the 9 million pages of contradictory guidance.
So, ladies, to the barricades, yeah?
For anyone with a political bent, the Women and Equalities Select Committee is doing an inquiry on the unequal and gendered impact of Covid19.
Submissions accepted from anyone (Esther!) until 5th August.
Having worked in Westminster, Select Committees are taken seriously. Not that I think Boris or Dominic Cummings take anything *seriously*
Anonymous Mouse says
Esther, I know this is not the main issue but I absolutely agree with you on the alcohol point. I was in a conference call this week and the female speaker happened to mention they had stopped drinking recently. Cue a flurry of comments from the event compere saying that he’d been making fun of the speaker since finding out (they work together) and then on the Chat feature the most popular question was why the speaker had stopped drinking rather than on any of the more appropriate questions on or at least related to the topic of the event! I felt a bit like I was watching a mob demanding we conform. I also felt sad and worried for anyone on the line who was struggling with alcohol and maybe found the ridicule harder to bear.
So pertinent and well-expressed. We live in a society which doesn’t seem to value motherhood (and I DON’T mean all that ‘mama’ nonsense) or the ‘maternal’ at all. This whole lockdown thing is a prime example. You have my support!
The “mama” movement and “proud mama” thing is fine but it is a fetishisation of motherhood, not a respect of it.
And I love Molly Gunn, she is an old friend and I am genuinely delighted that Selfish Mother has done so well and she has done so much for Mothers2Mothers – but the idea that to do *anything* for yourself as a mother you are “selfish” is, I dunno, a bit depressing
The “a superhero has my back thing” is also on the face of it very sweet, but it’s the same as calling NHS workers heroes or angels.
They’re not and we are not. We and they are human beings and they should not be expected to do superhuman things like exist on no sleep or be 8 places at once or hold 5 different ongoing problems that need solving in their head AND be in a good mood
Love this and the schools post, I completely relate. I have 2 primary age kids and a husband who locks himself away most of the day while my head feels like it will explode from the non stop multitasking of work, kids, work, kids and everything else. I will definitely make a fuss if schools are at risk of closing again.
I had no idea I felt this way until you put it into words Esther. Then I read these two posts, and all the comments, nodding in furious agreement and thought bloody hell! I mentioned it to my teenage son (who is lovely but generally happy to leave things to me unless I specifically ask him to do something) and it seemed to strike a chord. It’s just not something people have identified as an inequality – it’s just the way things are and always have been. I’m going to keep working on this with my son in the possibly naive hope that it will make him more aware, and one day when HE has a partner and kids, he might behave a little differently. I know this doesn’t solve the immediate problem of schools but it’s a longer term issue too. Thanks so much for the wake-up call. x
Rachel I think about this with my son a LOT. I see so clearly that a lot of boys are just born into that feeling of entitlement – but why is it that some men are “better” at helping with domestic things than others? I’m assuming it’s part nature and part nurture. I chip away at both my childrens’ domestic expectations very very slowly and obviously sometimes can’t be bothered and just do it myself. But I cannot bear the thought that in a relationship or a marriage my son will just leave his shit lying around and constantly mysteriously vanish at kids’ teatime and never, ever make dinner
Esther, you are BANG ON THE MONEY as always. Fair and balanced, but Bang On. The nations of the west need to get a grip about this virus. I have made the meningitis and suicide analogies myself; some horrible risks must be endured, managed and mitigated – without closing society down altogether.
Utterly brilliant. Utterly bloody brilliant. I thought it was just me.
Thank you so much for putting this situation into words.
Thanks to internalised misogyny, we mothers are very adept at doubting our own needs and surmising that if only we could create a minute-by-minute schedule for each member of the household, devise meal plans for our families as well as vulnerable neighbours and take up meditation then surely everything would be fine!
School closures are not fine, apart from everything else schools provide an island of safety and protection for vulnerable children, especially in an environment of underfunded social care. If there is any prospect of schools being closed (especially while shops and pubs remain open) we must stand up for our children and ourselves. Education, like health, should form the bedrock of society and if difficult decisions must be made then hospitals and schools should be on a similar footing, and recreational services must wait.
We must not be complicit with patriarchal structures of power in undervaluing women and children. Thank you for helping us realise that we need to be on our own side in this.
I cannot stop thinking about this post! I’ve had debates all weekend with my closest mum friends and my husband – it’s actually really shaken me. I knew all this of course but I can’t believe I have accepted it as just what happens. It reminds me of when people say oh my husband / partner / girlfriend is useless at housework / kids party stuff / washing up … and then laugh. Why is that funny?? That is not funny that is annoying ! If you had a work colleague who was useless then you might imagine their job would be on The line …I’m not saying we should all get divorced over who empties the dishwasher but bloody hell why do we accept it and think it’s funny to be with people who don’t bother to apply themselves to the boring stuff. My husband is a great help so not talking about him – and OMG help why do people including me say help. Help? I don’t need help I just need equality. Thanks Esther – I am
Very ready for the fight now if the powerful ones try to takes this downtrodden thing up a notch …
The thing is that people DO get divorced over who empties the dishwasher… it’s washing-up creep and it kills marriages by a thousand cuts!
I think so often women don’t say anything because no-one ever taught us the language to even out domestic inequality. We are worried, especially if our children are older, that asking for more equality in domestic chores will lead to a scary fight in front of the kids and no-one wants that
it’s a bit like how women have never been taught the language to ask for more money at work
True true true. Actually got rid of dishwasher this year as both hated emptying it so much. Maybe it will be the odd socks that at get us in the end….
Please do a post on the money at work thing – how do men (Seem) to know how to have these conversations? Or is it all ego/confidence/bluff?
I did one! I think I just called it “Money” it was for International Women’s Day x
Great will check it out 😊
Reckon Marina Hyde said it best:
“ The men – and it is almost exclusively men – who have stood behind Downing Street podiums for months telling us what a great job they’re doing have a somewhat unreal understanding of what has been happening in the domestic sphere since lockdown, because this has never been how they themselves have lived. My suspicion is they have wives who have done huge and disproportionate amounts of home and childrearing work for them, while they have climbed the greasy pole. This has insulated them from the realities of how others live, and consequently from forming anything like an informed appreciation of how they might currently be living under the privations of lockdown. What ends as the failure of a generation of children began simply as a failure of imagination.”
Zoe Lee says
Yes to all of this.
Only a greater representation of women in government will help change things, I fear. And that’s not women who have a live-in nanny and housekeeper, or a full time ‘househusband’ at home. It’s real women in the real world who have the duties of employee, mother, educator and actioner of all the endless unpaid, unseen, unappreciated domestic drudgery.