Hands up if you are working from home, at 150% of your capacity because you are having to work remotely and/or online without the skills, equipment, training or experience to do it – AND you are in lockdown with you children and partner, and depending on their age, trying to homeschool, parent and do childcare whilst your partner works – and your partner has said something along the lines of ‘gosh there’s a lot to do around here’.
Yes there bloody well is. And it’s news to precisely none of us that the bulk of it is done by women, unseen, and definitely underappreciated. Now our partners are working from home with us they are *seeing* a lot of the hidden labour.
But it isn’t, luckily, just our partners. In my world it has been noted that hardly any women are submitting research papers for review, whereas submissions by men are up at least 50%. Why? it doesn’t take a genius to work it out. Women in academia are bearing the emotional burden of caring for and about our students and our colleagues. We’re bearing the burden of the homeschooling, the working from home without childcare, we’re at the forefront of providing emotional and practical support for our friends, families and neighbours. We’re working 16 hour days just to keep all the plates spinning, to keep everyone safe and well and alive. We’re EXHAUSTED. Meanwhile our male colleagues are holed up in their shed, churning out research papers free from sticky toddler hands or teenage mental health breakdowns, letting their wives or sisters worry about their frail parents, filling in spreadsheets demonstrating their increased productivity ready for the next round of REF related promotions.
That is probably a huge oversimplification and unfair to the many men who ARE taking up some of the unpaid burden of care here. But it’s also replicating the inequalities that we know exist: that women are over represented in the unpaid parents and carers, and men are over represented in the paid sectors of the economy.
We need care now more than ever
And yet, who is saving us in #covid19? Overwhelmingly it is the carers. The paid carers in the NHS and social care, keeping us alive and well to the best of their ability in the face of the abject failure of political leadership. Paid care workers in the community, overwhelmingly female, most of them barely earning a living wage, risking the lives of themselves and the disabled, frail, elderly people they care for because of lack of support, PPE, equipment and planning. The unpaid carers, already filling in the widening gaps in support, coping with the sudden withdrawal of what little support there was, keeping themselves and their families alive and well, and probably the ones keeping their friends, wider family and neighbours well too.
I have PTSD, fibromyalgia, psoriatic arthritis, diabetes and retinopathy. 6 sets of NHS care have been abruptly withdrawn, with no online replacements or any idea of when the support might return. I am in physical agony and mental distress with nothing but some medication and my own coping mechanisms to get me through: I am losing mobility and hard-fought for sanity every day. That’s just me. I have a clinically depressed son – he has no health or social care support at all, and the fragile support he was getting from school has disappeared, along with his ability to rely on his friends. He barely speaks. My daughter has ADHD and social anxiety – she was due to be seen by CAMHS, but that was cancelled, as was her only support network in school. She is in tears every day, unable to cope without the structure of school, missing her friends terribly, terrified to take part in activities online in case she gets it wrong. Most of my emotional energy is taken up supporting them, keeping them safe and alive, trying desperately to use my own mental health coping skills to help them, and doing it very very badly. My eldest son has Asperger’s Syndrome and is currently finishing his final year of undergraduate studies at home: he’s a useful test for me for what my own final year students are experiencing. He’s working 16 hour days to try and get his dissertation finished, uncertain about online exams, missing his tutorials and his fellow students, and he won’t get to graduate properly.
The ONLY way I have found to cope is through the care and compassion I extend to my family, students, colleagues, friends and neighbours. And the care and compassion that comes back at me. Running mindfulness classes online for my stressed out an anxious friends (I am a qualified mindfulness teacher and it’s wonderful to actually be able to give something back) helps me a lot. The kindness of friends. Someone who dropped by a book without ringing the bell and setting the dog off. The neighbour – herself struggling with her mental health but physically a marathon runner and cyclist – who texted me to ask if we needed any help. The colleagues who poured out their grief and tears and concerns in a supposedly ‘professional’ online meeting and showed me how much care and compassion get us through. The pharmacist who, unasked, delivered my meds and checked on a refill knowing I had forgotten to do it and was struggling to walk. The friend who knowing damned well I wouldn’t pick up the phone left me a very long message telling me how much she loved and supported and – best of all – respected me for what I do, privately and politically, every day. The student who wrote in the acknowledgements section of her dissertation how much she felt she owed me and how inspirational she found what I did for women’s rights (and believe me, when you get the amount of shite women get on social media just for being women, let alone being feminist, you will appreciate how precious that sisterly support is).
It’s no accident that many of the leaders we are currently finding inspirational are women. Jacinta Arden in New Zealand, Angela Merkel in Germany, Katrin Jakobsdottir in Iceland and others have demonstrated that cool, compassionate heads are the ones you want in charge in a crisis. It isn’t just that they are women: in order to achieve political power in a sexist world, they have had to be demonstrably better than all the men around them. They have also succeeded in political systems that have fairer electoral systems than the UK, systems that favour co-operative rather than adversarial policy making. When Jacinta Arden tells you to ‘be kind’ it is not a trite slogan: it is a fundamentally ideological statement about the kind of politics and leadership we need. Bluff populists, overpromoted mediocre men (and women), people who are part of elite networks because of their schooling are, it seems, not much use during a pandemic. Hardworking intelligent practical and compassionate leaders are showing us how to get through.
We need feminism now more than ever
What, I hear you ask, does feminism have to do with all this? Well, it is feminist scholarship that has taught us:
- That caring and parenting are fundamental to a functioning society;
- That care work is undervalued because it is seen as women’s work;
- That women are undervalued because they do the care work;
- That capitalism and patriarchy are damaging to our society if they are not mitigated by care and compassion;
- That we need care and compassion in our leaders and in our societies to survive.
If we can take that lesson through to life beyond #Covid19 – if there even is a life beyond #Covid19 – then we will emerge with a more resilient, kinder, fairer society. Even, perhaps, a feminist one.
Here’s a useful 10 minute loving kindness mindfulness meditation I recorded for you, it helps to focus the mind on cultivating that feeling of compassion we need to function.