Who cares in a crisis? Emotional labour during the Covid-19 lockdown

Photo by Rebecca Lupton

By Jo Warin

On Thursday evening I am on my front doorstep putting my heart and soul into clapping for our health and social care workers.  As I stand there and clap, my sympathies are also with another unsung group of Covid-19 heroes: parents. 

From time to time during this crisis I have glimpsed into the immensely challenging domestic life of friends, family members and colleagues as they attempt the impossible juggling act of working from home whilst they care, round-the-clock, for children. In online meetings with colleagues we now see into each other’s home-workspaces, remarking on the colours of walls, the presence of books and so on; enjoying the greater familiarity with each other’s lives, and a welcome informality. 

Occasionally family members drift in and out of shot. Sometimes a child has been set up to do their school work at the same kitchen table, demanding urgent attention at the very moment their parent is attempting to deliver crucial and complex information over Zoom. It’s a struggle. I no longer have young children but I painfully recall the experience of dividing attention between a pressing work demand and a pressing child demand. Now parents are living with this tension daily, as they also get to grips with new and unfamiliar online technologies. As a recent report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies points out, ‘the combined responsibilities for work and childcare can virtually take up the entire day’ leaving no time for leisure, relaxation or recovery’.

For parents, coping with the seemingly endless demands of 24/7 child care and home-schooling is probably the biggest challenge of Covid-19. NHS guidance implores them to stay calm, so as not to convey anxieties to children – so much easier to preach than to practice. And yet we know that the pandemic risks negative long-term outcomes for so many children – as set out in this summary by the Children’s Society.

The powerful concept of ‘emotional labour’, from Arlie Hochschild (whose book The Managed Heart was first published in 1983; here’s a link to the 2012 edition), has inspired many feminist discussions of gender and care. It is identified with the unrewarded and often invisible labour of caring work – usually carried out by women – in domestic and public childcare contexts (as I explored in my own book, Men in Early Childhood Education and Care). Emotional labour is not just effortful – it is also skilful.  It describes the demanding work of listening, playing, comforting, explaining, boundary-setting, and teaching children; it requires a high degree of empathy, sensitivity and judgement.

The Covid-19 lockdown acts like a magnifying glass on social inequalities, with gender inequalities clearly visible as part of the broad pattern of inequalities.  One of its effects seems to be a magnifying of the unequal, gendered division of domestic labour. The closure of schools and workplaces has increased the unpaid workload of women (for more on this see the IPPR’s report Children of the Pandemic). The furlough scheme enables parents to look after their children at home but does not recompense them for shorter working hours. So it ‘incentivises couples to have one parent give up work completely while the other works their regular hours, which is likely to increase gender inequalities’ (for more on this see this report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies).

A recent article from The Conversation presents research which shows that working from home tends to lead to a more traditional division of labour. The article draws on the British Social Attitudes Survey, in which two thirds of respondents said it is better for mothers to stay home or work part-time when children are under school age, with the majority suggesting fathers should work full-time. Remarkably, this research is as recent as 2017. Now the theory has turned into practice. For as long as the schools and nurseries are closed, it is likely that women are taking up the role of ‘head teacher’ at home, while also – if they still have a job – trying to ensure they themselves get some work done.

Perhaps men are engaging equally with female partners in the emotional labour required in response to Covid-19; perhaps not. Researchers have already started to explore families’ experiences – a Fatherhood Institute study funded by the Nuffield Foundation expects to report initial findings later in June, for example. Previous research on the gendered division of labour within the home also provides some clues. The FI Fairness in Families Index 2016 found that UK men were doing 24 minutes of childcare for every hour undertaken by a woman.

So, what does this have to do with the GenderEYE project? There is an obvious relationship between men’s domestic child caring and public, visible care in professional roles with children, especially the very young. Imagine a future where it has become the norm for men to be seen participating equally alongside their female colleagues, teaching and caring for young children in preschools and nurseries. Imagine a future where boys are really inspired to engage in childcare where they see that this work is not only fun but is hugely important to society.

The GenderEYE project, funded by the ESRC, is engaging in research which can provide the basis for a world in which the provision of love and care for young children is valued, rewarded and shared equally between women and men.  It aims to understand what stops men from becoming practitioners in early childcare settings as the basis for recruiting and supporting more men to undertake this vitally important work.

In its recent Covid-19 blog, the MITEY (Men In The Early Years) campaign set out this challenge to men: ‘You CAN be the caregivers and educators, and the early years sector needs you. It may not pay the highest salaries, but if there’s one thing this crisis is teaching us, it’s that there’s more to life than money’.

Perhaps, when this crisis is over, the Covid-19 generation of children and young people will have developed an admiration for our ‘everyday super-heroes’, the carers. Perhaps, as they join their parents in the Thursday evening clapping, they may be inspired to dream their futures as teachers, nurses and carers of another new generation of children.

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