Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

We use the words ‘this is hard’ a lot

Sep 10, 2021 | Commentary, Parenting, First Person, Domestic Load, Feature

Written by Emily Bourke

Now in Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, we’ve chalked up more than 200 (non-consecutive) days under restrictions. And for perhaps the first time, it seems the constellation of conditions for getting out of lockdown is impossible to achieve. This outbreak is unlike any others before and the rules have changed, largely thanks to the Delta variant. It’s everywhere and in some pockets of this grand town the public appetite to even try to turn it appears to be dwindling. This lockdown feels like an ocean or a desert. All that’s in front, is the same as what we’ve left behind.

On the the home front: the magnification of intense caring 

My husband and I are parents to three (mostly very cute, bright, busy and chatty) kids under seven. My husband has three much older kids from his first marriage and they live interstate. We’d always intended to stay close, despite the distance. Like many blended families, we did the interstate logistical gymnastics to make it all work as best we could, as often as we could. We’d wanted the big kids to have a sense of belonging to their Melbourne home and for their connection to the little kids to be tender and strong.

But the pandemic’s border closures have put an inevitable strain on both. We’re busy at the best of times, both of us working part-time and with the flexibility of working from home at least some of the time. While we’re not rolling in wealth, we’re bang in the middle of being “better off”; we have jobs and enough. There may be no hardship (relatively speaking) but the ongoing lockdowns are…well, a lot. Even when you agree with their aims and ends.

The domestic load exploded at the start of this. More of us at home, for longer. 23 hours a day, in fact, needing more, making more, just being around more. Well-meaning friends said “drop your standards” but the actual need to clean became critical. Cleaning hands, clothes, surfaces, groceries…and hands again…and then small hands…over and over and over. And then throw in paid work on top for some mental crush.

Academic research conducted last year and published by Feminist Economics found the pandemic-induced shift to working from home revealed a rise in domestic work burdens for all. The survey found while women shouldered most of the extra unpaid workload, men’s childcare time increased more in relative terms, so average gender gaps narrowed. Maybe something good will emerge from that.

But lockdowns have created extra unpaid work, at the same time as people also worked from home and employers have expected their workers to be as productive as before the pandemic, ignoring care burdens. I don’t know how we unscramble that egg.

Delta has jacked up the existential fear to 11 and we can’t even speak about it. Delta has changed our options for everything, and it’s all we can do to avoid making what our Premier, Dan Andrews, refers to as “shitty choices”. Our unflappable day-care educators are spooked, for the kids and themselves. It wasn’t like this last year.

Wrangling busy little kids is an extreme sport at the best of times, but with schools and kindergartens closed, playgrounds roped off or restricted, and visits from extended family verboten, there are no “others”, people or places, to shoulder the load of domestic or working life.  Self-care is a much-ridiculed term these days. We have no village (paid or unpaid) anymore. The risk of doing it on the quiet and cooking up some half-legit excuse is too great – for them and for us. Covid has found the cracks in our caring economy, and Delta hitches a ride into households and on kids.  Weighing up our less shitty choices against the odds on the Delta dice has become exhausting. The situation is shitty all round.

Women out of the woodwork: we’re not doing too well

I reckon for many of us in Melbourne, the collective fear, anger and grief run deep. The women in my small circle aren’t doing so well. And our Sydney friends and family are now in this hot mess too. But we crack on with it, do the next online lessons, the laundry, take the work call, wipe the bench again, flip out over another long email attachment in too-small-font, forget the home learning portal password, lose our shit, cuddle and co-sleep the crying child, hide in the bathroom and load up online shopping carts. Sometimes we’re present as parents, partners and employees, sometimes, not so much. We go to bed and judge ourselves cruelly. Rinse and repeat.

The women in my circle are frayed and things feel heavy. As one friend wistfully says ‘there’s wisdom on my face now’. We’re cracking it cos we’re stretched across the day, across work and family, we’re irritated by the messy house and the unmasked shoppers in stores.  We’re panicked over the case numbers and exposure sites. The duelling press conferences and the State of Origin style politicking stress us out.

But there’s been a lovely quiet outreach between my loose tribe of women. Old colleagues, mums from mothers’ group, long lost friends from school days, acquaintances from the past, and new and re-connections made online. There have been long messages and parcels, lockdown hampers and unjudging questions. And there’s a special kind of shared knowingness for the term “meh”.  A whole article on languishing in the New York Times explained the meh phenomenon. Beyond the meh, we are burnt out. We use the words “this is hard” a lot. We cry, or we try to but the tears don’t come. We hurt for ourselves, each other, our kids, our lost time, our city, for the future. In the Before Times, we whined about the cost of swimming lessons and the Saturday sport traffic, the oh-so-busy-busyness of the weekends with parties and playdates and sleepovers. What quaint joyful luxuries they seem from here.

Emily with her kids

Emily with her three children. Picture: Supplied.

On our last kindergarten day In August, as they closed their doors to most of the children for lockdown six, the centre director, Miss Bonny, handed me the hand-made Father’s Day creations ”just in case we’re not back before Father’s Day ”.  Father’s Day has passed and there’s no fixed date for the lifting of lockdown restrictions and resumption of kindergarten. And so now we anticipate the scenario of never-never and avoid making any plans for special days or any days. The bundle of kindy craft pressed into my hand was my undoing. I sobbed. We hugged, even though it’s not allowed. I said, “it’s another year gone, they’re so little”.  She nodded. Our eyes were wet and so were our masks.

I am scared for the kids and the educators who pour everything into making these pre-school days so interesting and fun. The school and kindy teachers in our world are stoic and smart.  Now they’re so very tired and rightly fearful about Covid. I miss their touch and care, their bolshie embrace, big hearts, broad smiles, loud greetings and the way they gently usher children with no-nonsense hands. Will that ever happen again? How? Where’s the big picture pathway on managing inevitable COVID-19 outbreaks in schools and childcare settings, let alone mitigation strategies. Surely the folks at the Grattan Institute aren’t the only ones doing the thinking on this…

And so we come full circle, back to the home front.

The kids’ worlds have gotten so small and we cannot fix it. We joke about lockdown, hamming it up like a “touchdown”. They always laugh but the guilt stays there. Perhaps I could try to do a bit more. And sometimes I can and do, just like in the Before Times. But there is not much gas to match the lofty goals to be “making Instagram worthy memories” with the kids.

Now, we surrender to the mess across the house, encourage the kids to help with the evening tidy up again…and again…and again. We find sultanas behind the sofa, popcorn in the laundry, the floor is sticky and sandy from God knows what, there’s too much sugar and salt and not enough fruit and veg, spilled milk…everywhere. Of course it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Let’s do today, today, is my maxim. Sometimes it works.

I spoke to an old colleague a few months ago, a beloved mentor who’d retired and wished me all the best before I had children. Back then, in the Before Times, he’d told me that when the chips are down, kids always need their mum and he reckoned I’d be a good one. He was old-school, tough, coach-like…could rally the troops in the office before the sun was up or at the pub long after the sun was down. But on Covid he reckoned we are about to go through a Great Disruption…. it made me fear the future more than ever.

My mum says we must stay hopeful. Otherwise, what else do we have? I don’t reckon we get to be much better, at much, in lockdown. I reckon we carry a strange sense of loss but maybe we’ve gained something extraordinary and authentic. A collective achievement that was earnestly and honestly won, if we win it. But we are quieter, smaller and softer.  I hope we’re also a little kinder and gentler with each other and ourselves. Maybe after this we’ll put a higher price on care.

Feature image: Emily with her three children. Picture: Supplied



Emily Bourke is a Melbourne-based journalist with the ABC, and a mum to three small children and step-mum to three adult children.

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