Trying to raise your children at this particular point in history seems like the result of wishing on a monkey’s paw: you can finally spend more time with your child but only during a global pandemic when everyone is stretched to breaking point, the support networks you rely on are dramatically disrupted and our ways of working largely unrecognisable.
As reported by the Young Women’s Trust, the pandemic and the resulting recession have already taken their toll in widening the inequality gap as the burden of childcare has largely fallen on women, many of whom are also trying to manage their work. In their research they found that half of young mums were unable to get or keep a job because of childcare costs. The needs of women already in work were not accommodated either – the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that more than 70% of working mothers who asked to be furloughed for childcare reasons thanks to school closures were refused.
The challenge of raising your children in this environment, whether you are a working or stay-at-home mother, is having a huge impact on mental health. The pressure to make sure your child is not too negatively affected by the dramatic changes in their life is a heavy one to endure, especially when traditional support networks are either reduced or cut off entirely.
For new parents this has resulted in a spike in anxiety. The charity Home-Start UK found that almost seven in 10 new parents said their ability to cope with their pregnancy or baby has been impacted by COVID-19, with nearly nine in 10 saying they were more anxious as a result. The isolation and loneliness has even been commented on by the Duchess of Cambridge, following research by the Royal Foundation which showed that separation from family, friends and support networks during lockdown was taking a heavy psychological toll on parents of young children, with 63% reporting feelings of loneliness compared with 38% before the pandemic. Lifelines are available – like Bump Buddies on the Peanut app for those expecting at the same time – but support on a wider level is still lacking.
Taking all this into account, we spoke to a few young mums about how they are coping a month into our third lockdown. The experience of every parent is deeply personal but by hearing just some of the ways lives have been affected we can get a real sense that despite the isolation, frustration and loneliness, no one is alone in finding this hard.
India, 28, a secondary school teacher, is raising her 23-month-old son with her husband Warren, also 28
Balancing work and caregiving has been different throughout the pandemic and currently I don’t feel I’m balancing it very well. I work part-time but as we’re completely online now I’m finding myself working and responding to students on my days off, which is impacting the time I'm with my son. Over the year we’ve become more reliant on screen time than I would have liked and it definitely feels like work is taking priority.
Despite both being key workers, we had no access to childcare in the first lockdown so I had to balance working around looking after our son. This often meant squeezing in an hour during his nap, but mainly meant I worked during the night. We hadn’t moved to online learning so I was setting tasks for students and then submitting them to be published for them to access independently.
The third lockdown has meant a complete move to online learning and thankfully nursery is open for my son but there has been such a massive increase in workload, I’m finding it really difficult to complete it all during my working hours. Again I’m ending up working on my days off, which impacts the time I have with my son.
My husband supports where he can but he runs his own business and is a one-man band so if he doesn’t work, nothing gets done and there’s no one who is able to pick up the slack. This leaves me as the primary caregiver. We have taken advantage of the childcare bubble, which has allowed me to spend some weekends catching up on work but also leaves me feeling incredibly guilty because I’m not spending time with my son. Work-wise, I think they say the right things about supporting staff but when we recently had to self-isolate I was told I had to just make it work. I could set pre-recorded lessons but I still had to take the register at the start and monitor the chat in case there were any questions. I find pre-recorded lessons require more work and it’s difficult to monitor the chat so I ended up having to teach the lessons anyway.
When this is all over I don’t think there’ll be anything I really miss. I am incredibly thankful for the extra time I was able to spend with my son during the first lockdown. I had only just gone back to work when we went into lockdown so it did sort of feel like a bit of an extended maternity. It’s taught me to be kinder to myself about the decisions I’m having to make. Moving forward I really don’t want work to be my priority so I'm trying to figure out how to address that.
Courtenay, 25, is a stay-at-home mum raising her 2-year-old daughter with her husband, who is currently working from home
Lockdown has been a struggle to say the least. Beforehand I was very active with my daughter and we had an activity for every day: baby group, a walk with my auntie and nephews, a visit to my parents' house, a trip to the library or soft play and a weekly playdate. We were always out and always socialising. Now all of that is impossible and I find myself nervous of the things that are still permitted, like playgrounds. I struggle massively with the isolation and being stuck inside gives me cabin fever.
Having us all at home is taking its toll on my husband's job. We had to rearrange our house to create an office for him so he could work in relative peace but his concentration can be badly affected by the inevitable tantrums that come from being a toddler. We do our best and he's extremely patient but it's definitely a trial. I currently do not work and have been trying to set up my own small business from home. However I am not making much progress as I have no idea what the rules are regarding childcare for parents working from home and don't like the idea of sending Thea to daycare in a pandemic. My husband has slight breathing issues, not bad enough to be considered vulnerable but I worry about how ill he'd be if he caught COVID.
We are not homeschooling as such as Thea is only 2 but I do a few 'lessons' to make up for the lack of activities we can do outside. It is hard work as I'm not entirely sure what I'm doing but we do enjoy it. I found a Montessori resource online and use the available lesson plans to help my daughter's development. Nothing is making up for the lack of social interaction though.
This lockdown is more difficult than the last. In the last lockdown we were coming into summer, which meant we could at least get out for walks. However Thea would scream when she met people outside. This was very upsetting as she was so sociable before the lockdown. This time it's much more difficult as it's winter and much harder to get out for walks. It's also harder as I feel my resilience wearing away. Winter always lowers my mood in general and I worry that my daughter is picking up on my general low spirits. It's also harder to stay optimistic the more time goes by.
I do find that there is a general lack of support for parents at the minute. We can't justify childcare since I'm a stay-at-home mum, which means I get very little time to myself or time with my husband. There are no baby groups where I can meet other mums and my daughter hasn't seen a health visitor in a year. We moved house to give our daughter a garden and trying to switch to a different GP practice was very difficult as our registration forms were lost and we were left in limbo. Thea has missed her review so I don't know if she's growing and developing properly and I don't want to rely on Google. Obviously all children develop at different rates but as a first-time mum I feel just as clueless as I was when Thea was a newborn. I don't know if I'm doing a good job or not. [The] Peanut [app] is the only real lifeline I have as I can get support and advice from other mums but it's still a worry. I don't want my daughter to be afraid of teachers and children when she goes to nursery; seeing her confidence be lost over the course of 2020 has been the hardest thing in lockdown.
The thing that I'll miss when this is over is having my husband at home. It's wonderful to be able to call him downstairs so he can see something for the first time, like our daughter pretending to cook or starting to sing. He would've missed all that if he was out at work. I've learned to be grateful for the little things, like a sunny winter day so we can get outside or a phone call from a friend so I can speak to an adult. It's the little things that will get us through the lockdown, day by day.
Ellie, 29, works for a not-for-profit on a project tackling gender inequality. She is raising her two children, aged 5 and 2, with her husband who is shielding due to a life-limiting health condition
I remember watching Boris’s announcement that lockdown (1.0) would be coming and feeling completely filled with dread. At the time I worked for a domestic abuse charity, working on the front line directly with survivors of abuse. Working with two children under 5 and the expectation that I should work as normal, providing safety, emotional and legal support to clients who had suffered extremely traumatic experiences, was completely overwhelming. My mental health took a large blow and after trying to struggle through, juggling my children and my work, something had to give. All three of my remaining grandparents died during the pandemic and being unable to hug my dad after both of his parents died or attend all of their funerals was really hard. I spent a lot of time looking at my children and wondering if their father would survive the pandemic. When people talk about keeping vulnerable people in their homes and allowing ‘everyone else’ to go about their normal lives, it is not only those who we might typically think of being vulnerable at risk.
I felt like I was failing at everything, overwhelmed constantly and unable to cope with the weight of my work and my children. I felt unsupported by my previous organisation, my relationships suffered and I felt like a terrible parent. I felt the pressure from all angles. My employer at the time expected I could carry on with normal working activities as though we were not in a pandemic. Ultimately I had to protect my wellbeing and despite really valuing my work, being in awe of the people I worked with, I had to leave.
Now, I work in perhaps the most wonderful organisation, something I know I am really lucky to have. I work in the education sector on a project on tackling gender inequality in the workforce and on encouraging promotion of women. As a direct result of the pandemic, one in four women felt they had no choice but to leave or downgrade their careers. Women are more likely to take on the childcare responsibilities or be expected to take on the childcare responsibilities and with school closures this impact is huge and will be long-lasting.
I have a balance now, with my husband and I sharing childcare as fairly as we can, and my employers allow for flexible working.
We made the choice not to send our children to nursery and preschool during initial lockdown, despite being key workers, because it felt like we were making a choice between my husband’s health and childcare. During this lockdown, we have been able to send our children to nursery and school, both being key workers. I speak to parents on a daily basis on the devastating impact being unable to go to school is having on their children. No parent signed up to parent 24/7 without a break. Parents are not teachers (and teachers are definitely the unsung heroes of this pandemic).
This lockdown for me feels better – I feel emotionally and mentally more stable and my current employer is now supportive. I recognise how lucky I am to have this. I feel the fatigue, the frustration that as a country we are still in this position. I feel angry that families are struggling and that there doesn’t feel like an end in sight.
My employers are flexible and despite me being the only one on my team with young children, they recognise difficulties I may have and are keen to support me. I’m trying to reach out to friends and family more as I totally isolated myself during previous lockdowns.
I managed to spend so much quality time with my children during the initial lockdown, something as a working parent I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to have. Watching them play together (and fight with each other...constantly) has been a privilege and despite all the difficulties that came with it, I am glad I got to experience that. I also learned that work is not and never can be more important than your own health and the wellbeing of your family. It isn’t worth sacrificing yourself – the work will continue without you and you are replaceable to your organisation but not to your family. I also cannot wait to hug my sister, a student nurse working on COVID wards.