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“All the mothers I know are overwhelmed right now, wondering how they will manage work and stay home for quarantines over every sniffle their child has while trying to maintain their jobs,” says Laura Fisher.
For Fisher, who is a single parent living with her two children in Wolfville, N.S., it’s even harder, as she doesn’t have back up.
“I am lucky I can work from home, but after burning out this past spring and summer working multiple jobs, parenting and homeschooling - as well as doing my master’s degree in sociology - I don’t know how I’ll sustain this in the future if it comes to that. I simply can not keep up,” she says.
This lifestyle, she says, has put a strain on her entire family’s mental health.
“We are living very precariously trying to support our children’s mental and physical health and well being while having panic attacks,” she says.
The buzz she hears is that everyone seems to think mothers will figure it out.
But there shouldn’t be things to just figure out. The pandemic has exposed what was already unequal terrain, says Fisher.
“This is especially true for low-income, working, and single mothers. It has exposed the lack of a social safety net that should support women in doing the reproductive labour the government and society are currently demanding of us and will continue to for the foreseeable future,” says Fisher.
Dr. Tammy Findlay, associate professor and chairperson of the department of political and Canadian studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, N.S., says research consistently shows that women continue to do the bulk of unpaid domestic work and caregiving, while also being in the paid workforce.
In the pandemic, this balancing act has intensified, with pressures to simultaneously combine family and work responsibilities, and added pressures with children learning at home.
“The pandemic has simply amplified what we already knew about gender disparities in income, paid employment, unpaid work, caregiving, and public services,” says Findlay.
For example, in Prince Edward Island, during the COVID-19 shutdown and ever since, the unemployment rate for women proved to be very different for women than for men, says Jane Ledwell, executive director of the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
Many sectors that employ a majority of women, such as retail, hospitality, and other service work, have been profoundly affected by the pandemic. Meanwhile, she says, many women who have continued to work in essential roles, such as at grocery stores or in healthcare, find themselves on the front lines of the pandemic, in high-contact roles with potentially high risk of exposure to COVID-19.
“Women, and often women of colour, are concentrated in this low wage, precarious employment,” says Findlay. “The work women do in these caregiving professions is systemically undervalued.”
It is still common for women to earn less than men, or for women to work in part-time, precarious work - often due to their caregiving responsibilities - meaning that their careers are considered more expendable, said Ledwell. At the same time, their caregiving is considered all the more essential in the household.
Single parent impact
This stress is particularly felt by single mothers like Fisher.
“We know that lone-parent households are more likely to be headed by women and that women who head lone-parent households face the highest levels of economic stress from low-income, as well as the emotional and psychological stress of caring for children without support,” says Ledwell.
The proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" is one many parents identify with, but during the pandemic lockdown, we were all cut off from our villages, says Ledwell. And that includes not only formal supports, such as the schools, childcare, and early learning centres that were shut down, but so were informal supports, such as help from friends, neighbours, and family. For example, a mom with a toddler trying to do a full-time job from home couldn’t call on her aunt to help with childcare so she could work if her aunt was in another household.
Action on childcare, long-term care, paid sick leave, income supports, and minimum wage was needed long before COVID-19, says Findlay, but their limitations proved to have special significance during a crisis.
“There is already evidence that more men than women have been able to return to work because of the scarcity of childcare,” Findlay adds.
Findlay says the research shows that a lack of affordable, quality public childcare frequently forces women to choose between caring for children and paid work. This is both because of gendered ideas about women’s role as caregiver, and the gender gap, which encourages heterosexual couples to forego the lower-income when childcare is not available.
“This shows, despite some beliefs to the contrary, in our society there is a persistent unequal division of labour in the home, and a lack of public services to address it,” she says.
One of the few bright spots that have arisen during the pandemic, says Findlay, is that there is now at least rhetorical recognition that childcare is essential, and a better understanding that the market-based approach to long-term care has been a policy failure. The minimal labour standards and the precarious conditions for so many workers have been brought to light.
If we go into a second lockdown, Ledwell says supports for caregiving have to take first priority, whether that's care for children or people in long-term care.
“Households, and all of society, will recover well only if we support caregivers to be physically, psychologically, emotionally resilient,” she says.
“We don't know what the future will look like, but we know that if we restore things to what they were before, we will face the same problems and vulnerabilities when the next emergency comes.”
Findlay says there are two possible paths following this crisis: retreating to the pre-pandemic status quo, or worse, ramping up the austerity and individualism that has long marked public policy in Canada.
“I worry about this,” she says.
But Findlay is hopeful the East Coast will take a different path, toward reimagined public services and revitalized labour standards that prioritize equity and social justice.
“As a start, this would require universal childcare and public long-term and home care, ensuring that service providers are well paid, and that precarious work is addressed,” says Findlay.
Fisher adds that paid sick leave, childcare that is safe for all and school that is safe for all, and economic support that is flexible and ongoing for doing the social reproduction of raising the next generations are all needed.
Overall, Ledwell says, Canadians have to rise to the challenge of making real change in our society and to take on the biggest challenges we face: eliminate poverty, economic inequality, sexism, racism, discrimination, and exclusion, address climate change adaptation, eradicate gender-based violence and other forms of violence that emerge from inequalities.
It’s a tall order, she admits, but a strong social policy foundation needs to be in place before the next crisis.