OF THE MANY ways Covid-19 has changed the lives of working mothers everywhere, being at home while working, and educating and caring for the children may be the toughest of all. It has taken a pandemic for the realisation to dawn that we’ve taken schools, grandparents, nannies and sitters for granted. Child-rearing responsibilities, tasks that are usually outsourced, are now falling squarely back on parents, especially working mothers.
As a freelance writer, I provide content-writing services for various events management companies. But as many festivals and events were getting cancelled, I suddenly found myself with unexpected free time. I made grand plans to fill my days.
Emili Ismail with her son Kai.
My mornings would start as early as 6am in the kitchen, either hunched over a sizzling wok or grinding chillies, peeling onions and smashing garlic. During the first MCO month, I made sure my family was well-fed with scrumptious homemade dishes like nasi lemak, rendang daging and ayam masak merah to such an extent that my husband who had gained 5kgs by then, began to worry about his “dad bod”. I also customised teaching aids for my son, posted videos of my little home-schooling sessions online, and basked in admiration and envy of others. I had created the ideal motherhood for myself.
Sometime in May, however, writing assignments started trickling back in; and though I was forewarned that my plate would get a bit too full, I accepted them anyway, as a desire to fulfil myself. Chaos soon ensued. Gone are the comfort foods and the iPad became the designated nanny, one that I happily handed over to my son so that I could work in peace. I began to feel as if I was being pulled in multiple directions at once. While my husband had his own dedicated work slot, I had to work around my family’s schedule.
Comfortingly, I wasn’t the only working mother to feel this way. A friend and fellow working mother Marion Yeoh took to Facebook to point out the double standard of gender roles during the partial lockdown: "While Mummy is working, she has to clean poop, shower the kids, plan the meals, run to and fro between computer and stove, keep one eye on the younger one, keep one ear on the online lesson for the older one, do the laundry, attend to requests from Daddy, answer phone calls, make shopping lists and place orders, glance repeatedly at the clock, resolve fights every 30 minutes, administer first aid (which is getting very frequent), and clean up messes. But while Daddy is working, do not disturb.”
I began to feel as if I was being pulled in multiple directions at once. While my husband had his own dedicated work slot, I had to work around my family’s schedule.
Technical writer Yap Keng Lai also shares her parenting struggles. “I can’t even talk properly in meetings now without getting interrupted. My son would tug at my hand to get off the screen or an epic fight between my two children would erupt behind me,” she says.
Fathers too play important roles, though this is rarely acknowledged. Both Yeoh and Yap’s husbands have been braving the long lines at the wet markets and grocery stores to stock up on food supplies, often getting stopped at roadblocks, and risking contracting the virus. “My husband attends our son’s online lessons too sometimes, while having his meetings. It’s like having two meetings clash with each other,” Yap says.
Father-of-five Noorul Ajwad Nasron made the long journey from Sungai Ara to the Penang General Hospital when his daughter fell off a chair and needed an emergency procedure. It was a distressing experience for Noorul. “The hospital didn’t give my daughter an identification wrist tag. Fearing that she would be swallowed up in the hospital, I took matters into my own hands and wrote down my phone number on my daughter’s limbs,” he says. The episode lasted a harrowing eight hours. Though extremely tired from the emergency night out, Noorul still headed back to work the next morning.
"Fearing that she would be swallowed up in the hospital, I took matters into my own hands and wrote down my phone number on my daughter’s limbs,” says Noorul.
More than two hours a day of screen time may affect children’s mental, emotional and physical well-being. For example, without technological distractions, aggressive children are more prone to outbursts.1 But when schools are closed during the pandemic, gadgets become a necessary evil. “Of course I feel guilty about it,” admits resource manager Emili Ismail, “and I do feel inadequate at times as a mother when my son continues to miss his online lessons. I’ve always wished that I could spend more time with him, but now that we’re all at home, the situation is not what I expected. His online lessons are always clashing with my meetings. Even when I’m available to attend the online lessons, my son refuses to do so,” she explains.
Although she gives her son the iPad so she could work, Emili says that sometimes, this is not enough. “My son wanted me to play with him during one of my calls. I got agitated and gave him a scolding. When I was done with my call, I walked into my son’s room to apologise only to find him already fast asleep after playing alone,” she recalls.
With the lifting of the 10km-radius travel limit, many working mothers are now sending their children off to their grandparents, giving them the long-awaited reprieve. However, as schools remain shut, working mothers without their parents nearby continue to struggle, and to wait for an end to the restrictions and for the schools to reopen.
Emilia Ismail is a freelance writer who has a love-hate relationship with the weighing scale.