Covid-19 Exclusives: Is Home Still Sweet Home during Covid-19?

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Ee Ling looks for alternatives online to calm her mind.

BURNOUTS ARE INEVITABLE these days when families are spending increasing amounts of time indoors.

Thirty-year-old Teoh Ee Ling had been away from home since 2016. She was in Myanmar practicing meditation and Buddhism but managed to secure a seat on Malaysia’s relief flight back to Penang when the Covid-19 outbreak worsened. This was before Chinese New Year this year.

She was happy to be reunited with her family of course, but soon, the burden of housework became intolerable. In her household, chores tend to fall to the women, mainly the daughter, to complete.

“If the men in my family help out at all, it is on a voluntary basis. I was even asked to ‘serve’ my younger brother food and mind you, he’s already 26! I have to cut the fruits into bite-sized pieces, remove fish bones and peel away prawn shells for him. I came home to be closer to my family during a crisis, but I’ve also started to feel a little off-balance.”

Ee Ling realises strongly that the more time the family spends together, the higher the chances of conflict. So she tries to maintain a neutral stance. But this is hard to do when space in the house is tight and her movements restricted.

She also knows that if she is not careful, her temper would soon get the better of her. She still meditates at home, but admits that it does not help much when she is constantly surrounded by distractions. “I need to find a way to resolve this fast because I don’t want to end up hating my family.”

The Exhausted Family Superhero

When the pandemic hit, Jason1 counted his blessings because unlike his siblings who are based overseas, he had his parents and grandparents close to him. When his parents grew anxious at being trapped at home, Jason was there to soothe their nerves. He’d also make regular visits to his grandparents’, who are in their 90s, to check up on them and to ensure they do not miss the day’s medications. He is also responsible for grocery runs.

“I’ve been praised for being a good son and grandson, and even a good uncle sometimes because I’d keep my niece and nephews company whenever my cousins are busy. They say they are lucky to have me around during such times, and I should feel equally grateful, right? I’m stepping up to the plate, and having my loved ones rely on me more.”

But as the pandemic drags on, Jason finds the enormity of his responsibilities too much to handle. He would like to ask his cousins who are staying close to their grandparents to check in on them every once in a while, but they all have families of their own to look after; and because Jason is still single, he is tasked as the family’s primary caregiver.

He feels drained and desperately misses his me-time. “It’s bizarre to think that I now enjoy getting stuck in traffic, this way I get to have some time to myself.” But when exhaustion gets the better of him, Jason can’t help but to point fingers. “I’d unconsciously blame my siblings for being away and heaping all this responsibility on me. I understand they do not have a choice, and that it isn’t their fault. But I can’t help it; I just need a break but I’ve got no place to go.”

When the Social Butterfly is Zapped of Energy

Maimunah2 lost her job during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, and is currently working as a freelancer. She initially welcomed the idea of working from home and spending more time with Farhana, her 7-year-old daughter.

But as months passed and with household chores and child-rearing doubling over the MCO periods, things got to be overwhelming and Maimunah was assailed with frequent bouts of anxiety and panic attacks.

She is aware that Farhana, being an only child, needs her mother’s attention and company; she’d sometimes even wait by the toilet door to engage her in conversation, but Maimunah can’t help but to feel suffocated by the clinginess. Just to be able to hear herself think has become a luxury and alone time has become non-existent in the 800 sq ft apartment Maimunah shares with her husband and child.

She tries her best to keep herself calm and composed so as to not overburden her husband who is already burdened and juggling between work and caring for his ailing parents. She confides in her sibling her worries, but downplays them as “work-related issues” in front of her husband to not alarm him.

Maimunah feels guilty that she is failing in her responsibilities as a wife and a mother. She explains, “A mother is seen as someone who is loving, caring and self-sacrificing but I’m also feeling very burnt out.”

Dealing with Family Burnout during Covid-19

According to clinical psychologists, spending too much time with family may not be the healthiest option; pandemic or not, everyone needs some breathing space.3 “Seasonal anxiety is also becoming more and more prevalent among Malaysians,” explains Wang, a volunteer at the Malaysian Youth Buddhist Society.4 Jason’s need to get away by going on drives, for example, is a red flag for anxiety.

We are also witnessing a regression in family responsibilities, where duties are increasingly divided by gender. Studies have shown that women like Ee Ling and Maimunah are doing significantly more housework and caregiving than men during the pandemic.5 

For those interested in participating, online registration opens on June 8.

Turning Excessive Family Time into Quality Family Time

As Covid-19 is likely to remain throughout 2021, families are encouraged to communicate and be more transparent with each other. Providing enough space while monitoring signs of depression and anxiety in oneself and in family members is crucial. If someone has trouble coping, he or she should be encouraged to reach out to mental health NGOs such as the Befrienders as well as professionals for support.

The Penang Women’s Development Corporation is organising a Family Day campaign this June. Stronger Family, Brighter Future encourages families to stay healthy physically and emotionally for each other during this period.6 Art and board games are part of the event line-up, which also includes virtual exercises such as a virtual walk challenge that allows families to exercise indoors and to accumulate up to 75,000 steps within the span of three weeks.7 There will also be an online panel organised to invite parents, a child therapist and a childcare institution operator to discuss the limiting of external social contact and its impact on families, with a focus on early childhood development.

Burnouts need to be acknowledged within the family unit, and temporary alternatives and solutions identified to remedy them. Only then are we able to ride out the third Covid-19 wave and emerge relatively unscathed, with our sanity intact.

1 Due to privacy concerns, a pseudonym is used for the interviewee.
2 Due to privacy concerns, a pseudonym is used for the interviewee.
3 https://health.clevelandclinic.org/too-much-family-time-during-the-pandemic-heres-how-to-cope/
4 Wang is a part-time volunteer at the Malaysian Youth Buddhist Society. For privacy reasons, she has requested that her full name not be revealed.
5 https://leanin.org/article/womens-workload-and-burnout#  
6 The Penang State Family Day will be held from June 15 to July 15, 2021.
7 The walk will start on June 15. Registration link: https://cutt.ly/4bw9ScC 

Chan Xin Ying and Hasanah Akhir are advocates for family inclusiveness and are currently working at the Family and Children’s Affairs Department of the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC).



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