There is no formal dictionary definition for the term “mom guilt” but ask a cross-section of mothers and they will tell you that “mom guilt” is real. It is the feeling of guilt, doubt, anxiousness or uncertainty experienced by mothers when they worry that they are falling short of expectations or failing in some way as a parent – and parenting norms and expectations as expressed on social media do not help. For many moms, especially working or single moms, the variables that contribute to this phenomenon are numerous and have been made way more intense by the advent of COVID-19. 1
Due to lockdown and safe distancing protocols, it has now been just over a year since many South African parents transitioned from on-site jobs to working from home, alongside which they have been not only parenting, but homeschooling their children as well. In January 2021, the Department of Education’s Director General, Mathanzima Mweli, reported that 15 percent of primary and secondary public school children in South Africa had not returned to school. 2
Women are bearing the brunt of parenting and care-taking
Several research studies in various countries, conducted since the start of the pandemic, have found that women are bearing the brunt of increased parenting and care-taking responsibilities in the home brought about by the pandemic. For example, a US study, undertaken at the University of North Texas, on the gender disparity in care-taking during the COVID-19 pandemic, analysed data from the US current Population Survey to ascertain the number of hours that women reported to not be working (specifically because they had to care for children who were absent from day-care or school) as compared men – both before the pandemic and at its lockdown peak. This revealed that mothers have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers in order to fulfil their care-taking responsibilities in the home. 3
How employers could help women alleviate “mom guilt”
- Look for long-term, sustainable options beyond the initial solutions: Many employers responded to the pandemic by allowing their employees to work flexible hours from home or to rearrange their shifts by working nights, weekends and every minute they aren’t caring for children. However, as the pandemic continued, it has become clear that this solution is not sustainable. It has resulted in employees being very productive working from home but has come at an enormous cost to their mental health and the risk of burnout.
- Offer part-time or job sharing schedules: In South Africa it is not common for the employers of office workers to offer part-time schedules and they pay their part-time staff disproportionately less when they do. However, in European countries there are laws that ensure workers are able to transition to part-time work more equitably and employers have been better able to keep women in the workforce as a result.
- Consider paying towards child care as a benefit: A year down the line in the pandemic, mothers are not just in need of time, they are in need of money to use in the way that best suits their family in order for them to be productive at work. A benefit such as this could be used to pay for child care, tutoring or to support themselves during an unpaid period of leave. Few companies practice paying for child care – or provide subsidies for child care facilities for their female or single parent employees.
- Do not penalise parents or care-givers for caregiving: When it comes time for employee evaluations, managers should keep in mind how much additional work people – especially parents – have been dealing with during lockdown. What is more, employee recruitment managers should not discard CVs showing “pandemic gaps”, and should consider rehiring the employees who left for caregiving reasons.
- Don’t go back to what was considered “normal” office life: Lots of screen time, being “on” 24/7 and unpredictable schedules was detrimental to the wellbeing of parents and other employees even before the pandemic. A key lesson brought by the pandemic has been the discovery that people are happier, healthier and more productive when they have more control over where and when they work. There are benefits to having employees all in one place at the office, but employers could adopt a hybrid schedule that enables employees to work at home for a certain number of days per week. 4
Men – help your women by doing your part
While mothers and fathers have both increased the amount of time they spend on child care during the pandemic, there is supportable evidence that women have shouldered the lion’s share of the responsibility. There are practical ways in which men could do more.
- men could work in the common area of the home and share use of a separate home office or study (if you have one) to the woman of the house;
- fathers could take over an entire child-related task, such as communicating with the school, coordinating doctor’s appointments or planning a virtual birthday party; or
- make it a regular priority to take the children on a constructive outing.