Mothers, Helpers and Balancing Home & Work during COVID-19

Working women across the world have taken on at least another 2 or 3 homebased jobs during this COVID-19 season – teacher, chef and maid – and this of course while continuing their traditional primary roles of mother and wife. In Jamaica, the burden is no different. However one of the factors that has made it even more difficult for working women in Jamaica is not having the support of a household helper which is a common feature in many homes. It has become problematic or at best, tricky, to continue to benefit from having a household helper given the social distancing and stay at home precautionary measures required to keep COVID-19 at bay. Helpers, after all, can’t work from home.

Renee is a marketer who lives alone with her 4 children ranging from 3 years to 14 years of age. She relies heavily on her mother and her helper to help care for the children, prepare meals, clean and do laundry, among other activities. But with the advent of COVID-19, Renee has to work from home and directly take on the management of the household. She is immensely stretched as her helper who lives in St. Catherine was unable to come to work for 2 weeks due to the lockdown in the parish. And then after the lockdown was lifted, Renee was reluctant to have her helper take public transportation and come into their home to care for the children. “Social distancing is not possible when you have a helper bathing your toddler and feeding her meals,” Renee insists. So she has asked her helper to stay at home, even though she continues to pay her salary. Renee has also lost the help of her mom who is over 65 with underlying health conditions and who has not been feeling well since the crisis escalated locally.

There is a huge upside however. Renee says her older children have now started to help with laundry and to make some of the family meals. “It’s not easy at all, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I was grateful for how my children have had to become more responsible and helpful. They have stepped up,” the marketer confessed. “I have to continue to work and they have to do school online and we all simply have to pitch in to make things work,” she reasoned. The older children have to also take turns with watching their 3 year old sibling but that is not always seamless. “Sometimes I am doing video meetings and my 3 year old will just run into my room and I say, ‘mommy, I need to pee, I need to pee’ or ‘mommy can I have some juice please’,” Renee reveals laughing.

However the pressure is expected to ease a bit when the family’s helper returns to work in the next week or two, depending on the rate of local transmission. She is expected to work every other week and Renee’s children are expected to continue with their chores of washing dishes, laundry and tidying up not only their room but the whole house. “This is the silver lining in all this. Finally getting my children to not only pitch in but also to recognize the value in all the things required to take care of our home and each other,” the mother of 4 concludes.

Jennifer is another mother struggling to balance all her responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Married with 2 daughters, ages 15 and 9, Jennifer runs her own consultancy firm. Even though her family can more than afford a helper, they had been trying without success to find a suitable person who could live-in from before the health crisis. Now, with COVID-19 precautions, they no longer see it as a feasible/ safe option. Moreover, with both Jennifer and her husband Paul having to go into office from time to time, this has meant leaving the children unsupervised on a few occasions. Eventually Jennifer had to make a decision to work from home, contending that “the office must be able to function without me being physically present.” Now she is able to closely supervise school projects and other activities for the children while doing most of the ironing. Her husband Paul, who does most of the meal preparations, still goes into office but with Jennifer anchoring things at home, they are reaping the benefits of investing more time in family and saving money they would have ordinarily paid a live-in housekeeper.

Medical Doctor, Sandra has a 16 year old girl and 14 year old boy. Her family still has the benefit of a helper who comes in daily. However the helper does not take public transportation. Sandra’s husband, who also works full time, picks her up and drops her home every day to reduce her risk of contracting the virus on a bus or in a public space. Sandra who works extremely long hours in one of the major public hospitals also has very strict personal protocols to help keep herself and her family safe. Of
course, she dons all the necessary personal protective equipment and observes all the protocols at the hospital but at home she takes other steps which include quickly again changing her clothing and showering before seeing her family. Additionally, Sandra has chosen to avoid all direct contact with her elderly parents to eliminate the risk of them contracting the virus from her, in the event that she has it and is asymptomatic. For Mother’s Day, she sent her mom a beautiful heartfelt message and transferred a financial gift to her mom’s account. It’s the first time she has not seen her mother on Mother’s Day but she reasons that it is a small price to pay to keep her safe.

No doubt, women have had to balance work, home and extenuating circumstances for a long time. Without much fanfare or applause many of them remain faithful to keeping their families fed, safe and cared for regardless of the current of health crisis.

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