Why women are struggling to balance home and work during the pandemic


Written by Paromita Chakrabarti
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Published: August 23, 2020 6:00:46 am


Illustration: Suvajit Dey

Amrita Mahale was about five months pregnant when the first lockdown was announced on March 22. Overnight, her doctor shut her clinic, medicines became harder to find, and the bustling city of Mumbai, at the heart of her acclaimed debut novel, Milk Teeth (2018), became an unfamiliar place, haunted by a pandemic that had the world in its death grip. While she wrote on the weekends, it was her job as a product manager at a non-profit AI-for-social-good innovation lab that took up most of her time. Only a week ago, the lab had started a work-from-home trial. Her husband, who runs an education startup, too, had to move to online lessons, making a part of the house out of bounds for most of the day. Suddenly, Mahale, 35, found her world shrinking into her apartment in Bandra. “I am not great at multitasking, and I find switching contexts frequently quite hard, so I need proper separation between work and writing. I found myself sinking into a deep anxiety. I was checking the rising COVID numbers obsessively and closely following the migrant crisis with a growing sense of despondency. It’s impossible to not question your decision to bring a new life into a world that seems to be falling apart. Pregnant women are a high-risk group for COVID, so I stopped leaving the house entirely, which wasn’t great for my mental health,” says Mahale, whose son was born a month ago. It was a “surreal” experience, she says; not even her parents were allowed to visit her in the hospital.

Amrita Mahale

As the COVID-19 upends lives across the world, a disproportionate amount of its toll has also fallen on the urban upper-middle-class working women. In addition to their professional duties, the burden of managing home and care work have grown. In India, which has one of the lowest female workforce participation rates in the world, of which only 20.4 per cent are urban women (source: 2018 Periodic Labour Force Survey, released by the NSSO last year), this has been aggravated by pre-existing inequalities in gender roles, the sudden absence of networks that facilitate their participation in the workforce, loss of jobs, salary cuts and the guilt of not doing enough. Even though they are a minority in the Indian labour force, the repercussions of the pandemic on the urban Indian working woman, despite her many privileges, have been significant.

A year ago, Madhuja Bandyopadhyay moved to Mumbai with her eight-year-old son, after a long stint as the senior vice-president of a leading Bengali entertainment channel in Kolkata, to work with a national entertainment channel. “In the television industry, you get used to thinking on your feet. But, for the move, I wanted to ensure that everything was planned in advance. Given Mumbai’s distance, I made sure that my office, apartment, my son’s school, daycare and after-school activity centres were all in one area so that it would make the commute less stressful. My mother and my husband (filmmaker Anindya Chattopadhyay) flew in from Kolkata frequently. The only thing I hadn’t factored in was a pandemic,” says Bandyopadhyay, 41.

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Madhuja Bandyopadhyay (Courtesy: Dolon Dutta Chowdhury)

Initially, like many others, Bandyopadhyay had hoped that the lockdown would be short-lived, but eventually, as work and lives shifted online, it was the distance from her family and anxiety over their well-being that got to her the most. “I have only lived for about a year in this city and have just begun to know people. Suddenly, it felt like my life had come to a standstill. I felt incredibly lonely and wanted to see my husband, my mother, my friends and there was no way I could,” says Bandyopadhyay, who took to long conference calls with family and close friends for a sense of community.

For Manu Gulati, mentor teacher with the directorate of education, Delhi government, the new normal required a completely new orientation. April marks the beginning of a new academic session in Delhi and that is the time when teachers require academic and pedagogic support the most. This year, though, the usual activity of the time was replaced by a sense of foreboding, and, later, preparation for a new kind of academic practice. The 37-year-old had always been interested in the intersection of technology and education; since the pandemic, together with a colleague, Rohit Upadhyaya, she has been conducting training workshops for teacher-development coordinators (TDCs) of Delhi’s government schools in effective use of social media for pedagogic support. The pandemic made technological intervention a matter of urgency. As daily virtual training sessions began for the TDCs, Gulati’s days began, like always, at 6.30 am and stretched well into the night. A nine-member family living in an MIG flat is often pressed for space at the best of times, but now, with everyone working from home, creating quiet work corners was often an issue. Gulati says there were days when the house would go unswept or she would bristle at the sight of a sink overflowing with dishes, but, slowly, people learned to work around each other’s needs and gender roles got diluted. “There were days when my husband did the dishes while I trained teachers online. As a software engineer, he supported me immensely with the use of technology,” says the 2018 Fulbright scholar. But even when the stress of the pandemic gets to her, Gulati says it is the thought of the students she serves that makes her count her blessings. “When city children are bored, they can sit with a gadget, read a book. The children we work with have to think of meals and work and how to share limited bandwidth with their many siblings so as to see lesson videos of no more than a minute sometimes. That’s when you know how fortunate you are and why the work that you are doing matters,” she says. Bengaluru-based instructional designer Shibani Chakroborty, who works with a multinational professional services network, recalls the early days of the lockdown as one of her most traumatic. Unmoored from the meticulous schedule her technical-architect husband and she had worked out, that included the services of a daycare for her four-year child and help to manage home, she found herself floundering. “I was not able to provide enough time to either my work or my child. I would feel guilty and exhausted as I tried to cope with the new changes – the guilt of being the worst mother, an inefficient employee and an indolent homemaker. It was tough to deal with, and, at one point, I contemplated seeking an expert’s help to cope with my mental health, but I had to adapt to the new normal eventually,” says the 32-year-old.

Manu Gulati

The distinction between the workplace and home is unique to the urban workforce and is particularly enabling for women, says Aditi Ratho, junior fellow at the Observation Research Foundation, Mumbai, who works at the intersection of labour and gender. “It makes space for transition into their different roles and enables essential social interactions,” she says.

Anisha Karthikeyan, 36, a human resource professional with a multinational financial services corporation in Delhi, says one of the toughest things to master during this work-from-home phase has been the constant engagement that it has required of her. “I am running out of ideas to make home an interesting place,” she says. While the chores are divided between her husband, mother and her, keeping her two sons, aged nine and two, occupied has taken constant work. “My younger son is now at the stage of pre-primary learning and I am not sure I am equipped to handle his learning needs. I feel guilty that he should be given more time and attention, which I hardly manage,” she says. Now, with flexible work hours and breaks between meetings to allow her to regroup, Karthikeyan says she has settled into a makeshift routine. “But as easy as it sounds, I now realise it’s not simple to be a work-from-home mom,” she says.

Anisha Karthikeyan

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In 2017, a comic strip by French graphic artist Emma, titled You Should’ve Asked, had gone viral on the internet. In it, a new mother who is struggling to attend to a dinner guest and her baby is told by her partner that he’d have chipped in “if only she’d asked”. Emma posited that even when men are prepared to help, the onus of organising and remembering – a thankless, never-ending, invisible “mental load” – lies almost always with women. Very early on in their lives, women are cast in the role of homemakers and mothers and men as primary wage earners, which doesn’t change even when more women join the workforce or work in high-profile jobs. This is particularly true of a country like India, despite some changes in urban middle-class dynamics.

An online survey of urban upper-middle-class working women, of whom 97 per cent had a college degree, conducted by Sonalde Desai, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, US, and Ravinder Kaur, professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, found that there was a significant rise in the time spent by women on housework and childcare, when they stepped in to fill the void left by the absence of paid help during the lockdown. “Seventy six per cent of the respondents had help in household chores/child care before the lockdown, but, of these, only 30 per cent of the women continued to have some help,” says Desai, noting that “areas where most work increase took place include cooking, kitchen cleaning, washing dishes, dusting and vacuuming and sanitising groceries.” And, while men have contributed more during this period, women have shouldered the additional responsibility over their already high thresholds.

The pandemic has also made apparent how careers of successful women are often sustained by networks, both formal and informal. Most workplaces in India do not offer daycare or creche facilities, and, in their absence, women have to form their own support systems. These include parents and in-laws, who watch over the children; part-time or live-in helps to carry out domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning, and, daycares and creches, whose numbers are still not commensurate with the percentage of working women with children. A crisis such as COVID-19 exposes the fragility of such networks in the face of unexpected challenges. With schools and daycares closed indeterminately, women have found themselves turning into not just care givers but also teachers and playmates.

As the first lecturer on a joint appointment between the government of India and the University of Cambridge, UK, plant biologist Gitanjali Yadav was teaching and running research labs at both Cambridge and The National Institute of Plant Genome Research (NIPGR) in New Delhi, where she works as a staff scientist. The joint appointment meant working in two time zones and frequent overseas travel, nearly once every month. With a robust support system that she and her husband, also an academic, had created for their two children, aged eight and 10, they had structured their lives around her travel schedules. “It helped that we all live tgether on campus – kids, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. We chose a school close to our home so that the kids would be in quick reach. For all outdoor work, we had a full-time driver for our parents and grandparents to be independent of us. We had two full-time helps and a gardener,” she says.

Gitanjali Yadav

The lockdown, however, showed up the fault lines in the system. With her travels on hold, no paid help and work spilling into weekends, Yadav says, “Overnight, I also became a full-time mother, cook, sweeper, school teacher, caregiver and pest-controller, over and above all of the regular work responsibilities across two continents. It has now been five months of total lockdown for us, and we have struggled to establish a balance through shared responsibilities.” Even though she has loved the time with her family, the hardest part, she says, has been the complete and sudden loss of alone time and the boundaries that demarcated the work space from the home. “Earlier, I could choose when to walk into my office, or into my kitchen, and I was two different persons in each of these locations with a clear plan. But now, it’s unutterably seamless. The ‘transition’ is lost; you’re in a meeting and in the kitchen; You’re handling homework and checking a thesis at the same time. There’s no freedom or leisure to think, reflect, focus or plan for the future,” she says.

For women in academia worldwide, this added workload has manifested in a dip in academic productivity. While Yadav says she is an exception in that she has produced more papers in the last five months than she did in the previous five years, across the world, early global studies and analyses have shown that that it is not the case with a greater percentage of women academics and that the number of pre-prints and paper submissions by women in STEM and social sciences have fallen significantly during this period.

Audrey Truschke, associate professor of South Asian History, University of Rutgers, Newark, New Jersey, the US, and author of Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court (2017) and Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth (2018), says, “Before the pandemic, I was asked with some regularity, usually by other female academics, ‘How do you have three kids and still manage to publish so prolifically?’ My answer was always: I am a huge believer in childcare. It is now August, and I have not had childcare since early March. My productivity has suffered because of this situation. I have cancelled numerous publications at this point.”

When schools and daycares closed in New Jersey on March 13, Truschke, 37, was in the process of working out online lessons for the courses she was offering. “My three children (aged six, four and two) were all at home, without school or daycare, for the first time in their lives since each was four months old. Like many people, we were scared about potentially getting ill and horrified at the sickness and death burgeoning around us. In the early weeks on the pandemic, my days were a constant triage situation. My husband (an attorney) and I woke up every morning and discussed the bare minimum number of hours we each needed to work that day in order to avoid catastrophe in our professional lives. Then we divvied up the day to specify what times I would and he would do childcare, and vice versa. I think my no-screentime rule for the kids evaporated pretty quickly,” she says. But over time, she has strategised to cope with the changes.

In September this year, she will begin a course on pandemic pedagogy for her history of south Asia class, that will include archiving COVID-19 through documentation of individual experiences. In an introductory video for the course, Truschke offers her students some practical advice on making sense of the year in all its messiness, including “when life walks into the frame”. “Maybe someone yells something embarrassing in the background, and you weren’t muted. Or, maybe, your sibling walks by in a less than ideal state of undress. I say: It doesn’t matter. It’s okay. And it’s going to happen on my end, too. You can actually hear my children screaming in the background for a bit during this spiel, so I hope that drives home the point that pandemic life is messy for everyone. It isn’t reasonable to expect us to be able to separate our professional and personal lives right now,” she says.

It’s a sentiment that many of the other women echo. Bandyopadhyay says that the rules that work in a normal situation no longer hold true. “Women are always taught to put others before themselves at home and be one of the men at work. They are innately good organisers, capable of multitasking. The only thing they are not good at is owning their feelings. But a time like this requires an intuitive response. In June, when I found things particularly difficult, I eventually decided that instead of trying to strike a balance, I’ll go with the flow. Work-life balance is a very gender-specific requirement and this crisis has shown that what we really need now – men included – is adaptability,” she says.

For Mahale, things finally began to fall in place when she was pulled into a COVID-response project at work, which helped her channelise her anxiety and energy. Now, back at home with the baby, she is slowly trying to get back to writing and a semblance of her earlier life. “I am trying to remind myself to be kind to myself. It was not something I did a good job at during the lockdown,” says Mahale.

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