Jennifer O'Connell: Working mothers are bearing an unfair burden in lockdown fallout

Teachers and parents are stepping up to the homeschooling challenge. It is time employers did too

Mother helping daughter with homework. Photograph: E+/iStock/Getty

The work is flying in via Seesaw, Aladdin or Teams. Live classes are being streamed on Zoom. Teachers are doing their bit.

Parents are doing their bit too. They’re correcting sums, reacquainting themselves with the caitheamh aimsire, and fashioning metre sticks out of lengths of twine. The home printer is burning enough ink to power the Chinese State Grid.

All of the national debate about homeschooling so far has focused on what teachers, schools, the Department of Education, children and parents need to do. But there’s another set of stakeholders who have largely been silent. Too many employers seem to be adopting the approach that worked so well for them from March to September. They’re simply pretending it’s not happening.

There are over 560,000 primary school children in the country. Few but the most mature are self-reliant learners. The younger they are, the more input, help and cajoling they need. No matter how available and dedicated their teachers, the hands-on bit currently has to come from their parents. And if last time round is any indication, that often means their mother.


A recently-published UCD study on the last lockdown found that “there was a clear gender difference in who was helping the children with remote learning, with 95 per cent of children reporting that their mothers helped them, compared to 52 per cent of children reporting that their fathers helped them.”

A qualitative study by Maynooth University, published in December, looked at the experiences of 30 mothers. "You're a teacher, you're a mother, you're a worker. You're doing the laundry, you're cooking lunch," one told researchers. Another said that she felt guilty for ignoring her children when she was working, and when she was helping them, "you're kind of going, 'Oh my God, I hope nobody's looking for me'."

The longer this goes on, the more women who will simply lean out

This shouldn’t be a gender issue. In families where there are two parents working full time remotely, the demands of homeschooling should, of course, be divvied up. But for women who didn’t get Sheryl Sandberg’s memo to “marry a man who wants an equal partner” in time, the chasm between the way things are and the way things should be is probably not one they’re going to close mid-pandemic. In 2019, 45 per cent of men didn’t even take the parental leave they were entitled to. Meanwhile, one in ten women on maternity benefit in 2018 didn’t go back to work. Changing those kind of cultural norms takes time we don’t have. The crisis for single parents, many with more than one primary school child, is even more acute.

The longer this goes on, the more women who will simply lean out. They may not leave their job or reduce their hours, but they might turn down the big project or the extra responsibility – small choices with long term costs. “The whole thing is very challenging because there’s so many women I know just dropping out of work and just kind of throwing in the towel,” one mother of two told the Maynooth researchers.

Some employers are coming up with creative ways to prevent this. One large Dublin-based multinational has offered employees with children of 12 or younger three months’ paid leave, to be taken as they chose. Another large Irish plc empowered its line managers to reduce hours or change employees’ work patterns. For those who need to stop work, their annual leave will be reduced proportionately. “It had the effect that most people continued working and very few fully stopped,” one employee said. Other firms are offering all employees a week’s additional paid leave, on top of their usual holidays.

The responsibility shouldn’t fall exclusively on employers, many of whom are battling through their most difficult period in business ever.

The German parliament passed a bill this week doubling the amount of paid parental leave to 40 days for 2021. Parents of children under 12 can claim up to €112.88 per day through their public health insurance if they stay home while schools are shut. Here, there was much fanfare about the Government’s remote working strategy, but little mention of the immediate crisis unfolding at kitchen tables around the country. You can claim the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) if you’ve had to quit your job because of lack of childcare, but if you’re trying to do it all, you’re on your own.

One woman who works in the public sector wrote to me to say she would be happy to even get an email from her HR department acknowledging employees’ efforts to keep the plates spinning. “I’ve been spending about an hour to two every morning doing homeschooling but as far as management are concerned I’m working away,” she says. Another, also in the public sector, is the only one on her team with young children. She is crippled by guilt, worrying that she is “half doing my job, half parenting. These lockdowns will be more professionally damaging to mothers than fathers once the world emerges from the pandemic,” she predicts.

She is angry that there has been 'no mention whatsoever of the financial and psychological effects of blanket school closure on children and working parents'

An Irish Times reader called Chiara who contributed her experiences to a selection published online on Friday has taken to working through the night. “I am currently homeschooling three children with my husband; one is a toddler.”

They are not in a position to take leave. And so “last week, I got an average of four hours’ sleep at night, as 10pm to 3am was the only time I could sit and work at my desk, without anyone coming to me every five minutes.”

She is angry that there has been “no mention whatsoever of the financial and psychological effects of blanket school closure on children and working parents and the unmanageable level of anxiety for parents.” If she sounds gloomy, it’s because, as she says, juggling five jobs on four hours’ sleep will do that to you.