'The weight of the mental load': Mothers bear the brunt of lockdown effects

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"During lockdown, women's responsibilities as primary caretakers in the home increased over and above existing work commitments with additional burdens". (Pawel Czerwinski/ Unsplash)
"During lockdown, women's responsibilities as primary caretakers in the home increased over and above existing work commitments with additional burdens". (Pawel Czerwinski/ Unsplash)

As many South Africans prepare for Mother's Day this weekend, wellness expert Ina van der Watt believes that, in addition to celebrating, it's also essential to acknowledge what working mothers have sacrificed this past year. 

"The past year has put a spotlight on the additional burdens women continue to shoulder… During lockdown, women's responsibilities as primary caretakers in the home increased over and above existing work commitments. Some of these included assisting children with homeschooling, increased meal planning and execution, and looking after other relatives in need of care," notes the managing director of the counselling helpline, Universal Corporate Wellness. 

Van der Watt highlights a significant gender disparity in the number of calls received over the past year at the helpline, with a total of 38.5% of calls made by males, while almost double that amount, 61.5% came from females. 

Also read: 'More a science experiment than reality': How the pandemic has impacted working moms in South Africa

'A very real threat'

"This disparity in the data is significant and may indicate that the additional responsibilities carried by women made it particularly difficult for them to cope with the family being at home all day, alongside doing their own paid work," Van der Watt says. 

According to the wellness expert, the "top three difficulties" her company recorded were interpersonal relationship issues, adjustment difficulties and bereavement and loss.

Van der Watt says that how lockdown will impact "women's careers is yet to be seen," but what is clear is that "employees demonstrating a diminished capacity for work are more likely to be laid off". 

"We are currently in a financial crisis with companies trying to cut costs in order to survive. For working women who have struggled to perform an increased role as caretaker at home while still trying to manage their paying job, this is a very real threat," she says. 

'A triple burden'

Van der Watt warns that women risk losing job opportunities when they take time off or reduce their work responsibilities to provide support at home in the form of unpaid labour.

The issue is not a novel one, Van der Watt notes. It's merely been "brought further to light by the advent of Covid-19". 

Indeed, the findings of the 10th round of the South African Social Attitudes Survey Report released by the Human Sciences Research Council in 2013 showed that eight out of 10 employed women with a partner always or usually took care of household meals, and approximately 65% did the laundry and cleaning.  

"Furthermore, what we usually refer to as the 'double burden' women carry of both a remunerated role in the workplace as well as unpaid labour at home, might be better termed as a triple burden, as women also carry the weight of the mental load," she notes.

Also see: Working from home, is it working for parents?

'The work that cannot be seen'

Van der Watt likens mental load to project management, as it involves anticipating and planning for the household's needs, scheduling, creating lists, and reminding other family members of their tasks. 

"This is the work that cannot be seen but requires additional mental energy and without which the household would operate in disorder," Van der Watt explains.

"The considerable effort required to manage mental load, unpaid household labour and paid work can take its toll on the individual experiencing that level of pressure." 

Van der Watt advises working women in such situations to take steps in protecting their mental and physical health. "Women in modern society have come a long way, yet there is much further to go. In the meantime, we must take care of ourselves – our health, as well as our families and careers, depend on it."

Top twelve coping tips 

Learning how to cope can go a long way to reduce the load. Here are twelve tips suggested by Van der Watt.

Personal 

Lifestyle basics 

Get your lifestyle basics in check by eating healthily, exercising for 150 minutes spread over the week and getting between seven and nine hours of sleep every night.

Share the load

Have an open and honest conversation with your partner about dividing up the household tasks and planning them; schedule this like a meeting for a time when you are both able to participate in the conversation constructively.

Maintain hobbies 

Engage in one or two hobbies you really love and remain socially connected, even if remotely.

Family

Communication

Keep communication lines open with your partner and your children –­ encourage everyone to express how they feel calmly and work together as a team to support one another; maintain the family connection with a weekly game night or other fun activity.

Plan and take holidays during the year

This is important for you and your family; if finances are a challenge, explore more affordable options to what you may have done in the past.

Manage social media

A family social media schedule and content guidelines can help avoid stressful online interactions and overuse of screens.

Work

Create a dedicated workspace

If working from home, create a dedicated workspace and set boundaries around your space and work hours so you can focus.

Create a daily routine including scheduled breaks

You will achieve more with focused work hours and a refreshed mind.

Touch base with work colleagues and managers for support when you need it 

You will come off stronger by getting a job done well with a little help than by scraping through on your own.

General 

Build in slack

Adding an extra 15 minutes to your morning routine, for example, to accommodate life's little surprises, can help you to start your day on time and unflustered.

Set realistic expectations 

This applies to yourself and others; it is better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around.

Recognise stress triggers

When you feel stress coming on, try to practice mindfulness with a breathing exercise to help you regain focus.

"It is important that this societal legacy is addressed if we are to move forward on a more equitable footing… to acknowledge all those women who have made sacrifices for the sake of their families and communities. It has not gone unnoticed. Women and mothers, we salute you".

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