Women face to the spring 2020 lockdown
The survey “Life in Lockdown” (Vico) makes it possible to analyze how the spring of 2020 exceptional lockdown situation in France was experienced by women. Like other studies, it shows that closed institutions, professionals mobilized in ordinary times who stopped work and house arrest have led to an intensification of care work for women within families.
The term Care refers to care work and the care of dependent persons (children, adults with illnesses or disabilities and the elderly). The data from the Vico survey reveal that this work has taken the form of a reorganization of family time and space, domestic and parental work and relational work.
The articulation of spheres of activity (professional, parental, time for oneself) was, for many of them, particularly challenged during this period, during which they had to try to continue to articulate what was intertwined.
Organizing daily life
The lockdown situation required rethinking the frameworks, schedules, paces and family routines, and implied a realignment of spatial and temporal boundaries for families. In the Vico survey, this work of reorganizing the regulation of daily life and arranging time and space is extensively – and above all other stress – alluded to in women’s comments.
Like this respondent, many women with children mentioned “the first week of daily life reorganization”. One respondent insists she relied on the “time structure that was put in place with [her] children”.
The lockdown situation also caused a transformation of daily activities. Tasks that were usually outsourced, whether domestic (housework done by a household helper), related to children (taking care of young children in a daycare center or with a childminder, doing schoolwork in class, eating in the canteen, doing homework at school, leisure activities at the day-care center) or to relatives (taking care of dependent relatives by home help or in specialized institutions) had to be done by people in the household.
In fact, the transfer and outsourcing of these tasks (usually to other women), which have led to a decrease in the average time spent by women on these tasks since the 1980s, have come to a halt during lockdown, as illustrated by one respondent’s comment: “We no longer have the precious help of our cleaning lady”.
Many comments mention a reinforcement of women’s assignment to domestic work and of the unequal distribution of domestic tasks within couples, as this same respondent recalls: “For women, confinement means twice as much housework, we are all at it all the time (…) Twice as much shopping, because there are no more meals, no more canteens”.
Managing school work
Lockdown also meant increased parental work. Many women’s comments, such as this respondent’s, refer to “the tension of the classroom at home”. In some cases, support for school work was the cause of some deterioration in the couple’s relationship, as for this respondent: “I feel helpless in relation to the school follow-up of my son who is in primary school. (…) It is a factor of stress and conflict in my household, especially with my spouse”.
While the survey data suggest a reinforcement of the unequal division of care work within families, a few rare comments mention negotiation and readjustment situations around domestic tasks allocation for some couples, when the spouse experiences an unemployment period.
Some respondents, rather young and educated, feel their temporary unemployment lets them become more involved in domestic and parental tasks, as did this respondent: “Lockdown has completely changed my involvement in the family sphere. (…) With lockdown, I spend all my afternoons with the children, I make the evening meal, I invest more in daily tasks…”
However, the Vico survey mainly shows the essential nature of women’s time availability in the continuity of daily family life. This availability also brought into play a less visible dimension of care: relational work.
The Vico survey data tend to show that, during the spring 2020 health crisis, the gendered division of relational work, an activity that fosters bonding, cohesion and support, proved to be unequal.
When looking at family and social relationships and their evolution during the lockdown, women prove to have been more numerous and more committed to maintaining relationships of all kinds, whether within the more or less close family or with weaker ties (neighbors, acquaintances…).
More women than men were in contact with their families more often than usual, whether or not they had children. They were also more likely to check up on each other. The difference was even more noticeable among the over-60s, for those women in the “sandwich generation” between dependent parents and grandchildren, who were 63.9% to check in with family members, compared to 57.8% of men.
Fifty-four percent of women reported providing or receiving support during lockdown, compared to 39.6% of men. The difference is significant when it comes to children (48.9% vs. 38.8%), distant family members (59.7% vs. 47.4%), friends (48.8% vs. 32.9%) and neighbors (35.6% vs. 19.7%) in particular.
The data from the survey suggest that relational work, the work of caring for and supporting those close and not so close to them, which is particularly important during the health crisis period, an ordeal likely to generate anxiety, was more widely shouldered by women during the confinement.
Articulating domestic life and work
While the increased burden of care work has fallen mainly on women respondents, this situation has also brought renewed attention to the issue articulating various spheres of activity, at women’s expense.
Lock down, closed workplaces and childcare institutions, and stoppage of most social activities have resulted in the superimposition, in the home, of household members’ activities, which are usually compartmentalized (work carried out partially or entirely on site, school activities carried out at school, leisure activities carried out in dedicated places), and care usually delegated to other people and institutions, in spaces other than the home, particularly children’s care (early childhood, schooling, extracurricular activities…). The spatial and temporal boundaries at play in ordinary time have been profoundly modified, and sometimes put under tension and in competition.
In the comments left by women, the articulation between work and family activity proves to be particularly challenged, whatever their professional and family situations. On this point, the planning and organization work involved in continuing to work from home, besides household chores and taking care of children’s schooling at home, featured prominently in comments. Take this 38-year-old social worker, locked down with her spouse and their children: “Teleworking and children’s homework (it’s too much, because we have three children who require three hours per child) is very demanding and requires unfailing organization”.
In this context, they have experienced a tug-of-war between the different professional and parental injunctions. One respondent spoke of her difficulties in combining her increasing professional activity with taking care of children as well as the home, and her guilt: “The health crisis and its consequences generated a massive increase in my workload (…), which, combined with the lockdown, the fact that I had no time to dedicate to the four children and that my spouse worked outside the home, was extremely hard to cope with”.
The extreme tension in the work-family relationship is made all the more difficult for single parents. Among the Vico survey respondents, the proportion of women living alone with children is more than double that of men locked down alone with children (9.1% versus 4.4%).
When there is not time to let go…
The lockdown and the work arrangements transformations have led to the loss of many “in-between” moments, those time gaps between two places, between two temporalities, such as commuting time between home and work or between home and school. Vico survey respondents’ comments show the impact of missing out on these restorative time slots.
For example, a nurse explains that during lockdown, she continued carrying out her professional duties with “exhausting days as usual”, but she goes on to say: “We no longer have the ‘breaks’ we used to enjoy: to unwind in the morning, for example, when the children are at school and we work afternoons, or THE BLESSED HOUR from 3 to 4 pm, when we work mornings before picking up the children from school (3 and 7 years old)”.
The strain of coordinating temporalities is also noted in the feeling of not having enough time, with a statistically significant difference between women and men with a child. Among 18–45-year-olds, 24.4% of women say they really lack free time, compared to 16.2% of men.
Men and women experience the crisis differently
During this crisis, in the absence of the professionals and institutions that are usually in charge of it, care work has above all concerned and occupied women. Reorganizing family time and space, taking charge of domestic and parental work, and providing support to family members have helped alleviate the disruptions, disorders and worries associated with the health crisis. The work of care has guaranteed the continuity of families’ daily lives and their multiple temporalities; it has helped maintain social links and solidarity within families.
In this sense, it can be said this care work acted as a shock absorber for the crisis. It has not, however, come cheap: the articulation of activity spheres has been put under pressure for many women. So, if we consider this crisis as an ordeal, it does seem gendered.
Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: CC licence BY-NC-ND
To discover her drawings, https://adelehuguet.wordpress.com/
Images in CC: Flat Icons, Freepik, flaticon, SBTS2018
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