The best way to manage homeschooling is to prioritise family care over the curriculum, writes Dr Katriona O’Sullivan, Department of Psychology
In the last lockdown, my family life descended into a guilt-fuelled nightmare. I left my children sleeping until midday most days so I could keep up with my own work; while my husband and I spent many an evening loudly 'discussing' who is responsible for their care.
New restrictions introduced to curb the spread of Covid-19 means a second round of school closures in Ireland. This leaves nearly one million children out of school and many parents with the daunting job of trying to manage homeschooling as well as day jobs.
Research has examined the impact of homeschooling on family wellbeing and has explored the processes and practices that help families to engage with education in a way that suits their needs. The findings so far show that women and mothers have borne a significant brunt of care responsibilities bought on by the pandemic restrictions.
Traditionally, society expects women to prioritise care giving over personal or career pursuits. According to the Intensive Mothering concept, a "good" women must exert copious energy, time and resources to raise their children, dedicate all physical and emotional resources to their domestic responsibilities and ensure child development outranks personal development in an emotionally absorbing way.
"We've done everything to educate females to get them into the workplace and to have good jobs and to be able to move up the career ladder. And then as soon as you get there, it's like, 'oh, you've got children' when he can have it all." (Mother of four)
We have seen huge amounts of mother-guilt emerging with widespread school closures and the added requirement to homeschool our children. Women and mothers in this study reported increased stress, loneliness and more intense feelings of isolation. They also describe the sense of failing their children, with 94% of those parents reporting not completing homeschooling tasks, while many feel like they are failing their children in ways never experienced before.
"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." (Mother of two)
Many working mothers are also feeling the pressure to leave work in order to live up to intensive mothering standard. The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2020 shows that women are already less represented in the labour market than men and the pandemic has widened this gap. We see now larger employment losses for women than for men due partly to the increased pressures being placed on women in terms of managing home life and caring responsibilities. Being asked to manage schooling, on top of other domestic responsibilities, is the proverbial straw which has broken the working mothers back.
"I was stressed I was giving out to the kids and then I just had to say, listen, I have to stop. Just stop…I need to place their care over the curriculum." (Mother of three)
With women (especially working mothers) disproportionately affected by homeschooling requirements, the parents in this study identified three things that were helping them survive homeschooling.
(1) Prioritising their own family’s needs
Those who were aware of their family's mental wellbeing and how they were managing were those who were managing homeschooling well. They adjusted to suit where their children and they themselves were.
(2) Asking for help
Parents said that telling the school where they were at, and asking for help from family members, partners and school really helped ease the burden.
(3) Placing care ahead of the curriculum
Those families who recognised that education comes in many forms and who focused on care and how the family was doing emotionally reported less stress. Their children also reported learning important life lessons
This research shows that working mothers in Ireland are experiencing psychological distress, and are being forced to redefine their family roles to account for consequences of Covid-19. As the crisis continues, these issues will likely persist, and more consideration needs to be given to creating support systems for families and especially working mothers.