A taste for life: work without long commutes

Many families don't want to return to the pre-Covid slog of long commutes with no time to spend with children, writes Miriam Teehan, Department of Anthropology

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, many families have got a taste for life with having two parents around 24/7. Can we go back to pre-Covid times knowing what life could be like? It has been a difficult journey for some, but positively life altering for others. Because we humans are an adaptable species, we have somewhat climatized to this ‘new normal’ and may not want some aspects to change.

Do we want to go back to waking up at stupid o’clock and trying to get your caffeine fix before starting a 10 hour working days (in addition to a 3-hour commute)? During the lockdown, families have enmeshed their public and private lives all under one roof. They have set up ‘temporary’ offices in any nook that would fit a desk while caring for, educating, and entertaining children (without the usual help).

This is not the situation for every family in Ireland, but it was for the five families I interviewed from Dublin, Maynooth, Carlow, Wicklow and Galway. These families have at least one parent working from home with children between the ages of one to 16 years.

Extra support
One young mother said "it took a while to adjust to working from home (kids can be supper annoying!) but knowing that my family are in the other room is comforting. I can pop out for a coffee break with them. After creating work/home boundaries, I don’t want this to change".
When school runs start back, having an extra person for support will be beneficial for another mother’s mental health. "After I had my third baby, I got postnatal depression and I think a lot of it was to do with the pressures of watching the clock: with school drop offs, to come back to do a bottle, and so on. I was in the car five times a day. Since lockdown – I’ve bounced back without medication. It’s because we’re in a more relaxed easy-paced environment. When the kids go back to school, my husband will be there to mind the baby and I can collect them so there's not going to be that same intensity anymore."

Time is precious
Before Covid-19, the clock controlled our lives. "I woke up at 7 am, I snuck out of the house before my kids woke. I clocked in before 9am", said one respondent. "When I got home, I didn’t have energy for my family (who are all over me when I walk in the door). But now I’m saving 3 hours a day on commuting; I have a lot more energy for family time and everyday feels like a Friday". Another family echoed this: "my typical workday was at least 10/12-hour days, and my family just got the leftovers, but they get my full self now."

Going back to pre-Covid times and behaviours will be difficult for families who have gained this extra time for more important things. During lockdown, families got back in touch with their local amenities and have had a glimpse of life without the need for after school activities or expensive outings. One family in Maynooth have made the decision to cut back on extra-curricular activities for their kids. "It's an awareness really, of how kids can be satisfied at home. Going for family walks is great bonding time".

"I will keep beating the drum, to stay working from home.”
As some parents return to working outside the house, this can be hard for both parents and children. According to an early childcare provider in Wicklow, separation anxiety will have an effect on children. A change in their routine can unsettle them: "children find it hard to regulate their emotions. They may repeat questions such as 'how many days are you going back to work?' or 'will you be back for bedtime?'" She explained that some children who find it difficult to express their emotions may have a different approach to dealing with change. "Some children will lash out".

One mother in Carlow said that her three year old son reacted badly when his father returned to work. "He cried for five days. We had amazing family time during lockdown, but our family dynamic changed back to pre-Covid times". This family are now looking into other job alternative that facilitates working from home. They will not go back quietly. "I will keep beating the drum, to stay working from home". Ireland does not have any legislation in relation to working from home so will families demand change?

Of course, working from home can be difficult and having children in the mix can make it near impossible. The families that I’ve interviewed have found a good rhythm to their "new normal" and have seen many benefits. One thing they all had in common was the importance of childcare, childminders, au pairs, family members and schools. Having that time off gives parents a chance to recharge. "If we have childcare support and continue working from home (at least part-time), that would be ideal".