Mental exhaustion is nothing new for working mums, but the pandemic has brought a whole new meaning of fatigue, with some unable to do either job as a mum or as a business owner, well. Founders of The Positive Planners and mental health campaigners, Ali McDowall and Finn Prevett discuss the reality of being a working-mum amidst the pandemic.
Tears. Just sitting and listening. The kids interrupting us asking where their pants are. This last year has been one of the most challenging of our personal and professional lives and our Zoom calls have changed significantly. We’ve always worked remotely so regular online meetings aren’t new for us, but one thing that has become apparent in them this year is how hard we’ve been hit. As working mums who run a business together, this pandemic has required us to practice everything we preach when it comes to looking after our mental health and wellbeing. We’ve needed everything in our toolbox to keep our heads above water.
The reality of being a working mum in a pandemic
The start of the pandemic and our first lockdown, when everything was new and homeschooling was more about crafting and play than academic teaching, seems a lifetime ago. For us though, it seems this last UK lockdown has been the hardest. We don’t know if it’s been the weather which has kept us indoors, the fact that homeschooling has become much more structured or simply the fact that we’re all so tired of it, but many working mums are at breaking point now and the reality of what this means for our workforce and society is hitting home.
We both readily admit we live privileged lives. Many have had it far harder than we have but that doesn’t invalidate our feelings and experiences. This past year has been the year of juggling and negotiating: running a small business means we try to master this at the best of times, however this has been on another level.
And this juggling and negotiating has been exhausting. Our children and families are the loves of our lives yet our business is too. The Positive Planner means more to us than simply putting money on the table. We feel so strongly that we are here to help people prioritise their mental health and feedback from our community shows that the journals and planners we create do help people immensely. Treading the fine line between work and family life is tough, but adding homeschooling and lockdown to the mix has made the tightrope walk hugely challenging.
Looking back it’s hard to put into words exactly how difficult it has been. Normally, we have a wonderful network that helps us with childcare and now that our kids are of school age, it’s meant that, while our working hours can be erratic, fitting work in around the school run and appointments, we’re able to put in good working days. Homeschooling meant trying to fit our work around the school day, getting up super early to put in a few hours before school started and then when the kids are in bed, switching the laptop on again and working into the early hours to meet deadlines.
Long working days like this can never be sustainable. We’ve felt that we haven’t been doing either job, that of being a mother and a business owner, well. We’ve ended up resenting both and enjoying neither. The feeling of being a failure has been very real. It’s also left us with almost no time for ourselves. And the snippets of time that we have found for us have always been accompanied by a big side of guilt and shame telling us we’re being selfish in a time when everyone’s suffering.
Why working mums have been hit hard
We know that mental exhaustion and fatigue are nothing new for mums. Parenthood can and does take such a toll on both parents. But while society has come a long way when it comes to equality in the workplace, there is still an unequal burden on working mums in the home and the pandemic has compounded this.
According to the University College of London, women spent more than twice as much time as men on homeschooling in the first UK lockdown last year. Sadly this isn’t surprising. Working mums have over the years created complex support mechanisms and networks to help with childcare that allows family and work to coexist pretty smoothly. At the start of lockdown these disappeared almost overnight and working mums became the primary carers, teachers and social life for their children all in one.
So why does the burden fall on working mums” Mothers and their jobs are still undervalued in our society. There is a wide disparity in how their role in the workplace is valued in comparison to that of men and their work is often the first to suffer in times of crisis. If the husband is the main breadwinner, it ‘makes sense’ for mum to do the homeschooling and household; if mum works as a freelancer, then she’s ‘more flexible’ and can work around homeschooling. There’s even the thought that mums are just naturally more nurturing and therefore ‘better suited’ to it. Of course, we’re generalising here but we’ve heard from many in our Positive Planner community who have felt running the household has been left to them.
The knock-on effects
We’ve heard the word fatigue a lot during the pandemic and it’s easy to understand why. The last year has been exhausting for working mums. There’s the fatigue that comes from multitasking on a brain-busting level. Fatigue from the unending need to care for our children’s physical and emotional needs 24/7. Added to this there’s fatigue from the multitude of decisions that have to be made each day and let’s not forget how we feel about Zoom; it was fun in the beginning, but the brain has to work much harder to understand the nuances of communication on screen.
This crushing fatigue has knock-on effects that have made us doubt ourselves as both mothers and business owners. Not being able to concentrate on one thing at a time leads us to second-guess ourselves. It’s not surprising that working mums are struggling with self-esteem with all those Instagram posts of perfect banana bread and homeschooling projects flying about. There’s a whole chorus of working mums out there quietly thinking they’ve failed, that they can’t ask for help. Everyone else is coping, so why aren’t I?
The way forward
In the UK, we’re now in the first stage of easing our third lockdown with the kids back in school. It’s tempting to think everything is now going to slip back into place nicely. The school run’s organised, so of course working mums can get right back to it and be up to speed in no time. It’s not as easy as that though. Reemerging into the world after lockdown is anxiety inducing and FOGO (fear of going out) is the new FOMO.
We cannot and must not ignore the effect this last year has had on the mental health of working mums. It’s not an exaggeration to say this experience has been severely traumatizing for some. We believe we should be looking at the effects of the pandemic on working mums and families just as much as we are researching its effects on a generation of children. Working mums will need support if they are to thrive in the post-pandemic world. It’s crucial that they have time to work through their trauma and feel they can be upfront about what they need. And this includes in the workplace. Employers, colleagues and families will have to show compassion and support to a sector of society that has quite literally been brought to their knees.
Finn Prevett (left) and Ali McDowall (right), founders of The Positive Planners and mental health campaigners.