Europe

Rishi Sunak, It's not enough to thank parents – we need support

Yesterday was a devastating day for the UK. Coronavirus-related deaths surpassed 100,000 – a number that is quite simply indigestible, heartbreaking and unacceptable.

But the day was also marred by another incident.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak responded to a question in the House of Commons about when schools will reopen given that many female business owners are working full time at home while bearing full time responsibility for childcare and homeschooling.

He pronounced what he might have assumed was an innocuous compliment, that ‘we owe mums everywhere an enormous debt of thanks for doing the enormously difficult job of juggling childcare and work at this tricky time’.

As a mum of four daughters, I found the comment yet another example of a person in power who just doesn’t get it. It’s reductionist, an empty platitude when people are tired, angry and looking for tangible help.

Of course, we owe a lot to the mums, and also the dads (as well as childcare providers and grandparents) who all have so much on their plates right now. But saying ‘thank you’ is not enough – we need actual support that works to fill the cracks that are showing.

After Sunak’s comment, a sexism row erupted with Labour Party Deputy Leader Angela Rayner tweeting: ‘Erm @RishiSunak you know mums work too and don’t just look after the kids and make meals..? That’s why Labour is demanding flexible furlough for working parents balancing work with childcare and homeschooling.’

‘Happy to brief you on the inequality and sexism women face at work,’ she added.

Sunak later posted a link to the question he was answering to clarify he was answering a mum-specific question, but the damage was already done.

Even though Rayner was incorrect about the context of the remark, she is right to have brought the wider context of the issue of many working parents’ failure to be supported by the current furlough scheme, and the extreme difficulty faced by parents of both sexes trying to juggle their careers with childcare and homeschooling, to the attention of her followers.

Men and women alike are turning themselves into contortionists – both physically and mentally – as we do everything in our power to stay healthy, sane, keep our jobs and educate our kids.

My husband and I both work. It’s lovely having all four of our children of 10, eight, five and three at home, but attempting three different school days, while entertaining our youngest  – whose part-time nursery shut for safety reasons – and maintaining our jobs is simply not possible in my household.

My situation may seem extreme, but it’s difficult in different ways for every family.

We are fortunate to live in a time and place where childcare roles are fluid between partners and dads are just as likely to be cooking dinner, downloading the homeschooling work and enjoying time with their children – all the while mums can be busy working, writing, researching and running their own businesses.

However, this isn’t true across the board and many families are dealing with unequal arrangements and pressures within their own four walls.

What I would have liked would have been for someone making these rules to make me feel like whatever I am able to do for my family during this time of difficulty is the right choice

Studies have found mothers are averaging two more hours a day on childcare than fathers, and it’s mothers who are more likely to have lost or quit their job since lockdown started. According to the TUC, 70% of working mothers have also been refused furlough for childcare reasons.

There’s a growing stack of research illustrating that the pandemic gender gap is threatening to roll back 30 years’ of progress on women’s equality globally.

Still, it is true to say that parents of all genders are struggling during this pandemic and resulting lockdown and we need more support.

We are so deeply exhausted that it feels like we’re on an endless hamster wheel of providing and sustaining, adding more and more strings to a near-breaking-point bow. We’re trying to stay positive and smiling but we’re racked by insomnia and anxiety as we wake up earlier and earlier to do some work or turn our weekends into schooldays for the kids.

Working parents are struggling while in lockdown. Mums, dads, single parents, even those who still have a child going to nursery. It isn’t easy for anyone, and I think we’ve all taken on additional roles that we weren’t expecting, which has added a lot of stress.

Homeschooling feels much more formalised this time, which is also pressurising, and many families are worried about financial setbacks after nearly a year of stop-and-start lockdowns.

Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds has been pleading for urgent action in the eligibility rules of the furlough scheme to help support working parents and early years providers after around 4million working parents struggled to juggle work and childcare in the first national lockdown.

It’s so needed; I have friends who were terrified to ask for furlough for fear of being refused, or being seen as employees who don’t take their roles seriously.

But I’m not hopeful for change.

A government that thinks it’s appropriate to allow parents to send children to school one day, then tell them that schools are shuttered for an indefinite period of weeks or months – with parents expected to start homeschooling with no warning mere hours later – is not one that has any sense of the lengths parents go to in order to manage their everyday lives.

I am incensed, especially when I think we may well still have schools shut three months from now and no support or understanding from those in power. I am treating this time like a chance to bond with my family, so we aren’t submitting every assignment online – and I’m OK with that.

But thanking working mums as they are forced to sideline their own careers and businesses, many of whom have spent the past month arguing with their children because they’ve suddenly had to become their teachers, does nothing for anybody, male or female.

Parents need help from the government: tangible support while schools remain shut.

What I would have liked would have been for someone making these rules to make me feel like whatever I am able to do for my family during this time of difficulty is the right choice.

Instead, I’m feeling like I’m failing a little bit at everything – and I know I’m not the only parent who feels like that.

I would have loved to hear someone in a position of power say: ‘What we’re asking is impossible, but we’ll do everything we can to make this more feasible for you. And if you miss doing your year three child’s fractions today, just relax. They will catch up.’

Sometimes, all you want is to feel like someone gets it. All we keep seeing is a government that doesn’t.

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