In January 2020, Oxfam found that women in Ireland did 38m hours of unpaid care work every single week, domestic chores and care work that enabled others to go out into paid employment.
If women received a living wage for this invisible work and indirect contribution, it would cost the State €24bn a year.
When the pandemic hit, and all childcare facilities and schools closed, parents were faced with homeschooling.
Research from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) found that more women than men were caring for a dependent family member because of Covid and that women were more likely to report childcare issues related to the pandemic.
Internationally, the same picture emerged. A report by Deloitte Global, which surveyed 5,000 women in 10 countries, found that nearly 80% of women say that their workloads have increased because of the pandemic, while 66% of women report having more responsibilities at home.
This increase in workloads has meant women are leaving the workforce in their droves, as they stepped up to take over care work and school work.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 2.2m fewer women in the labour force in October 2020 than in October 2019.
And in Ireland, research found that one in 10 women have quit jobs because of the pressures of juggling work and pandemic home life.
The research from Maynooth University, which covered the last lockdown period, found that in almost two thirds of families, the mother took the full responsibility for homeschooling.
The has spoken to mothers in various situations about how they manage parenting in modern Ireland, and how they feel about mothering and paid work in 2021. We also spoke with researchers and parenting experts about the imbalance of responsibilities that mothers face.
Orla McAdam, solo parent: “It’s presumed you must have a husband or have a partner”
Orla McAdam became a mother to baby Lottie at the beginning of the first lockdown in April 2020. She is a solo parent and also runs her own yoga studio in Blackrock, Co Louth, meaning she has studio rent to pay as well as a mortgage.
From the beginning, she knew it was going to be different parenting alone.
“I had to be kept in for five days and it was very emotional. I remember pulling the curtain and crying for a day. I laboured alone because of the restrictions and there was the constant emotional trigger of being told: ‘your partner or husband won’t be let in until you’re 6cm’ and I had to ask: ‘please update my file that I am on my own’.
“For the five days I was in I would hear: ‘Is your husband coming to get you?’ or ‘Daddy will be able to do the night feeds’. It’s presumed you must have a husband or have a partner,” sayss Orla.
She says she was lucky that Lottie was “such a good baby” and “fed really easy”.
Knowing she was facing parenting on her own, she got her affairs organised in advance.
“I took out a pension, life insurance, life assurance.
Like everyone else Orla had the added factor of a pandemic to juggle as well as being a business owner that had to migrate online.
“Everything had just gone online and our online products sold quite well. When Lottie was one week old we were heading to post office with her in the buggy and yoga mats in the basket.”
She credits her mother for the unconditional support and guidance she gave her and Lottie as they started out as a family.
“My mum lives nearby and she was the pseudo husband, she taught me a lot of things. When I had mastitis and there were no breastfeeding groups and no baby groups, she taught me so much, like how to swaddle.
“My experience with her was lovely, it was a lovely environment. I think when a new baby comes home there can be a lot of tension for people with parents saying: ‘I did it this way’ and new parents saying: ‘Well, I’m doing it this way’. But I was very grateful, there was no resentment, just gratitude — she couldn’t have been more self-sacrificing to help us,” explains Orla.
However, even with the support of her mother, there is the challenge of raising a child alone while also having to work to pay all of the bills.
“I couldn’t qualify for the PUP payment, and with the single parent allowance you only qualify for half the maternity benefit. I have to pay my mortgage and studio rent so it was very difficult, I used to work five or six days a week. I can’t do that, can’t pay for childcare for five days,” says Orla.
Her situation at the moment is that a childminder comes to her home in the early mornings and evenings so that Orla can work, and when Lottie naps she does admin work and online grocery shopping. Then at night time she will do more work, when Lottie is down for the night.
“Other than that she comes everywhere with me, but you can’t bring a child when you are getting your vaccine, they don’t think of things like people who are solo parenting,” says Orla.
While she used to hike and do long distance sea swimming, those things have changed too. Now her kitchen floor is where she rolls out her own yoga mat and it’s what she calls her “sanctuary”.
Her mum will mind Lottie while she jumps into the sea for 10 minutes — a swim that helps her reset.
“It helps so much,” says Orla, “because as a solo parent it’s the relentlessness of not getting to top yourself up.”
She wouldn’t have it any other way though.
“If her father was involved, I don’t know how I’d be because I’d be devastated to hand her over every weekend.
“It’s double the cuddles, I didn’t miss the first steps, I’ve missed nothing of her. I work when she sleeps, I get to enjoy all of her,” says Orla.
One issue she sees that faces people who are parenting alone is the way society relates to them.
“I’m told: ‘you’re great doing it by yourself.’ But it wasn’t by choice, so they might mean well but it can be a trigger.
“And people with a partner try to empathise and say: ‘Sure I know what it’s like, my partner works so much’, and while that is valid, it is a very different situation when you’re doing it solo,” she says.
However, in spite of all of the challenges and a pandemic included, Orla says “it’s 100% worth it”.
“Just looking into her eyes for a second makes all the stress I’m under just go away”, she says.
Fianna Fáil senator Erin McGreehan: “I remember being asked: ‘Who will look after your kids?’ And I remember saying: ‘I won’t be the first mother to go out to work and I won’t be the last’.”
Fianna Fáil senator Erin McGreehan is a mother to four boys, aged eight, seven, five and three, and lives in Co Louth.
Before becoming a mother she experienced fertility challenges and pregnancy loss. And before becoming a public representative she also was at home full-time.
“I was a stay-at-home mam and we had a small business. Now I’m a public representative. I’ve gone from being at home with my kids all the time to being a public representative with so much at stake, it’s gone from zero to hero.
“But I’m really lucky, I’ve a fantastic better half,” says Erin.
Becoming a mother was something she always wanted, but something that took time to reach.
“I always wanted to be a mother, I had endometriosis, I had miscarriages, I’ve gone through fertility treatment, I wanted children so badly and I look at people who weren’t as lucky, and I think I’m lucky to have you to leave you and I’m lucky to go home to the little rascals.”
But despite her gratitude, being a public representative and a parent poses challenges.
“As regards this job — this job is all-consuming, it’s not a normal job. I’m in Dublin four days a week, which is challenging. I’m not at home to do the school run, once you’re in Dublin you’re there for the day.
“I don’t know how to make this place better, obviously childcare helps but flexible childcare that’s for every single parent. There’s a creche in here I believe, but it’s only office hours, what point is that for someone who lives outside of Dublin?” says Erin.
She believes that taking committees online where politicians can make their contributions online and vote by proxy would help parents who are public representatives. “Doing committees from home would be a game changer or a proxy vote — it’s not a crazy thing to do that.”
Having children was something Erin and her partner really wanted to do and in the decision to do so she did weigh up the impact it would have on her career.
“I was delighted to have babies, I left my job to have children, I didn’t want to leave it any longer. The choice was: ‘Do I want the potential of a career afterwards with kids or not having kids at all but have a career now?’
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“I chose the having kids,” explains Erin.
But despite that choice, she ended up as a senator in 2020, having been elected as a councillor in 2019, and a mother and a politician is not something everyone could get their head around.
“When I ran for the council in 2019, I was a stay-at-home mother, and I remember being asked: ‘Who will look after your kids?’ And I remember saying: ‘I won’t be the first mother to go out to work and I won’t be the last’,” says Erin.
“Female voices are so important, I see everything through the lens of my human experience. We menstruate, we can give birth, we can see things through that lens and that’s not a problem.
“There is a big difference between the Dáil and the Seanad, it’s 40% women in the Seanad and the amount of times gender pay, domestic violence and the words miscarriage, period and menstrual have been mentioned in this Seanad. I would like to see those words used compared with their use in other Seanads. And these are normal bodily functions,” she says.
But the love of her work outside the home does not eradicate that ever-present sense of “mum guilt”.
“I just deal with mum guilt, some days I just take time and sit and do nothing with the boys. I lie on the bed with one of them, you can be so busy but I force myself to take those five minutes, even though in my mind I’ll be thinking about that planning issue, or how I have to get back to that constituent and about that load of washing. It’s all consuming,” says the senator, who adds that “acceptance is my thing”.
“I say it’s about the glory of the mess. My mam would always say: ‘a dirty child is a happy child’. Roll with the mess and allow yourself to roll with it.”
Valerie Kent: “’What does she do all day?’ I don’t think people would dare ask that now”
Pregnant with her third child, Valerie Kent moved from Dublin home to Cork just weeks before the pandemic hit in 2020. This change was one of many she has made over the last number of years — even before becoming a mother.
“I have three children and I am at home full-time. I was originally in the legal profession for 10 years, between studying and working, and I did yoga teacher training during that time.
“I don’t think the legal profession was something that ever suited me. Towards the end of my time in the profession I was on a contract, it was rolling but I made the leap to become a freelance yoga teacher,” explains Valerie.
But no sooner had she set herself up as a teacher, when she became pregnant with her first child.
“It was a lot of work, unsociable hours, building up relationships, and one and a half years into building my business I became pregnant. I had been working early mornings, lunch time and then evenings, and that was totally incompatible with family time for me,” she explains.
Returning to work after her first baby was a “shock” in terms of the logistics of making it work around her family.
“It was a real shock and I was asking myself ‘how do I do this?’ I was really happy with what I was doing, but I lost a little bit of myself.
“I was a multi-faceted woman before I had children, then I went back to teaching here and there but it didn’t work with family time,” says Valerie.
Her and her husband went on to have a second child in Dublin, but with no safety net of family nearby, it was challenging.
“When our third was due we weighed it all up and decided to move to Cork, where I’m originally from, so we had to sell our house and find a new house, start a new life essentially,” she explains.
“We moved to Cork in late December 2019 and early January 2020, we moved the whole way down to have the support network we so desperately needed and then the hard lockdown hit when we were having our third baby. We also bought a house during the process — the relentlessness of the last year and a half.”
Not only was she enduring the wakeful nights, she was also home schooling her six-year-old boy Finn and minding three-year-old girl Laoise.
“It’s joyful at times, it’s enraging at times, you can have a great morning and then a terrible afternoon and there needs to be an acknowledgement of that reality as that helps everyone,” says Valerie.
“In Europe, we are the outliers in relation to motherhood and the lack of State-structured childcare, we have it outsourced to the private sector. We are not at pace with Europe with childcare, and it all falls back on to the women,” she adds.
One positive from the pandemic, she found, is how people saw parenting as a standalone job.
“What does she do all day? I don’t think people would dare ask that now,” says Valerie.
She feels that the lack of a publicly-funded childcare system means there is no huge bill for the State.
“It’s in the Constitution that the woman’s place is in the home. It’s a patriarchal State legacy, it’s endemic in us,” she says.
But then at the same time, there is this pressure that women who are carrying out this invaluable care work at home, should also be working outside the home.
“The status quo seems to be working for the Government but is it working for women? I don’t think so,” she says.
Valerie says she has now seen a shift in how people are thinking about care work and childcare.
“It’s not just one or two people saying: ‘hang on something isn’t right here’, it’s across the board, it’s universal. People are talking, and if you seek this out, the discussion of motherhood, there’s a lot of information out there.
“Mother Pukka in the UK, she has an Instagram account and she is campaigning for flexible working hours — she’s doing stellar work. So many women fall out of the workforce when they don’t want to because of inflexibility,” says Valerie.
“This is the most valuable thing I’ve done but it’s invisible work to the State and society,” she adds.
Lisa Collins: “There’s no such thing as the perfect mother — it’s a myth”
Lisa Collins is due her first baby with her husband Tiernan in a matter of weeks. During her pandemic pregnancy she undertook a sociology course in motherhood after she heard the term “matrescene” on one of her antenatal visits to Holles Street.
“When I found out I was pregnant first, even though it was planned it was still a shock, it felt like a door had slammed behind me. I had identified myself in the world as a business owner and I wondered: ‘what will this mean for me now?’” explains Lisa.
She now knows her experience is not unusual.
“The one thing we’ve seen time and time again is that your initial reaction is not a predictor of your future experience as a mother. Even with a planned pregnancy, the first emotion many women feel is panic,” write psychiatrists Alexandra Sacks and Catherine Birndorf in .
This is just one book Lisa has encountered throughout her pregnancy.
“I wanted to understand where I was at and get as informed as possible, so I took up the offer of the free service in Holles Street to talk to someone on their mental health team. I wanted to talk through where I was at in a non-judgmental place. It was a great experience, it was so empowering,” explains Lisa.
“I met Dr Aoife Menton, the senior clinical psychiatrist, and she asked me if I had heard of the term ‘matrescene’, it was the first time I’d heard of it and that led me on a really big journey through my pregnancy.
Dr Menton referred her to podcast by Dr Sophie Brock, a sociologist in Australia and Lisa went and trained with her on her motherhood studies practitioner course, a sociology course on motherhood.
“I did it throughout my pregnancy — that empowered me so much,” says Lisa. “The course was one of the best things I’ve ever done, it was so informative.”
She covered such things as the “perfect mother myth” and “mum guilt” from sociological perspectives.
“The perfect mother myth is the societal narrative that tells us that in order to be a good mother there are a set of patriarchal rules you must live by that have been generationally and unconsciously handed down. Professor Andrea O’Reilly’s research into this shows that there are eight rules and one of these rules is that the mother must be self-sacrificing and put the needs of the child and others ahead of her own, always,” says Lisa.
And what did she learn about mum guilt?
“There is a huge portion of the course that covers mother guilt and how it relates hugely to the perfect mother myth. These are the set of rules that are embedded in our society, that are so unconscious.
“These set of rules are unattainable, you can’t adhere to them and still have your cup full, the guilt comes from when you don’t adhere to these unreachable rules. It’s socially constructed guilt, Dr Sophie Brock says the antidote to mom guilt is ambivalence,” explains Lisa.
“You can experience these two emotions, and you’re not wrong for experiencing these emotions,” says Lisa.
Other professionals she came across in the area of motherhood also saw ambivalence as the antidote to the guilt.
“Psychiatrist Rosita Parker said when a mother integrates maternal ambivalence she herself is able to grow. Her research found that mothers who embrace ambivalence as an expected and normal part of mothering are mothers who feel the least guilty.
“And Dr Gabor Maté, who specialises in childhood development says: the best gift you can give your child is a happy mother,” says Lisa.
How has this course prepared Lisa for motherhood?
“After doing the course I am genuinely so excited to become a mother. I feel I have gone through a huge journey in preparing myself, I feel I have a chance at mothering in a way that works for my baby, for me and my family. I’m excited about the future and I can’t wait to meet my baby.
“I can now integrate this work into my coaching business — I hope to help other women in this space,” says Lisa.
You can follow Lisa @unveiling_motherhood
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