SINGAPORE: Since the circuit breaker was implemented in April, parents all over Singapore have found themselves thrown in the deep end.
We had to scramble to re-arrange and carve out makeshift workspaces at home.
We also had to adjust to become full-time caregivers of our kids; instead of being able to have pockets of time during the day when they attend school or enrichment classes, we took on the added roles of teacher, play-mate and full-time cook, on top of whatever existing work we had.
Needless to say, many WhatsApp chat groups have seen a sharp rise in parental complaints and questions like: “Any ideas what to do with the kids during the May holidays?”
Amidst all the transitions, one group of parents has been quietly whirring away in the background like a ceiling fan that you don’t take notice of: Stay-at-home mums (SAHMs).
As they go about their daily tasks of preparing meals, tending to their children’s intellectual and socio-emotional needs, cleaning the house and generally being the glue that keeps the family together, they are probably wondering what all the hubbub is about.
What is the secret sauce that these mums have that others don’t?
CIRCUIT BREAKER JUST AN EXTENSION OF SAHM DUTIES
For this group of mothers, cooking is typically second nature. So adding on a few more meals in a week might mean more planning and grunt-work but they are likely to remain nonplussed.
Many also tend to be in tune with our kids’ learning, so tackling home-based learning is also an extension of their current job-scope rather than a 360-degree pivot.
Don’t get me wrong; the workload of stay-home mothers is far from light, but the skills that they’ve been quietly honing in the background, such as organisational, child-minding, multi-tasking and culinary chops, are precisely the ones that we need most today.
Without organisational skills, our kids would be jumping off walls and tearing the house down.
Without patience and creativity, one wouldn’t be able to keep the kids engaged or help them to use their time wisely.
These afore-hidden skills of an SAHM are now the order of the day.
Full-time working parents have these skills too if they have been involved in caring for and engaging their children.
But if the care of the kids has mostly been outsourced to grandparents, domestic helpers or childcare centres, then these parents may still find themselves out of their depth.
Now that work has shifted into their homes, these parents have to cope with child-minding on top of their work responsibilities, thereby brewing a perfect storm.
To be able to focus on your Zoom call while a sibling squabble is taking place requires focus of the highest degree, not to mention a steely resolve not to flinch in front of your business associates.
For stay-home mothers (or those with experience working from home), some coping abilities would have already been honed, such as the power to deal with interruptions as if they had never happened and to discern when they need to mediate a conflict.
Not to mention that they don’t have to deal with the pressures of work and a demanding boss for eight to ten hours a day.
Prior to the COVID-19 bombshell falling, few people would have envied the position of a SAHM; but now, some working mums may feel as if they have the shorter end of the stick.
EMOTIONAL HEAVY LIFTING AN UNSEEN WORK
But no matter your formal employment status, the harsh realities of this new world mean that parents across the board are experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety – ranging from financial strains to worries about health and children’s studies – all while being cooped up under one roof.
Even the calmest and most equipped parents among us do not escape unscathed, so while SAHMs may have a head start, they still partake in the shared sense of loss of freedom, space and time.
Herein lies the biggest leveller of this playing field for both stay-home and working mothers: The loss of personal time and space as the once-distinct domains of work and family merge.
The age of the children is also another major factor, since the older they are the more likely they can entertain themselves or to make themselves useful around the home.
In response to my embarrassment about having to deal with squabbling kids while on a work-call, the mother of teens whom I was speaking to quipped, “If only my teens would emerge from their rooms and quarrel like that.”
With young kids at home around the clock, it is hard to take a breather or find a hiding spot where you can stay hidden long enough.
I too have spent time hiding out in my car after heading out to run an errand. The peace and quiet in that small space helps me recalibrate before returning home to my motherly duties.
No matter how “professional” we are at parenting, there will still be hits and misses; and since the home is the workspace of a stay-home mum, it is here where she will take the biggest hit.
During this circuit breaker, she may have wondered many times to herself, “Am I really cut out for this?”
Perhaps much of the work of a parent occurs in the deepest recesses of the human spirit.
The fruits of our labour may not surface until many years later.
When a child frets because things are not going as planned, we try to use it as a teachable moment, to process and unpack those hard emotions.
In a workplace setting, no one is going to give you a pep talk when things go south. You’re simply expected to pick up the pieces yourself.
Such is the everyday unseen work of an SAHM. It goes unnoticed and unpaid; there’s no physical office to walk out of when you’re upset; no sick leave to take, but when a child thrives because his emotions have been handled with care, his rough edges sanded smooth, and his identity secure, that is in itself the reward.
While working mums do their fair share of emotional heavy-lifting, SAHMs have to major in this department as it represents the bulk of their work.
HOME CAN BE AN EXPANSIVE SPACE
Teaching and disciplining children can be especially taxing in such stressful times but staying home does have its perks.
As a friend who has been a work-at-home mother for the past 14 years shared, “Home can be an expansive space if you choose to see it that way.”
Even though I may be busy with managing my three children or chipping away at my to-do list, I still express my love for my family (and de-stress) by whipping up some bakes or trying out a new recipe in the kitchen.
Perhaps it is truly a matter of perspective. If you deem home as an expansive space, a place for opportunities, then it is an empty canvas for the stay-home mum: The energies, love and care that she puts in can result in a unique piece of art.
Sure, there are flaws and imperfections, but it is the process of nurturing and moulding lives that makes a stay-home mum’s work so priceless, and her role, irreplaceable.
As those of us who have had a taste of the stay-home mum’s life over the past few weeks would likely agree, I think we are beginning to have a new-found respect for the mothers who have taken up this mantle.
Long after COVID-19 bites the dust, I hope this respect for the stay-home mother’s place in society continues on.
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June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.