Over the past year, and up until I had to suspend fieldwork due to the COVID-19 crisis, I have been interviewing people about their experiences with balancing waged work and raising children. I have spoken with both women and men, with people across the class spectrum and from various ethnic groups and across some range in age, with both married and single parents. I aim to do at least 100 interviews and have conducted about 70.
This week marks the beginning of the shutdown of schools and childcare centers in Singapore. All over the island, in households with children, adults are no doubt struggling to maintain some semblance of normalcy in abnormal times.
Fixed timetables; the sounds of buses arriving and leaving; the rituals and totems of canvas shoes and ironed uniforms, flags and pledges, recess queues and school bells; the teacherly voices of authority figures straining above the din of students; the presence of other little bodies doing exactly the same things at exactly the same time, peppered with regular micro attempts at flouting rules—these and more are the pillars of school-going children’s lives.
This week, we embark on a great involuntary experiment—work and life will now be in conflict not only in a temporal way, but also within constrained physical spaces. The challenges will moreover be amplified because important socially-organized, extra-familial parts of the care circuit have been broken. What are we likely to see?
The unfolding story of COVID-19 is a story of inequalities, long experienced by those who bear its brunt, coming to the surface of our collective consciousness. In the weeks to come, who will care for children? What inequalities will be especially consequential when ‘work from home’ and ‘home-based learning’ kick in? Without institutions and services providing supporting roles and to some extent mitigating gender and class inequalities, parents and children will find their gendered roles and class positions mattering more than ever in shaping their wellbeing, both now and, for some, also in the longer term.
Year in and year out, when school’s in, children know that they are to be at certain places at certain times, doing particular tasks in particular ways. And now, weeks loom ahead where they are faced with many of the same tasks, absent of all the pomp and circumstance. This is the ultimate zombie apocalypse nightmare—a pandemic has hit the world with a mighty force, schools and tuition centers are shut, and homework is still due. Children are adaptable creatures, but it will be challenging for many, if not most, to do all that they are expected to do under these altered conditions.
The labor of ‘care’ for parents in Singapore today is deeply tied up with meeting children’s schooling and educational needs. While the specific contours of those needs vary across class lines—insofar as people articulate expectations and aspirations differently—what is widely shared is a deep sense of responsibility, and intense feelings of anxiety and stress. That this is a key component of parenting today translates into deep inequalities in what children receive by way of cultivation outside of school.
Housework and caregiving have long been gendered, designated as the role and responsibility of women. Now women who have always overseen children’s education will need to supervise more. To say that this work is gendered is not only to say that it is mothers and wives who are presumed to be responsible, but also to point out that in the Singapore context, where a significant number of households employ live-in domestic workers, this labor has been deeply marked as women’s work and indeed work that, if one can afford it, is better displaced to lower-status women.
One hopes a circuit breaker can break habits too, and it probably will in some households, but gender egalitarianism cannot be built overnight. Housework and caregiving require knowledge, expertise, and experience; children will gravitate toward the person who knows how they like their milk, the parent they know is in contact with their classmates’ mothers.
For most people, notably people without full-time domestic workers and/or people with children who are younger or have disabilities, the next weeks will almost certainly not be this work-from-home dream. As every parent who has tried to work while children are present already knows, children are great interrupters and, don’t knock before entering.
How will children fare in all this? Prior to the crisis, class already mattered greatly. The income, wealth, and educational background of parents strongly shape the resources they can put into tuition and enrichment classes, the time and capacity they can spare to help with homework and coach toward exams, and therefore ultimately how a child fares in exams. But still we had schools—where there were spaces for sitting, individual desks to write on, time-chunks to mark activities, rooms shared by others doing the same thing at the same time, teachers to ask when one did not understand something.
A few weeks ago, when tuition centers were told to shut down, I had a fleeting moment of fantastical naiveté—this will level the playing field! Of course, within days, tutors moved online, the branded tuition centers one step ahead of the rest of us in discovering Zoom. The Ministry of Education has displayed a high level of consciousness about inequalities the shutting of schools will create and various individuals and community groups have stepped up to try to provide necessary hardware to support the transition. But in spite of this, we are likely to see the gaps that have always existed now pushed further open—laptops and wifi are one barrier, but beyond this, students will not have equal access to quiet rooms and desks, adult supervision and help, and alternative means of seeking peer group support. Tuition centers may be shut, but I suspect those tutoring sessions now conducted online will be more important than ever in coaching some kids toward the exams that remain on the horizon.
These pre-existing patterns will not be easy to overcome during the crisis, but we must begin now. We have to start assigning value to housework and care—what feminist scholars have long referred to as social reproduction—recognizing it as crucial labor for society. It is, moreover and rather uniquely, labor that when lopsided is deeply burdensome, but when shared enhances everyone’s lives.
We have to stop insisting that productivity is our national value and economic growth our highest priority, particularly at a time when existential questions have come to the surface as never before (at least for most people alive today). And in the realm of education—there is no better time than now to begin realigning what we want kids to learn when we teach, what we want to achieve for an entire country’s children when they school, and what we really should shed because it damages our collective wellbeing.
After the zombie invasion, if we are lucky enough to go back into our city—a city I already miss—our job must not be to put things back where they are, but to take things where they could be.
Image Credit: Student Learning Space, the main online platform used for ‘Home-based learning’ in Singapore. Screenshot by Teo You Yenn, taken on April 9, 2020.