University of Delaware

Work-family balance upended by global pandemic

Cultural anthropologist talks about the ways COVID-19 has raised expectations and cranked up stress levels for parents
12-May-2020 6:40 AM EDT, by University of Delaware

American families have been here before — but not since Colonial times.

Suddenly, the lifestyles of centuries past have returned: Our homes now serve as both school and workplace, with one or both parents trying to keep the homestead running and the kids cared for.

The striking parallels between Colonial America and Coronavirus America reveal the cyclical nature of work-family life, according to University of Delaware Prof. Bahira Sherif Trask, who teaches courses on the history and diversity of American families in the College of Education and Human Development. Then, and during this spring’s coronavirus shutdown, the full family unit lived as one, with a more unified effort to keep things functioning.

“We’re not used to it because we’re several hundred years into the future,” she said. “But we’ve always had a need to provide for our families, and we’ve done that by adapting to the circumstances around us.”

And it’s perhaps the very nature of our current circumstance — a global pandemic that requires prolonged social distancing and isolation — that makes this abnormal “new normal” so difficult.

“It goes against the human experience,” said Trask. “We have evolved in groups because there’s safety in groups.”

And that loss of direct human interaction, coupled with heightened and frightening economic insecurity, affects us all.

“High-income professional people, expected to be available all the time, are now facing the reality of being at home, [which is especially complicated for those] with young children,” said Trask. “And they’re expected to be equally productive, or in some cases, more productive because they have ‘time off’ now. That has no basis in reality.”

A cultural anthropologist, Trask studies the relationship between social change, economics, gender and family life.

“For the people on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, this is a complete and utter nightmare,” said Trask, who also pointed to an ongoing global rise in domestic violence, intimate partner violence and child abuse. “People are isolated, tense, and filled with real and growing economic fears.

“But trends are always very complicated. A situation like this raises the good in people, too.”

Families are spending more time outdoors. Parents are cooking meals with their children in the middle of the afternoon. Many Americans are finding pleasure in a simpler lifestyle, decreasing their emphasis on consumer culture and constant movement.

“Multiple things are happening at the same time,” Trask said of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Even though it’s the same event, it’s affecting each of us in a very different manner. And it is experienced very differently by people who are single or living alone, by the elderly, by those without easy access to technology. We can’t talk about a blanket result from this.”

And yet there are some overarching themes that this crisis reveals.

First, said Trask, is our “hyper-capitalist model,” in which ideal workers must demonstrate 24/7 devotion to their jobs — texts at 11 p.m., emails at 6 a.m. “Work first,” personal responsibilities second.

“But this pandemic has brought work-family issues to the forefront,” she said. “It’s highlighting that we’re not just workers who perform and for whom nothing else is important.”

Our kids matter, and their mental health matters, especially now, when nearly one in three adolescents between 13 and 18 will experience an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Trask worries how those figures might grow as we emerge from this pandemic, but she also finds the most comfort in today’s youth.

“I see, among young people, a real desire to affect positive change,” Trask said. “High levels of volunteerism. A commitment to service learning. An egalitarian sharing of jobs and responsibilities. In just the past few weeks, I’ve seen students start food drives, money drives. They’ve reached out to others who may be experiencing food, housing or technological insecurities. It’s the best of human nature.”

Indeed, the resilience, benevolence and creativity of our youth will be critical to the health and future of the world. And so perhaps the greatest opportunity to come from this pandemic might be our own attitudinal shifts and investments in their success.

“We know we need quality childcare and paid family sick leave. This is not a new idea,” said Trask. “Hopefully, this highlights that these are not left-leaning or right-leaning policies, but basic human rights.”

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