Childcare in COVID – why social support for mothers and their children has never been more relevant

Guest editing a special issue of leading Royal Society journal, Phil Trans B, Abigail Page and colleagues explore why childcare support is mother-centric, and the potential impact it can have on the mother and child’s health and wellbeing – particularly during a pandemic
An Agta girl carrying her younger sister while her mother is busy away from home. Photograph taken in the Philippines. Credit: Sylvain Viguier.

After more than 14 months living with COVID-19 restrictions in the UK, the importance of social support has never been clearer, particularly when it comes to raising children. As the physical links between households were cut, maternity and community health services restricted, and early years settings and schools closed, the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 rapidly slowed. However, so did the flow of essential social support to parents.

Evidence points towards mothers disproportionally shouldering the burden of additional childcare and it is already well documented that mothers’ mental health and wellbeing have suffered in 2020 and 2021. 

As a working mum, by mid-March 2020 I found myself, day-in and day-out, almost completely responsible for two pre-schoolers. No activities, no friends, no play-groups, play-grounds, or play-dates, only a daily walk to find rainbows and teddy bears. My husband, for economic reasons (as is often the rationale for unequal allocation of household roles) could shut the door, put on headphones, and retain his freedom. I, on the other hand, lost my freedom and experienced complete isolation.

As a white, middle-class mum in North London, I was aware that my situation was in many ways privileged. Nonetheless, for me, the importance of social support – something I have studied for years – was really thrown into sharp relief.

Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. It wasn’t until late September 2020 that the UK government allowed childcare support during lockdown. MPs working on the Women and Equalities committee have highlighted that COVID support policies repeatedly failed to consider the caring inequalities faced by women.

Arguably, such ‘oversights’ are a product of Western notions of motherhood and the importance of the ‘traditional’ nuclear family as the childrearing unit. The nuclear family (i.e. a couple and their children) however, is neither traditional nor normal, but rather a product of middle-class norms during the post-WWII period. Instead, we evolved to raise our children cooperatively; there is no way women could manage to support many highly demanding, needy, competing (I could go on…) children alone.

Worldwide, childrearing is still widely shared, with mothers and children supported by a diverse range of individuals. This reality, however, has not filtered into the narrow conceptualisation of the family which predominates social and public health policy directed at women with children.

To start addressing these issues, Sarah Myers (from UCL and MPI), Emily Emmott (from UCL) and myself have guest edited a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on multidisciplinary perspectives on social support and maternal-child health.

Even before COVID it was women who were more likely to take on care work and domestic task. In fact, worldwide women carry out three-quarters of unpaid care work. With many female lead authors in this special issue – perhaps due to a higher proportion of women researching maternal-child health, or a product of our networks as three female guest editors – we personally felt the impact of COVID-19, and the real challenges it posed with the loss of formal care facilities and informal social network.

Our aim for the issue was to highlight the depth of understanding possible from bringing together diverse research from across disciplines, cultural settings and geographies. We showcase work from psychology, demography, nursing, evolutionary anthropology, public health, health services, midwifery and human biology to reflect on the diversity of support for mothers and their children, and its consequences.

Robert Hughes and colleagues highlight the lack of work on informal childcare in rapidly urbanising contexts, as research on child development focuses, problematically, on the mother. The focus on the mother as the main caregiver has a long history in the West, as mothers’ responsibility is increasingly overemphasised, as discussed by Kirsty Budds. This may be why we frequently overlook the importance of children as caregivers, something I highlight in my own research. 

Other key supporters include partners, grandmothers and volunteers – something we demonstrate with studies from Australia, the Congo Basin, Thai-Myanmar border, Mexico, and Japan. However, not all support is equal and is complicated by individuals’ goals, needs, and obligations.

Collectively, these varied but interwoven perspectives reinforce that optimal maternal and child wellbeing is obtained with support which originates beyond the mother and the beyond the nuclear family. This special issue pre-dated COVID-19, but in the era of lockdowns, loneliness and isolation, social support for mothers and their children has clearly never been more relevant.

The special issue can be found here

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