In-depth | COVID-19

A woman’s work is never done

Unpaid labor intensifies during COVID-19 response.

By - 07.05.2020

As the hands of the clock tick around to seven on the white wall clock, Aida Jamini abruptly opens her eyes. The rays of spring sunshine file in through her window and the alarm has already been snoozed multiple times to ensure the interruption of intensive dreaming. 

Aida gets up quickly, with a small piece of paper listing items that she’s jotted down the night before, and heads straight out to the supermarket. 

By 8:30 she’s back in her small apartment in the quiet Ulpiana neighborhood in the center of Prishtina with her shoulders and arms loaded with heavy bags. She cannot afford to be caught with bare shelves that now contain everything from groceries to face masks and hand sanitizer.

“I always forget something,” she says. “I’ll sleep in the next day, but we’ll have the essential things.”

The pattern of such rapid actions was repeated on a number of her April mornings, in order to make use of the 1.5 hours of movement outside permitted to each resident as part of the government’s pandemic response. The penultimate digit of people’s identity document numbers, normally such a trivial detail, rose in significance overnight during the initial peak of the pandemic in the middle of April, defining citizens’ daily routines of performing financial tasks or purchasing essential items. 

She had already learnt how it feels for your routines and life to be thrown upside down unexpectedly.

For Aida, having ‘1’ as the penultimate digit meant her 90 minutes would start at 7 a.m. for three days before changing to 11:30 a.m. for the next three days, in line with the rotating schedule. But she would prefer going out in the early morning, when her two sons were asleep, as she would worry less about leaving them at home, alone. 

She is usually an early bird anyway, but Aida suddenly found herself reliant on alarms in order to wake up as the lockdown conditions interfered with her sleep cycle and her regular routines were forced out of the window; following the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kosovo on March 13, workplaces, schools, restaurants and bars were immediately closed, moving virtually all fragments of life within the walls of peoples’ homes.

Yet, she doesn’t complain about any change brought about by the pandemic.

She had already learnt, in a harsher way compared to the majority around her, how it feels for your routines and life to be thrown upside down unexpectedly. 

Learning to live again

Two years ago, in an instant, Aida went from having a blissfully happy marriage with two kids under 5 to being a single mum. 

On the fifth anniversary of their marriage, on June 14, 2018, her husband suffered a sudden abdominal aortic rupture. Just three hours later, he passed away at QKUK with Aida by his side.

“After the death, things have changed so much and caught me unprepared, because the death of my husband was unexpected and quick”, she says. “And the world changed forever for me and for my kids.”

Personal experiences across the world indicate that the prospect of getting coronavirus can be especially daunting for a single parent who could be left caring for children while battling a serious, contagious disease. Some parents have told of teaching their kids to recognize when to call emergency numbers, in case they are incapable of doing it themselves, so the children are prepared for all possible scenarios.

Photo courtesy of Aida Jamini.

A scene like that would be particularly challenging for Aida, who had already spent much of the 20 months before COVID-19 reached Kosovo explaining the death of their father to her children.

“Experiences shared with me by people who have gone through similar things made me believe that children have to understand what death is,” she says. “Having a degree and a background in psychology, I didn’t want to put myself in a bad light with my children, as one day they will understand what happened and [not being open with them] would call into question our relationships and the trust I want to build with them both.”

Now, Aida and her two sons, aged 6 and 4, are navigating this pandemic as a family of three with their drawings and lego and by sewing dolls out of socks. 

The daytime hours are harder for her as she works online; she is employed as a translator at a public institution and repeatedly has to switch from working to play activities. Often, the games are transformed into stories about their father, lessons about life, what happens when someone dies, and how children come into the world.

“This isn’t easy for me, to hold back each time I receive many questions, particularly from my elder son, who has an extraordinary curiosity,” she says. “But technology has advanced and for many things that I haven’t had an adequate answer for, we watch videos and learn together.”

Disrupted mourning

After the closure of schools and kindergartens in the second week of March, new governmental measures stated that if both parents in a household were working, employers should allow one parent to stay at home. With lockdown rules forcing protracted periods in confinement with their children and increased constraints, all parents have faced unprecedented struggles during the outbreak that can often only be truly understood by other parents facing similar challenges. 

But while all parents are facing a hard time during the pandemic, there has been little recognition of the particular needs of single parents.

Having the time and space for personal mourning is on hold until the pandemic ends.

The COVID-19 pandemic is further exacerbating inequalities, as many of the hidden experiences of the crisis are gendered: It is usually women who take responsibility for the children after a partnership breaks down. 

Single mothers already lack public support, regardless of the pandemic, with the burden even heavier for those who are also unemployed. Left between stigma and economic hardships, to date, no government institution or relevant agency has taken steps to even monitor, for instance, the number of women who are single, unemployed, and mothers; this translates into a lack of policy solutions.

Meanwhile, widows such as Aida experience additional difficulties, since they are not recognized at all by law. She explains how neither the Law on Labour or Family Law make mention of widowed parents, and hence how there is no acknowledgement of the needs of anybody in her position. 

But it is the emotional burden of being a widow that has hit her even harder in the current lockdown life, as having the time and space for personal mourning is on hold until the pandemic ends.

Before the lockdown, her reflections, whether melancholic or joyful, of grief or hope, would usually take shape in the very early hours of the morning over a good cup of coffee. 

“I [would normally] wake up at 5:30 in order to have time to shower without having the boys after me with their usual questions and visits,” she says. “It’s a time dedicated only to me. Then I could also prepare the boys’ bags, clothes, and get ready for work without being disturbed.” 

She says that her normal schedule works for her, but that it means she’s so tired by the evening that she’s asleep by 10 p.m. “Sometimes my friends laugh at me, [saying] ‘You sleep like an old person!” but this is the routine that taught me to start the day properly and to have my coffee without needing to be ‘on duty,’” she explains.

The lockdown has taken away her mornings, but in many ways has left the rest of the day more or less the same. When she’s asked how she’s doing, she always gives the same anwer: “Me and my two boys have been in a sort of quarantine for almost two years.”

* * *

Eighty kilometers away from Prishtina, Nora Arapi Krasniqi has been experiencing a more disjointed routine than normal in her hometown of Prizren. Nora is an architect working at Regional Center for Cultural Heritage in Prizren, a branch of the Ministry of Culture.

Despite insecurity and fears regarding the health of her loved ones, she has been enjoying a slower morning pace with her partner and their two sons.

“There is no morning rush — there’s an advantage to getting up without an alarm,” she says. “The whole world needed this. We’re always running somewhere and your life just passes in front of you without experiencing the moment.”

Like for many of those working in the public sector, her days were relatively fixed before the virus hit the country: taking her eldest son to elementary school, preparing food for the younger one, rushing to the office for the working day, before having evenings at home with the family. 

Photo courtesy of Krasniqi family.

Since the lockdown she has been working from home, while the work situation of her partner, who owns a bar in the city center, is completely dependent on the progress of the virus. 

“Now, it’s a bit more difficult to divide the job from the house,” she says. “And add to it the schooling responsibilities.”

Her eldest son normally attends the first grade at a private school, but in addition to the requirements and homework set by his teacher, each day he also follows the learning program organized online by the Ministry of Education, which is broadcast every day from 11 a.m. by Radio Television of Kosovo (RTK).

“Every mother is transformed into a teacher. We watch the e-learning. Then the teacher sends homework. Then they have Google Classroom. So [the children have] the teacher at RTK, the teacher on Viber, the teacher on Google Classroom and the teacher mother,” she laughs. 

Nora says that her partner, Adhurim, has proved to be a better teacher than her and that having him as a helping hand inside the home has been a source of strength for her in dealing with the unprecedented lockdown. 

“I couldn’t work without Adhurim here,” she says. “In the first week I couldn’t do anything. Maybe it had to do with the shift from the office to home … or panic regarding the outbreak.”

In the evening after online lectures are finished, while Adhurim entertains the boys with games and music, she takes her laptop and jumps into work.

“I understood that I cannot do everything by myself. I started asking for help and I didn’t meet any resistance,” she says. “Women have to start asking for help. Men lack initiative in housework, but you need to start asking.” 

Still, she understands that the division of labor within most households in Prizren is far from equal and says she has observed how having men inside the house during the lockdown is an extra burden for many women she knows.

“Now, the majority of my female acquaintances’ husbands are not working. And they just spend the day sitting or watching TV,” she says. “They become like big babies.”

Eating, caring and cleaning continue

The restrictive measures brought in globally to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic have raised a number of gender issues, with researchers suggesting that life under lockdown has generally impacted women more than men; one such issue that has been highlighted by media and politicians globally is the spike in domestic violence cases, as women and children have been isolated with their perpetrators behind closed doors. 

But gender expert and activist Mirishahe Syla highlights that even beyond this significant and worrying development, further pressures on women are also being exacerbated.  

Syla says that those who work in the gig economy without legal contracts or long-term benefits are hit hardest, and that out of all those who have paid work, women are disproportionately likely to be employed in the informal sector, since they often work as domestic workers, carers and housekeepers. Much of the limited paid work that has continued outside of people’s houses during the lockdown has also seen women on the frontline of the pandemic, as cashiers at grocery stores and as nurses.

“Women who work will have more difficulties in finishing their work from home because of other domestic work.”

Mirishahe Syla, gender expert and analyst

She points out that some of the only parts of our lives that have remained intact are the needs to eat, be cared for and clean — needs also required by those institutions and organizations that continue to work — and that these are burdens that overwhelmingly fall on women’s shoulders.

“It was only in the ’60s and ’70s that this work was termed ‘unpaid labor,’” she says. “Categorization of labor inside the house as unpaid labor was of special importance in feminist thought and activism, because it categorizes labor including caring for others, food preparation, cleaning and so on, as work in itself, and not as a natural extension of a woman’s role as housewife or mother.”

A factor that Syla says is increasing the burden of unpaid labor on women in Kosovo during the current period of isolation is that traditional and economic factors have led to many couples living with the husband’s family inside the same household.

“Although the majority of women in Kosovo — over 80% — are not employed, they continue to stay home with an increased burden of work, since everyone is home at this time,” she says. “Meanwhile, women who work will have more difficulties in finishing their work from home because of other domestic work, and this can become a very hard situation to cope with as it affects their mental and physical health.”

Old issues reconfirmed

English graduate Merita Xhema has been reflecting a lot about gender roles recently, and how they have shaped her career and dreams. She is currently unemployed and locked down with her partner and two daughters in their apartment in the capital. 

While interviewing her over Skype in the third week of April, her 4-year-old daughter bounds into the room and appears behind her back, recreating the scene of the viral BBC video from 2017 when the interviewee was interrupted by his children. A similar incident occurred days ago on RTK, hinting that many parents around the world are finding their children to be similarly unexpected protagonists in online meetings and interviews these days. 

Merita explains how earlier that day they had made a bear family out of four toys they found, after her daughter’s kindergarten asked them to carry out an activity with the name “Family.”

Passing the time inside the house has helped to shed a light on the creative sides of both her and her partner, Sherif. They have been experimenting with new, complicated recipes and creating games with the girls from recycled materials. 

She says her partner has been a helping hand and recalls how a lot of housework was previously distributed between the two of them when she was employed in the past.

Contemplating unpaid labor and how it tends to fall heavily on women, she keeps coming back to a question that researchers often ask: How does the workforce impact social norms? 

“Financially speaking, Sherif would always have a better salary and we didn’t have the luxury of him giving up his job because there were obligations we needed to pay,” she says. “And then you have these social expectations that fall on women. When I was working and one daughter fell sick, I was the one who had to take the day off because people usually expect you, the mother, to give up her career.”

Merita says that the various gender inequalities displayed in different ways are deeply rooted. She recalls how she had to leave her job when pregnant with their first daughter, as her maternity leave wouldn’t have been covered. These disruptions, she says, have had a tremendous impact on her future.

Photo courtesy of Merita Xhema.

“All these pieces of the system prevent the state from functioning properly,” she says. 

“If my maternity leave had been paid, I wouldn’t have left my job. I stayed at home for two years. I had a gap, which is not easy to recover later. Then you need to start [again] with a job that you had maybe done after completing your studies, without a good salary. The state doesn’t function for women. You just get lost in the chain.”

Nora agrees with Merita’s words that being a working mother and successful is a great challenge. 

“If you want a career and a good family life, it is such a great challenge. It has been confirmed again now during quarantine,” she says. “But I think this is a challenge that inspires us and I’ve realized that women are more successful and creative because life obliges us to find solutions that can appear unsolvable.”

Raising their sons independent, gender sensitive and as contributors to the domestic labor is one step in the right direction, she says, adding that the importance of their own decision-making should also be taught to every young girl.

The decline in the spread of the coronavirus in the last two weeks, with a higher number of people cured than infected, has given hope to the three women that the end of living in lockdown might be somewhere in the sight. 

But the long term impact of the COVID-19 crisis will surely be measured in the months and years after it has been addressed; in the meantime, the Atlantic has suggested that “Across the world, women’s independence will be a silent victim of the pandemic.”

Currently, as the only provider and caregiver for her home and children, Aida worries about what will happen if the daycare system remains shut and the public institutions require her to go back to work. For now though, there is little she can do but wait in insecurity and continue with her lockdown routine.

When the night falls, she puts her two boys to bed, after the long days of drawing on walls, talking and singing loudly, making pancakes, or making the apartment messy and fixing it again. They jump on the bed, then lie down and talk, before falling asleep holding hands.

“This my favorite part of the day, although it is physically exhausting to sleep hand in hand,” she says. “We are OK like this in quarantine. We are closer. We just want this to end and to continue doing better than we thought, because until now we have dealt with life better than we thought — better than was expected of us.”K

Feature image courtesy of Aida Jamini.