It’s a family affair


Many like Saha felt the strain in personal relationships during the pandemic owing to financial uncertainty, increased domestic chores and responsibilities, constant work pressure, health worries, etc.

The lockdown last year came as a huge turning point for Chennai-based Deepti Shah (name changed on request). The close confinement with her husband Umang (name changed) resulted in her discovering many facets of his personality that she was earlier unaware of. Exposed to constant anger, disagreements and discomfort over trivial issues, they ultimately decided to end their two-year-old marriage. “We started to fight about the little things in life… the lockdown created a make-or-break environment, making me realise that separation was the only way out. I guess it exposed the weaker side of both of us steadily. My husband wanted me to quit my job as managing day-to-day affairs at home was becoming increasingly troublesome,” says Shah.

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Needless to say, for many like Shah, the lifting of the lockdown came as a huge relief. But today, after a full year of being at home—with some hope in between of cases dwindling—we are back in the thick of the corona surge. With more lockdowns, night curfews and work from home staring at us, we could find ourselves stuck at home again. And this has led to mixed emotions. For some, it’s a chance to spend more quality time at home with loved ones, but for others like Shah, it’s a source of stress as small annoyances turn into never-ending irritations when living in such close quarters with family. This brings us to the question: is too much family time a boon or bane?

Stress & strain

For Delhi-based Nilanjana Saha, a programme manager in the facility management industry, home always meant vacation time as she had been away for more than 12 years. But when she found herself living full-time with her parents in Kolkata during the lockdown, it led to many complications. “I always liked spending special moments with my parents, but with work from home, it became very difficult to adjust. Long working hours, parents’ expectations and time management made it difficult to withstand the challenges of working from home… more so due to the absence of proper work infrastructure. It took some time to make peace with WFH, work pressure, family, staying indoors, etc,” says the 31-year-old who is still working from home in Kolkata. “For an avid traveller like me, not getting to travel is also a punishment. Not being able to step out of the house makes me feel completely paralysed. Too much of anything is not good,” she adds.

Many like Saha felt the strain in personal relationships during the pandemic owing to financial uncertainty, increased domestic chores and responsibilities, constant work pressure, health worries, etc. According to Debjani Banerjee, faculty, sociology and social and cultural anthropology, Shiv Nadar School, Gurugram, human beings crave interactions in a physical setting and if that is limited to immediate family members, it can lead to socio-emotional issues of alienation or even affect mindsets due to lack of privacy. “While most families tried new things together, some were subject to growing tensions or even a rise in domestic abuse. Different families reacted differently and were subject to different situations in isolation,” she says.

When managing home and office becomes a challenge, it puts one’s relationships on the brink of collapse, explains Delhi-based child psychologist, marriage and relationship counsellor Shivani Misri Sadhoo. “Couples rank financial stress, boredom, disagreements regarding parenting and arguing about domestic chores as the most common sources of relationship problems. Today, the additional support system has become more difficult to access. Like the option of venting your frustrations over a cup of coffee to a trusted friend or colleague is no more easily available. Ever since the lockdown was imposed, there has been a substantial spike or nearly three times rise in new divorce queries. Compared to the world standard, the divorce rate in India is less than 1% technically, but the current situation has made many couples rethink their relationship,” says Sadhoo, adding, “With prolonged confinement at home due to the lockdown, balancing life became tricky as both the partners were not just working from home, but also managing household chores. Lack of privacy, job losses, steep salary cuts are topics of frequent arguments today.”

Women hit hard

From mental stress and financial instability to lack of access to healthcare, the virus dealt a severe blow to people of all ages and across countries. One of the worst affected, however, were women who, as primary caregivers in families, had to juggle work, household chores, domestic responsibilities and parenting duties. The increased workload also led many women to experience stress, anxiety and other mental health issues. A lot of women experienced ‘mom rage’ (anger as a result of social isolation), lack of support and high levels of frustration.

Domestic violence cases also increased by 20% worldwide during the lockdown, as per the UN, which termed the rise a ‘shadow pandemic’. While many countries reported a spike in calls to domestic abuse hotlines, in many others, especially developing ones, reporting of cases was lower due to limitations on access to phones and helplines, and disrupted public services like police, justice and social services. In India, the National Commission for Women received more than 300 such complaints from the start of the lockdown in March till April 2020.

Clearly, home is not a great support system for everyone. “Work from home has made things worse as not only do I have to stay at home, but also undergo emotional abuse. I try to be as normal as possible for my son, but staying at home all the time is getting harder,” says 27-year-old Sangeeta Singh (name changed on request), an IT professional based in Delhi.

The pandemic also exposed the gender gap that exists in society and workplaces. At the same time, it shone the spotlight on the dual role women carry out at work and at home, an aspect that has always been taken for granted. Add to that the fact that more women were laid off during the pandemic and the situation becomes more complicated. As per various unemployment surveys in India, women accounted for 23% of the overall job losses. At least four out of 10 women in India lost their jobs due to the pandemic last year, revealed a 2020 survey by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. Globally, too, women’s jobs were 19% more at risk than men’s, as per a 2020 report by McKinsey & Co. “Slashing of informal sector jobs hit women the hardest. Many women-led businesses are microenterprises or self-financed. These enterprises are in sectors like tourism, education and beauty, which were ravaged by the pandemic-led lockdown,” says Mumbai-based Ashu Suyash, MD and CEO of ratings agency CRISIL, a subsidiary of S&P Global. She feels working women have always worked a double shift—a full day of work followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labour.

A 2020 International Labour Organization (ILO) report revealed that the proportion of women working in the hard-hit sectors was particularly high in Central America (58.9%), south-east Asia (48.5%), southern Europe (45.8%) and South America (45.5%). “The bigger the loss in employment during the lockdown phase and the greater the scarcity of jobs in the aftermath of the crisis, the harder it will be for women’s employment to recover,” said the ILO in the report, adding that women were disproportionately affected post the lockdown around the world, with almost 40% of all employed women experiencing job loss compared to 36.6% of men.

According to a November 2020 report in The New York Times, US Labor Department showed that some of the damage was reversed in October 2020 as the service industry revived, nudging down the jobless rate for women to 6.5%, slightly below men’s. But there were still 4.5 million fewer women employed in October 2020 than there were a year ago, compared with 4.1 million men. As per an October 2020 Reuters report, the labour force participation rate (LFPR), or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, fell to 61.4% from 61.7% in August 2020. The participation rate for women dropped to 55.6% from 56.1%.

There are wide disparities among the US and India when it comes to how women in the two countries spend time as well, as pointed out by the Time Use Survey in India, a 2019 report by the National Statistical Office (NSO). Women who are only engaged in domestic duties spend roughly 50% time on personal care and maintenance as compared to 40% for non-working mothers in the US, shares Meeta Rajivlochan, a senior civil servant based in Delhi. Indian women engaged only in home-care spend roughly 22% of their time on domestic work. They also spend 22% of their time on leisure, sports, community activity, socialising, etc. In comparison, non-working mothers in the US spend roughly 18% of their time on domestic work and household management, and 16% time in leisure activities and socialising.

When it comes to the workforce, the percentage of women in the age group 15-59 participating in work-related activities ranges from a low of 7% in Bihar to 14% in Delhi, 26% in Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Karnataka, and 34% in Andhra Pradesh. In Telangana, 45% females in this age group participate in the workforce. “The figures suggest varying efforts made by each state in building skills among the female population, and varying levels of institutional child-care facilities provided. In urban areas like Delhi, it also suggests rising incomes leading to withdrawal of women from the labour market,” Rajivlochan adds.

Need for balance

For many professionals, especially working parents, it becomes very challenging to juggle work, home and parenting duties, leaving them no other option but to multitask. However, striking a balance is very important, say experts. Take, for instance, Gurugram-based Shauravi Malik who makes sure to take out some me-time. “Social distancing hit me very hard as I’m a very outgoing person. But a balance between me-time and family-time, with meditation, self-care and cooking helped me get some peace of mind,” says Malik, who is also the co-founder of organic food brand Slurrp Farm. “Being a mother, I know how important it is to strike a balance between work from and for home, hence this phase has been a learning experience of the best of both worlds. I could spend time with my little toddler… seeing her achieve milestones makes me cope during difficult times. But I still like to stick to a schedule of waking up early and wearing makeup. It feels good to look like my normal working self,” adds Malik.

Kolkata-based banker Aramita Banerjee, who has worked tirelessly for 15 years, also found the pandemic phase as a restart button. She was able to revisit old melodies, improve her painting and culinary skills, set up a small balcony garden to bond with nature, as well as spend time with her husband and ageing parents. “Time management has been a challenge, but at the same time, it built adaptability to unforeseen circumstances. Earlier, I could step out with friends and stay away from home chores for some hours, but that’s not the case any more. Also, I could never imagine that professional services like banking could function from home. So initially, it was tough to work in a domestic environment, but if I look at the positive side, I can catch up over a cup of coffee with my mom between work breaks,” says the 36-year-old.

While some families have reoriented the division of labour and distributed household chores among members, for others, technology has brought some semblance of socialisation through online connections. Hyderabad-based Ragini Nair, a primary school teacher, has divided household chores among her two kids (aged eight and 12) and husband. “We’ve achieved a new work-life balance. I take online classes every morning and so do my kids. But I don’t have to bother about household chores since my husband, who works for a US-based MNC, has late-evening shifts and is able to devote time for household chores… he helps prepare breakfast and lunch whenever he is free… I don’t remember the last time I cooked three meals a day. It’s been nice being at home, having more family time and being more involved with the kids,” says Nair, who also takes out an hour to chat with her parents and younger sister in Amritsar. “Last month, we celebrated my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. Thanks to video calls, we could see them live relishing the cake,” she says.

The pandemic has also had a significant impact on household consumption. According to How India Spends, Shops and Saves in the New Reality?, a December 2020 report by Boston Consulting Group, household consumption will remain negatively impacted in 2021 and is likely to reach Rs 290–Rs 300 trillion by 2030, similar to the initial pre-Covid estimates for 2028. The average annual household income is expected to rise to around Rs 7.3 lakh by 2030, but will be 7-8% lower than the pre-Covid estimate. In such a scenario, people have realised the importance of essential items, helping lower the financial burden to a certain extent. “Relationships did come under stress,” says Dhruv Bogra, country manager, Forever New, a fashion and clothing brand in India, adding, “But people have now worked it out and have carved out their own happy medium of staying ultra-productive by maintaining a hybrid work style, combining time at office and at home.”

Since the lockdown, there has been a substantial spike or nearly three times rise in new divorce queries

— Shivani Misri Sadhoo, Delhi-based child psychologist, marriage and relationship counsellor

It’s very important to strike a balance between work from, and for, home

— Shauravi Malik, Gurugram-based mother, and co-founder, Slurrp Farm

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