Velvet Viewpoint: "Let's keep the Covid empathy"
“Covid has forced us to share the struggles and difficulties of mixing work with children.” Let increased empathy for working parents be a legacy of lockdown, says Cambridge mum Clare Edwards
My 18-month-old daughter stamps her feet with excitement when she sees our weekly team Skype meeting is underway. I know I’m biased, but I think her enthusiastic waving, and scribbling into the notepad and pen I hand her as a distraction, has been a highlight for my colleagues.
But their days are numbered. In a few weeks, she’s back to nursery, her grandparents have resumed their roles as primary carers twice a week and normality will resume - as far as childcare is concerned.
I’m sure my husband and I will look back at these days through rose-tinted glasses. We will chortle as the memories flood back of the desperate attempts we made to get our toddler to entertain herself so we could power through an email or proofread a document. Oh, how we’ll laugh at the disgusting mess we’d plough through every evening, our home a site of destruction after allowing our daughter to unravel rolls of kitchen paper or sit in a roasting tin full of soapy water or pour dry pasta from one container to another and then crunch them into the carpet, for just five minutes of dedicated work time. Tears will roll as I recall the interview I did on Jeremy Vine’s lunchtime show on Radio 2 while breastfeeding, as it was the only way to guarantee a few minutes of silence while I shared my views with an unknowing audience of millions.
The guilt, I hope, will be harder to recollect. The heartache, watching our baby pace the same rooms and play with the same toys day after day. How sad it made us when she walked up to us clasping her shoes, hoping to be allowed outside and not understanding that we could only have one daily wander down the same streets. The endless ‘not nows’, ‘in a minutes’ and ‘hang on just one more second’ - each evening promising to be less grumpy the following day.
There is one thing I’d love us to retain, however: the empathy we have shown towards working parents. Standouts for me include talking to a charity CEO in a hushed voice while her poorly baby slept on her lap. Laughing with a salesman about both our kids running riot in the background while he pitched. Overhearing a dad apologising for traffic noise while on a phone call and pushing a pram with, presumably, a sleeping baby inside.
Conversations with contacts both new and old have moved on from pleasantries about the weather. They begin with a little chat about how we are. About our families. About the chaos. If children interrupt a call to ask a question about a science project, to request more biscuits, to wail, we laugh supportively and wait calmly while the situation is resolved.
For the first time in my career, being a working parent has become normalised. Covid has forced us to share the struggles and difficulties of mixing work with children. It’s opened up a dialogue and shone a light into our family lives, exposing a world we usually keep hidden away from the office. It’s levelled us, as no matter our seniority, our specialism or our status, we’re all living the same, hard, reality.
And actually, we have reflected on all the positives too. More time together. Witnessing the new skills our babies are mastering. The simple joy of an evening meal round the table as a family. Being home for bedtime.
We all remember the poor professor on BBC News who was interrupted mid-interview when his children happily barged into his office and his wife frantically tried to retrieve them. At the time that was shocking, we all laughed and inwardly cringed. But that has now become our normality. Surely now he’d just plonk the kid on his lap and we would hardly bat an eyelid? This new attitude can only be a good thing.
We cannot afford to slip back into old ways. While I hope we never have to deal with the stress of lockdown during a worldwide pandemic again, surely we can learn something from this?
Perhaps we can each continue showing more empathy towards the everyday stresses working parents experience. We can acknowledge what it means to allow a mum the time out to watch a special assembly. We can adopt true flexible working so a dad can be home for bedtime more than once every blue moon.
We can embed an honest, frank culture that allows, nay, encourages conversation about what is really going on in our home lives, seeking genuine resolutions. We can allow a keen baby to jump in on a Skype call every now and then. (Ok, maybe only in exceptional circumstances.)
I appreciate that some workplaces may already operate in this way. I know many are far from being there. Together, we share the responsibility for maintaining the Covid empathy towards working parents, making it a permanent feature within our organisations.
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