Caring about time: why mothers share schedules
Author: Abigail Connolly, Rotary Peace Fellow, International Christian University, Japan. You can reach her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/abigailconnolly/.
Field site: I read posts and comments on Facebook groups for mothers based in Japan (in English) and the UK between March and June 2020. In May 2020, I initiated a discussion on Facebook about lockdown schedules and interviewed ten parents using Facebook messenger or WhatsApp chat. As part of my thesis research, I posted an online survey which included a question about lockdown schedules.
QUARANTINE SCHEDULE and other schedules
I first noticed QUARANTINE SCHEDULE on a Facebook group for mothers in Japan in mid-March 2020. It is so text-heavy and meticulously colour-coded that I thought it was real. I assumed a highly-organised mum had made it so thought I should take a look. At that time in Japan, our kids could still go to daycare, but schools had already closed, and a State of Emergency was looming. As well as buying as much toilet paper as possible, it looked like we would need to make a plan for what the kids would do at home all day while my partner and I worked. The obvious solution was to make a schedule.
However, on closer inspection, QUARANTINE SCHEDULE is the anti-schedule. It breaks the taboo on-screen time – ‘good parents’ limit television, gaming and phones (read The Debate about Screen Time is Really about Moms, Not Kids for more on this). It paints a picture of what would happen if we lost control. But also, we can imagine it might be a bit fun in that household? It made me laugh, so I took a screenshot and WhatsApped it to a few mum friends in the UK. Every now and then QUARANTINE SCHEDULE popped up on other Facebook groups and I would read it all over again.
An author, comedian and mum of six based in the USA, Jen Fulwiler was well-qualified to create a meme that captured so well the situation of parents in lockdown. I say parents, but this meme speaks to mothers. The day starts with “be quiet mommy is sleeping” and features gin, aka mother’s ruin. There’s an unspecified amount of kids in the schedule and the father seems to be absent, perhaps we imagine him shut away in the spare room working.
QUARANTINE SCHEDULE and memes like it were based on the many real schedules that were circulating online. Jessica McHale, a photographer based in the USA, posted COVID-19 DAILY SCHEDULE on Facebook in case it was helpful to her friends and family. By 14 March it had been shared more than 170,000 times and was being promoted by behavioural groups, doctors and teachers. Jessica posted “I feel like I just got an official mom trophy”.
Having a schedule shows you are organised, which is generally recognised as a positive quality. There are three elements to COVID-19 DAILY SCHEDULE which put it in the ‘good parenting’ category and earned Jessica widespread approval. Her schedule clearly limits screen time to the afternoon “academic time” and “free TV time”. There are two designated times for getting outside and doing physical activity. The kids also have defined tasks to help in the house including “make your bed” and “wipe all kitchen tables and chairs”. In COVID-19 DAILY SCHEDULE house, all is calm (and probably even tidy). We imagine parents quietly working in a study, emerging only for “family walk with the dog” and mealtimes.
Why do mothers share schedules?
There are many frameworks I could use to categorise social media posts. The majority of pandemic-related posts on Facebook groups for mothers that I looked at fall into two broad categories: information seeking or tension relieving. Sandra Ball-Rokeach (1973) defined ‘pervasive ambiguity’ as a situation where even the information needed to make sense of a situation is lacking. Ball-Rokeach found that people respond to the stressful experience of ambiguity by shifting between information-seeking and tension-relieving behaviour. The COVID-19 pandemic has created extended periods of pervasive ambiguity for mothers. Many have the same questions: Will schools close? When will they open? Is it safe to use the playground now? Should we visit the grandparents?
In March 2020, when schools in Japan and the UK closed, mothers were online looking for information and tips. The Facebook groups in Japan were a particularly important source of information for mothers like me who are not fluent in Japanese and could not follow the mainstream media.
Mothers also wanted to know if what they were doing or experiencing was normal. One popular discussion thread began “anyone else not in a routine yet since lockdown?” and over a hundred mothers replied with their own struggles. Tension-relieving behaviour on Facebook groups often begins with one person venting their frustration, then replies are a mixture of directly supportive messages (“be kind to yourself”), and people sharing similar experiences (“I feel the same”). Other tension-relieving behaviour takes the form of sharing memes like QUARANTINE SCHEDULE where others will comment on how true to life it is and point out specific elements that they find funny. The popular memes always contain elements of truth, for example, the screen time taboo is a common theme.
All the schedules I found on Facebook, and reported in the media, were created by mothers. Here are my observations about the schedules I saw online:
- Schedules are images so they stand out on Facebook. They are often colour-coded and sometimes drawings or images. A few are created on a computer and posted as an image, some are photos of printed out schedules, others are written on paper or whiteboards.
- Mothers will share in written text on Facebook what they do in a day with timings in response to a question for advice about time management.
- People share schedules spontaneously, usually saying it is to help others. As with Jessica McHale’s schedule, it is possible to increase your social capital with what is perceived as a good schedule. However, schedules for pre-school kids attracted some negative comments, about kids that age needing more unstructured time.
- Creators and posters of the humorous schedules are emphasising what ‘bad’ parents they are usually through large amounts of screen time, unhealthy snacks and ‘failure’ or lack of homeschooling.
- Schedules are almost entirely about what the kids are doing, they start when the kids wake up and end when they go to bed. Housework is only shown if the kids are doing it.
It just looks like everyone has a schedule
I had seen enough schedules on Facebook to think that everyone had them. We had one, although it was more decorative than functional. My thesis research is about how gender norms affect mothers’ experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Asking parents about lockdown schedules seemed like a good way to start a conversation about how working parents in opposite-sex relationships negotiate time use. Asking about who made the schedules and who knows what is supposed to happen could give some insights to gender norms.
However, of the 200 mothers who responded to my survey, only 10% said they have a schedule that is written down as a way to manage family time. For 64% of respondents, a routine developed after a while. Respondents who were the only adult in the house answered the same. I had conversations on WhatsApp and Facebook messenger with parents who were aware of schedules from social media but did not use them.
“We haven’t done a set schedule (we did discuss it but decided we likely wouldn’t stick to it.” (father, UK, Facebook)
“I did try for 1-2 days when I saw many people posting schedules, then I realized quickly I had to lower my expectations!” (mother, Japan, Facebook messenger)
“Saw people sharing schedules etc and thought it was ridiculous! If anything found it counterproductive as so many people sharing ‘great things you can do with your kids’ and then we’re like how the hell we going to fit it all in?” (father, UK, WhatsApp chat)
“I initially panicked and made a timetable of what I felt would give us structure and purpose. We did stick to this for a few weeks and then I became more relaxed about it. Roughly now our days follow a similar pattern.” (mother, UK, survey)
On Facebook groups for mothers, there were many conversations about feeling overwhelmed and stressed by the day to day reality of lockdown. For many parents, there are not enough hours in the day, however you colour-code them, especially with children who need constant supervision.
“It’s just not possible. I find my mental health quickly deteriorating. I’m a little fed up with pretending it’s doable if we have ‘good organisation’. Anyone in a similar situation, how are you doing it?” (mother of two preschoolers, UK, Facebook)
Even the real schedules are not real
As I mentioned above in my observations, when mothers have created schedules, they are about the children. If you have a schedule at all, it is the tip of the iceberg. Mothers are waking up early to start their workday – as early as 4.30 am – and working late into the night and weekends. One mother said she was averaging four hours’ sleep a night. Mothers having to work whilst supervising children or homeschooling was a common theme, as was guilt at having to use screen time in order to get paid work done.
“It’s basically a horrendous marathon of constant childcare and working then sleep … I keep thinking just get through another week we’ve done it for 4 weeks now … It’s flipping relentless!”(father, UK, Facebook)
Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (2020) in the UK found that during lockdown where both parents are in paid employment, mothers are only able to do a third of the uninterrupted work hours of fathers. The meme based on Dolly Parton’s song ‘9 to 5’ has been popular on mothers’ Facebook groups because they identify with a totally fragmented workday which has to fit around the needs of everyone else in the house. Working parents find themselves in micro-negotiations throughout the day: whose Zoom meeting needs to happen in the spare room, and who is going to have children appearing in the background?
Working parents frequently describe themselves working as a “tag-team” or “taking shifts”. There was talk of shared online calendars between the parents, and one mother sets alarms to remind them when it is time to change shifts.
“It’s total tag team…. when one of us needs a break the other one steps in, but of course I feel the weight of running the household.” (mother, Japan, Facebook messenger)
“luckily I can be really flexible with when I work so we tend to tag-team the childcare throughout the day” (father, UK, Facebook)
In my survey, I asked “who knows what needs to happen when?”, for example, “you’re running low on sugar, you need to send a birthday card to grandma this week, what homework your kid is supposed to be doing”. 85% of mothers said it was them pre-pandemic, and 80% said it was them during the pandemic. Despite fathers increasing their involvement at home, it is still overwhelmingly mothers who are responsible for the overall organisation. That could explain why all the schedules shared online are made by mothers.
“My partner is starting to notice these things slightly more now he’s home all the time” (mother, UK)
“No matter how much I try to share this stuff, it is always me that holds the responsibility!” (mother, UK)
“I’m the scheduler at home and I know when and where everyone needs to be. I’ve started using a large erasable calendar on our wall where I would write down everyone’s schedule for all to see. It’s helped shift some of my responsibilities to the others but I’m still the one managing our schedules and reminding everyone.” (mother, Japan)
Caring about time – the femaleness of lockdown schedules
Despite progress on women’s rights and gender equality, there is an enduring association between caregiving and femaleness. Paid and unpaid care work is undervalued by society and the economy. The pandemic is shining a spotlight on what feminists have known for years – that gender norms around care are a barrier to equality. The headline ‘I feel like a 1950s housewife’ – how lockdown has exposed the gender divide (Ferguson, 2020) sums it up.
In Japan, gender inequality is higher than in the UK, employers expect men to give their full attention to their careers. There was hope the pandemic would make visible women’s unpaid care work – Stuck at Home, Men in Japan Learn to Help. Will it Last? (Rich, 2020), but gender norms run deep in Japan. The mayor of Osaka advised women should not go grocery shopping because they dawdle, whilst men will “quickly grab what they are told to buy” – presumably by their wives (Jozuka, 2020).
There is hope that the COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities to challenge gender norms, for example where the father has had to become the main caregiver. It will be interesting to see whether this has any long-term positive impacts.
In the UK, research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (2020) found that opposite-sex parents are not making decisions on time use based only on economic factors. When both people are working, even when the mother earns more, she still does more childcare and the same amount of housework as her partner. Where the father stopped paid employment entirely during the lockdown, the mother is still doing half of the childcare and housework. The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing to light how gender norms permeate every aspect of life, often without us realising.
Time-use surveys provide invaluable data and insight into the division of labour in a household. It is also useful to gain insight into the stories behind those numbers. The lockdown schedules shared on social media are a symbol of the mental load that gender norms dictate will be taken on by women. The invisible mental load is made partially visible by these schedules although they do not show nearly the full extent of what needs to get done. Even with schedules, shared calendars, apps and alarm clocks, many parents who are both working from home during lockdown are forced into micro-negotiations about who does what when and where. The gendered dimensions of these negotiations are often subtle and therefore hard to challenge.
This paper was brought to you during the COVID-19 pandemic by tag-teaming childcare with my partner, who also works full time.
Thank you to all the parents who took time in their busy days to chat with me, complete my survey or reply to my request to use quotes or images.
Ball-Rokeach, S. J. (1973). From pervasive ambiguity to a definition of the situation. Sociometry, 36(3), 378–389.
Ferguson, D. (2020, 3 May). ‘I feel like a 1950s housewife’ – how lockdown has exposed the gender divide. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/03/i-feel-like-a-1950s-housewife-how-lockdown-has-exposed-the-gender-divide
Institute for Fiscal Studies. (2020). How are mothers and fathers balancing work and family under lockdown? Briefing note: 27 May 2020. Retrieved from https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/14860
Jozuka, E. (2020, 24 April). Japanse mayor says men should grocery shop during pandemic as women ‘take a longer time’. CNN. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/24/asia/japan-coronavirus-osaka-mayor-hnk-scli-intl/index.html
Rich, M. (2020, 16 May). Stuck at Home, Men in Japan Learn to Help. Will it Last? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/16/world/asia/coronavirus-japan-household-work.html
Strauss, E. (2016, 20 May). The Debate Over Screen Time is Really About Moms, Not Kids. Slate. Retrieved from https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/05/the-debate-over-screen-time-is-really-about-moms-not-kids.html