Balancing reproductive labour and academia in lockdown

In light of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, on 20 March 2020 the UK Government ordered the physical closure of all schools, nurseries, colleges and universities. This blog is a personal account of the immense impact the lockdown has had upon my working life as a PhD student and the single parent of a toddler. It is not intended to be a particularly academic piece. It is a narrative account, using feminist theories of reproductive and domestic labour to articulate my personal work/life-balance struggle within the wider context of patriarchy and the COVID-19 lockdown. The purpose of this piece is to amplify voices that are often silenced and/or ignored within the academy and inform those working in academia (and elsewhere) of the gendered impact of the lockdown on women’s ‘productivity’ levels. On a personal note I also hope other single parents studying and working in universities can feel seen and recognise elements of their own struggles though this writing.

Childcare is work

Let’s start with the personal, for it is always political. I am a second-year PhD research student and I am the single parent of a toddler. This piece was haphazardly written on my phone, during my daughter’s naps, after bedtime, during the respite of television and whilst on the toilet. It has taken over 2 months to write less than 2,000 words, and I only finally managed to finish the piece once my daughter returned to nursery on the 9th of June. That is how much of an impact doing 100% reproductive labour has on academic productivity.

During the lockdown nursery closures I have been unable to ‘work’ in the traditional sense of exchanging labour for economic reward, though as a feminist, and a mother, I know that childcare is work. Childcare is the hardest, most exhausting and fundamentally the most important work I have ever done. I am currently working 24 hours a day, 7-days a week, without respite or economic reward. But it is not valued as such. Not valued by the university institution I work at (as I will discuss further below), not valued by the current government (highlighted in the low wages of nursery staff), and ultimately not valued by our (patriarchal) society.

Due to my status as a single mother, which conflicts with the heteronormative nuclear standards of parenthood, I am what Sara Ahmed describes as a ‘question’, I become the ‘stranger’ at odds with the norm in the white-male dominated institution of the academy. Predominantly during my working life at the university I ‘pass’, I fit, I have not (so far) needed to take my daughter with me into university, she does not walk into the room before me in the way race does, for example. Our children are still invisible in the university. Since becoming a mother and a student again I have taken time to notice the presence, or lack of, children within the academy. During this time I have observed a clear class divide between the university libraries where children are and are not present or tolerated. I am studying for my PhD at a very working-class post-1992 university. I regularly see children in the library and on university campus, including my own (wonderful) supervisor having to bring her young sleeping son to a PhD supervision as her childcare had fallen through. In contrast, I also regularly frequent the library of another local upper/middle-class old redbrick university. I have never once seen or heard a child in this university library. Even in the middle-class realm of the university campus, the link between gender, class and race is never far away.

Instead of bringing my child into the academy, I, the single mother, have been removed from the university. I am back at home, doing the unpaid, unappreciated, highly feminised reproductive and domestic labour – the childcare, the cooking, the cleaning – and not my academic work. To be clear, I always do these tasks but in an attempt to break into the rich-white-man university, I have learned and previously been able to conceal my mother persona within an academic façade. Although a very narrow path has been carved by brave women before me, even in 2020 daring to be a single mother and have an academic career still feels like a hard and provocative decision.

The pandemic has however shifted the careful balance between academia and motherhood. Now I am back to mother, banished back into the home, unable to work, confined to a limited headspace permeated by the mind-numbing boredom of Peppa Pig. In lockdown the patriarchy is still flourishing. The academy is still the rich-white-man’s world. It is still hard for academics of colour, women, trans persons, working-class academics and those marginalised by society in any way to excel in the field. The lockdown has brought all these fault lines into even sharper focus. My reproductive labour is of no use to the university. It won’t transcribe the 60 hours of interviews I have, it won’t write 80,000 words, it won’t pass me my viva, it won’t get me a great job when I finish my PhD, it won’t bring in the next grant for the university, or make me a successful statistic for their latest shiny re-branding brochure. But it is necessary for the continuation of society, it is vital for future generations and it is paramount to our survival. To quote one of my favourite Instagram single mamas, I am “raising the future” and surely that is important work.

As a single parent I have worked hard to build my financial and social independence away from the nuclear family. This has not been easy within a university that offers no extra financial support to PhD students with caring responsibilities. £15k ain’t much when you spend over half on childcare bills. I have had to fight numerous bureaucrats about badly-thought-out, unaccommodating university policies for conference travel. Repeatedly, I have had to make myself known, highlight my specific situation, expose my personal life to get the equal access needed to penetrate the rich-white-man’s university. I can literally feel their eyes roll when they see an email with my name on it. And those eyes will have been rolling heavily since lockdown as I and thousands of other PhD students have desperately been trying to find out if we will be getting a funding extension to cover the pandemic. It took over six weeks for my university to confirm it will be offering case-by-case funding extensions for PhD students and not the minimum 6-month funding extension for all PhD students the Students Union had been arguing for. It’s certainly not ideal and the six weeks of uncertainty demonstrates little care or understanding for student wellbeing. Personally, I will be applying for a funding extension, but it remains to be seen what the process for this is or if the university will consider childcare responsibilities an acceptable barrier to academic progress.

Where are the women during lockdown?

In my last lecture on women’s rights delivered before the lockdown, I asked the students to think about the gendered impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown. A wildly optimistic male student ventured that maybe men would learn how hard women’s lives are if they have to stay at home all the time and learn to respect “women’s work”. I would love to have believed this could be true. Instead we are confronted with the horrifying (yet sadly unsurprising) news of double the number of domestic murders, Women’s Aid receiving twice as many phone-calls for help from women as usual and a 162% average increase in domestic abuse at BAME women’s organisations. Sadly, my student’s optimism did not reflect the lived experiences of women. Male attitudes did not change, instead women and children live with increasing violence.

With soaring statistics of domestic abuse around the world during lockdown, violence against women is as much a part of the story of the global COVID-19 pandemic as the virus. This was not unexpected, nor unexplainable. The focus of my PhD research is domestic abuse and there is an irrefutable link between undervaluing ‘feminised’ work, such as reproductive and domestic labour, and violence against women. The link between domestic abuse, controlling behaviour, gender inequalities in the home and workplace and lack of women’s freedom is obvious. All of which are a thousand times exacerbated by the lockdown. Dangerously, patriarchy is alive and kicking during the pandemic. Do not stay at home if it is not safe. The gendered impact on our work, on our restricted movement, on our childcare and caring responsibilities is fundamental to understanding the COVID-19 crisis.

Back in the academy, it’s not just me that is suffering. Early research by Colleen Flaherty shows the gendered impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on female academics is stark. Whilst research paper submissions by men are up by fifty percent, research paper submissions by individual women are down. The gendering of childcare, household chores, the prioritisation of men’s research/career/work make these results unsurprising – depressing, but unsurprising. I haven’t seen a breakdown of research submissions along race lines but I would bet my life the trends will be similar. If we want universities to be more than elitist, white, middle-class male environments we must make systematic changes. As the great trans-academic Ruth Pearce writes, universities must create “systems of support which acknowledge and account for pre-existing inequalities”.

Post-COVID-19 feminist futures

Given that the COVID-19 global health pandemic and subsequent lockdown have been such a ginormous jolt to our daily lives and assumptions about our social structures, now is the time to ask for the seemingly impossible. We have seen that the British government can increase universal credit, they can fund the NHS, build hospitals overnight, house the homeless, etc. They can do things proclaimed as radical madness in the December 2019 election. Alongside this, we are seeing the emergent of an international civil rights movement. The Black Lives Matter protests across America, the UK and elsewhere have given voice to anger over centuries of systemic racism and white supremacy. These things should give us all the hope we need. The hope that the result of all the lockdown sacrifice can be the sweet reward of ending capitalism, ending patriarchy, ending white supremacy, ending heteronormativity and the deadly obsession with the nuclear family.

Let’s come out of this crisis with fresh thoughts about (intersectional) feminism, a revaluing of reproductive labour, of our freedom as women to work, to be mothers (or not) and everything else. To escape the restrictive gender roles, smash the washing-up. I don’t want to spend my time after the lockdown manically trying to ‘catch up’ on the career slippage that occurred. I want an academy of learning, shifted away from the capitalist emphasis on production through measurable outputs. A world that sees raising children, everyone’s future, as collective and truly valuable work.


Sarah Hopwood is a PhD student at Teesside University (researching domestic violence, austerity and the hostile environment). She is a Rape Crisis helpline worker, a single mam and an intersectional feminist.

Image credit: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash