Parenting in a Pandemic: Tension, Stress and Guilt

NO INSTRUCTION MANUALS nor guide books were available on “How to parent under lockdown”, especially not in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Marooned at home, parents of young children especially, had to rely on their creativity and wits in order to manage.

Things have not necessarily gotten better after restrictions began loosening in the following months. Instead, parents are confronted with new sets of concerns, but this time laced with an acute sense of guilt.

Torn between Children and Employment

Now back at work, Caroline* and her husband have to leave the supervision of their kindergartener Brian’s online learning to her mother, who is also taking care of baby Julie, after the childcare centre she used to go to reported a Covid-19 outbreak.

Mohd Hazimi with his daughter at his workplace.

Mohd Hazimi is in the same predicament. But unlike Caroline, his parents are in Kelantan. Now that he has to return to the office, albeit on a rotational basis, Hazimi and his wife are taking turns to care for their toddler daughter. “I did not fully understand the significance of unpaid work until I was put in that position,” he says. “My annual leave for 2020 was used up for my daughter’s care, but that still wasn’t enough.”

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Rather unexpectedly, the pandemic has also been an illuminating experience, adds Hazimi. “It taught me how to become a better parent. I’m fully involved in the cooking and cleaning, and caring for my daughter when my wife needs to go to work.”

Hazimi is open about his struggles of pandemic parenting. He admits to being unable to commit 100% to work or as a parent, and to feeling conflicted for having to take extended periods of absence from work. “But what choice do I have? It is such a dilemma for me and my wife.”

Lim* has been allowed to work from home since the start of the MCO. But rather than it soothing her troubles, it has had the opposite effect of exacerbating them. A survey by market research firm Ipsos reports that 65% of Malaysians are now working from home1 and for mothers especially, this means extra workload to an already overburdened day.

On top of managing her business and working to expand her clientele, Lim is also the go-to person for when her seven-year-old needs assistance in her online schooling. “Working from home means that one is technically doing everything. I have to accompany my daughter when she is attending to her remote lessons, while I conduct my own virtual meetings. I feel double the guilt as a parent when I ask her to stop peppering me with questions, and as an employee because I’m too often distracted by the needs of my child.”

From March 2020, the Ministry of Education introduced home-based teaching and learning (PdPR), categorised into three distinct forms of learning: online learning, where according to their timetables, students attend school classes virtually; offline learning by which educational videos and Google Forms are shared on WhatsApp and Telegram group chats comprising teachers, parents and students; and lastly, offsite learning that requires parents to collect learning modules from schools for their children and to return them to the teachers upon completion of the assignments.

“We are seeing closer cooperation between parents and teachers today,” says Lye Guang Yang, a secondary school teacher. “But there are also parents who are frustrated that they now have to stand in for teachers too. It is ironic because parents who want to work from home but can’t do so, worry about their children playing truant and about unfinished homework.”

Lye describes the education landscape as ever-changing, “which can only be improved on by innovation and trial and error.”

No Outlet to Recharge

Tan Wei Jian and his wife Chuen Ying welcomed their first child just a month prior to the MCO, in February 2020. But learning to become parents during quarantine has led to more downs than ups for the couple. Tensions ran high as each tried to stave off parental burnout. “The baby needs round-the-clock care, which was overwhelming for us as new parents. What’s more, we’re trapped at home with almost zero personal time to ourselves.”

Single parent Azeema concurs, “I find myself multitasking all the time now, between my three daughters, as the family’s sole breadwinner, and trying to live a life. It is hard trying to find a good balance.”

Single father John* had his children over during the lockdown period and decided to use the time to teach his two sons the value of housework. “One week into the MCO, I drew up a chore schedule to teach them to pull their weight around the house. I also tried making cooking time fun, especially when trying out new recipes.”

Tan Wei Jian and his family.

Azeema and her three daughters.

Rethinking Penang’s Childcare System and Education Policies

The existing childcare system and education policies have been rendered ineffective in this New Normal, which has also made very real the risk of parental burnout. Nationwide, the demand for childcare centres is steadily rising and in Penang, the state government is offering operating grants for childcare centres to encourage more to be opened in the state. A monthly childcare centre (TASKA) fee subsidy of RM50 is also provided to each child from B40 families.2 

... parents are confronted with new sets of concerns, but this time laced with an acute sense of guilt.

Additionally, the Penang state government and the Penang Women’s Development Corporation are exploring the possibility of reviving a number of action plans under the Penang State 2012 Childcare Policy to remove current limitations imposed on childcare centres, to provide more space in compliance with social distancing measures. This includes increasing the number of home-based childcare providers and to improve on their training, as well as instituting a system of certification and registration.3 To be sure, parenting in the New Normal will require many more adjustments and much flexibility. The learning process continues, for parents and children.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of interviewees.

3 There are home-based childcare providers that are unmonitored since many are unlicensed.  

Chan Xin Ying and Hasanah Akhir are advocates for family inclusiveness. They are currently working at the Family and Children’s Affairs Department of the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC).

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