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Unemployed but working 24 hours a day, the new norm for mums

Parental stress and maternal burnout lurk around the corner as mothers struggle to balance family, work and chores with little or no time at all for personal activities.

Farhira Farudin
3 minute read

When her husband moved to Kuala Lumpur for work purposes in March last year, Aishah Rahman, a full-time housewife in Batu Pahat, Johor, knew her life was about to change.

Just like that, she became the family’s sole caretaker while juggling a long-distance relationship with her husband.

This, compounded by the complications brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, meant a huge increase in her stress levels especially during the various lockdown periods implemented throughout the year. Since then, chores and responsibilities have only grown, and there are times when Aishah wishes she could just escape.

Yet many who learn that she is a housewife assume that hers is an easy life.

“People still think we sit at home and do nothing,” she said to MalaysiaNow.

“I asked my eldest son to help me with house chores since my husband is not here to help me. People think I’m burdening him. They expect me to do everything by myself.”

“People still think we sit at home and do nothing.”

“Everything” covers a wide range of jobs, from taking care of the house and the four children to being their live-in tutor during the pandemic lockdown.

“Before this, when it came to our children’s studies we expected them to learn everything from their teachers,” Aishah, 38, said. “Now, we are their teachers too. We have to teach them all 10 subjects so that they can complete their homework.

“They are with us 24 hours a day.”

‘All over the world’

This, according to clinical psychologist Jameela Ghazi, is far from an isolated case.

Jameela told MalaysiaNow that the pandemic has caused what is known as parental stress to mothers all over the world, with or without a career, due to an increase in workload and responsibilities.

“When mothers have to juggle many tasks, it results in increased strain and effort,” she said. “If they are working mothers, they will need to work from home and monitor their children’s school schedule and activities at the same time.

“Continuous adaptation to children’s needs and demands during a pandemic will limit mothers’ opportunity to enjoy personal activities.”

She also spoke of maternal burnout, where mothers are emotionally and physically exhausted due to prolonged and excessive stress.

“The longer the lockdown period, the greater the distress. This reduces mothers’ psychological well-being and may result in severe burnout,” she said.

When this happens, mothers may feel less satisfied with their performance as a parent and could experience irritability which can hamper the child-rearing process.

There is also the gender gap issue, although Jameela said this may have decreased somewhat due to the Covid-19 lockdowns.

“However, in a situation where the husband has low awareness or the mother is a single parent, her responsibilities may increase significantly during the pandemic,” she said.

She said failure to address the issue could result in disorientation within the family in terms of emotions, thoughts and behaviour.

“The longer the lockdown period, the greater the distress.”

She spoke of reports which link children’s restlessness, irritability and sadness to their parents’ psychological distress.

“The mental health crisis among mothers could also affect their affection for their husbands, which could lead to a more significant conflict,” she added.

She said women play essential roles in many sectors including healthcare, economy and education.

“Psychological distress may hamper their ability to function at work and reduce their performance,” she said, calling for the development of an intervention plan to reduce the consequences of the pandemic for mothers.

‘Not robots’

Back in Batu Pahat, Aishah said she is now drained from trying to cope with everything at the same time.

“Housewives are not robots who can do chores without any help,” she said. “I am already physically exhausted so when people say things like that, it affects me mentally.

“It’s unpaid labour.”

She also struggles to find someone who will understand what she is going through.

“Housewives are not robots who can do chores without any help.”

“Who can I talk to about my struggles? If I do, people will assume I am an ungrateful and disobedient wife.

“This is why you can see a lot of wives expressing their struggles on social media, because when we try to talk about it with our partners, they don’t listen to us.”

This, to her, is a crucial part of helping solve the problem.

“Not being heard by our partners can add to our stress, especially when we bottle everything up inside.”

She admits that there are times when she would like to escape from everything and just take some time for herself. But with no end in sight to the pandemic just yet, she will have to soldier on.

“I can’t wait for the end of Covid-19,” she said. “That’s when I will take the time to release stress with my children.”