Mothers in Serbia face hardship during COVID-19 related state of emergency

Photo: Foto: Marko Miletić / Mašina

The introduction of state of emergency in Serbia exposed all the difficulties of modern motherhood.

The pandemic has affected the whole population. From the medical point of view, the most vulnerable are the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. However, it is women who are extra burdened and under pressure, especially those unable to work from home, those who are worried about losing their jobs, and those who have already lost theirs. When we add parenting for those who have children, and care for the elderly and the sick on top of it all, things get a lot more complicated. To whom to leave the children to look after? How to get organized? Who to assist and help first? How to protect yourself?

In order to protect the eldest, who otherwise most frequently provide assistance with children while parents are at work, the Serbian Government decided that one of the employed parents may stay at home to care for children under 12 years of age. However, there are relatively many single mothers in Serbia who don’t have a choice in this situation, who are threatened with dismissal if they don’t show up for work, and have no one to leave their children to look after. As Tatjana Macura warns and appeals in front of the “Moms rule” initiative:

Some mothers can work from home, but there are many who can’t – health workers, shopkeepers, hairdressers, factory workers, etc. In order for these mothers not to lose their jobs immediately or after the state of emergency is lifted, the state must find a way to encourage employers not to fire them. I hope that decisions to let employees go are not a result of employers’ arrogance, but a consequence of an economic crisis that we are already facing or will face soon. Hence, a deeper understanding of the relations between employers, single mothers, the state and relevant ministries is necessary.

In any case, each of these particular positions seems unenviable. Therefore, Mašina conducted a small survey among mothers we are close to and who are experiencing the same or similar problems.

“I don’t think I’m even aware of what’s comming”

While some mothers find it difficult to cope with work from home, while simultaneously taking care of their children and managing their households, others struggle with “disobedient” parents they also look after. Some face all of these problems at the same time. The necessity to adapt to this new situation produces a whole range of feelings: from fearing the unknown, anxiety, dread, panic, through cheerfulness and optimism, to the spontaneous elaboration of daily practices of survival and the struggle for bare survival… All the way to providing help and encouragement, assisting neighbours and others, fellow citizens, who need a hand at this time. And so on. It’s not easy.

Brankica, a mother of two daughters (7 and 2 years old) is torn between the work she brought home, taking care of her children and her mother, the fear of pay cuts, and the endless uncertainty:

As much as I feel fine to be at home now, it will certainly become difficult not to go to work in a few days. There at least I rest a bit. I moved the office home, but there is no way that I’ll be able to work during the day with my daughters constantly interrupting me, so I will have to work at night. Our pay and working hours will be reduced, i.e I will get half the usual salary for working from home. Overall, I don’t think I’m even aware of what’s coming. I take the children out, but not to the park, we go to the schoolyard because there are no other children there. I worry about my mom, but I hope she takes this situation seriously and that she won’t be leaving the house.

Milica, an employee in the IT sector who transferred her job home, and her husband, find themselves in a similar situation:

My job is in front of the laptop, I can work from home, and I have no elderly to take care of. I mean, not in this city. My only concern is what to do with our child while we work from home for 8 hours. My husband receives calls from abroad every half an hour, so he needs peace and quiet, and I write in three languages so I need to stay focused, too, while our poor daughter has to keep silent and stay in her room.

It’s even more difficult for mothers who live alone with their underage children. Đuliana, a mother of a seven-year-old girl, will have to go to work next week, although she spends this one at home, because the staff in her company has been divided into two groups. Given that she works in organizing transport of goods from South-Western Europe, it’s not certain if she will be able to work entirely from home:

I’m not responsible for any old folks; I organize my time the best as I can and according to need. I’ve done grocery shopping… I won’t go to work this week because we are divided into two groups, and when I go, next week, Una will be with her dad. The biggest problems for me are that we are in no condition to handle this situation, that people behave irresponsibly and ate shoping frantically, and that those who need to and can be at home are not, which will make the government limit everybody’s movement in the end.

Jelena, a mother who is prematurely retired due to a serious health condition, faces difficulties that are primarily financial in nature:

My dominant emotion is worry – following panic and fear of the unknown. I’m concerned about whether I will manage to protect my family, my child, myself, my husband, because I don’t have much time to help others even though I am available and willing to. I take my kid outside to a small park with few children. I keep my social life online, which my child cannot. We have no food supplies.

During the COVID-19 emergency schools will be closed. Classes are broadcasted on Public TV; Photo: Marko Miletić / Mašina

“The biggest problem for my husband and me is that neither of us is formally employed, and our jobs depend on others, so we will lose our sources of income”

There are mothers whose jobs are more or less secure, and who don’t expect to suffer negative consequences of this crisis to their employment during the coming months; but there are also those who lost their jobs at the same time the state of emergency was declared, since they didn’t have an employment contract, or any other agreement with their employer.

Lana, a mother of two kids under 12 years old, is a representative example of many mothers in Serbia who are, despite their higher education, forced to work unregistered and without any social protection:

The biggest problem for my husband and me is that neither of us is formally employed, and our jobs depend on others, so we will lose our sources of income – that is, we’ve already lost them, because we can’t work now.

She goes on to explain the inability to do her job as a personal assistant for children with special needs, while in parallel training as a speech therapist: “I want to work, but my job is such that I’m forbidden to”.

All projects have been cancelled for Sandra, a mother of two children in elementary school. Her experience is shared by an increasing number of freelance cultural workers, whose part-time professional engagement (whether in theatre, film, music industry or visual arts) have been discontinued. However, she tries to look at the situation at hand from the “brighter” side. As she later comments, she is aware that this enthusiasm will only last for a couple of days:

Aside the fact that this situation brings back memories of the nineties, and that I have no idea how long it will take and what awaits us – which causes mild anxiety – I have to admit that it even feels a bit nice for us all to be home. What worries me the most is that all my projects have been cancelled and postponed, and Rade’s (my husband’s) aikido club is temporarily closed. It’s a heavy blow to our home budget.

But what about those women who, in addition to precarious work or the one they are forced to bring home, child-rearing, care for their parents in need, and the whole burden of housework, work night shifts, for instance:

My basic problem is that I have to spread myself thin to handle cooking, grocery shopping, looking after my parents, and work. I am annoyed with the fact that we lose time bothering with administration for people who are vulnerable and unable to come to work, instead of concentrating on getting the job done, points out Kosa, who is struggling to multitask caring for two young children and her parents, one of whom is disabled, and who don’t share the same address.

The situation is no better for Beba, who lives alone with a sick father and a daughter of preschool age, while her employer “hovers over her head”:

The basic problem is that we are expected to behave normally in an abnormal situation. It is extremely difficult when the employer expects you to fulfil all the obligations related to professional life while trying to distract your (old and ill) father from crazy ideas like going out. Add all the shopping, homework and other needed logistics to all that. And this is just the beginning, and we are all still healthy…

Nevertheless, despite the reasonable fear of uncertainty which the pandemic has introduced into the lives of these women – and many others in Serbia and all over the world – a sense of community and belonging, the opportunity to share frustration, anxiety and powerlessness with other women, and examples of solidarity that multiply by the day bring hope that “together” we can do better and to ease the burden.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was originally published in Serbian on Mar 18, 2020.


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