Care loops and everyday mobilities in pandemic times

by Lise Widding Isaksen and Lena Näre

The Covid-19 pandemic made the socio-economic importance of care loops and everyday mobilities very visible. ‘Care loops’ is a concept coined to capture the routine, daily practices and micro-mobilities of care that create loops between the home, the workplace, places of child or elder care, schools, and leisure activities. In pandemic times, parents’ labour market participation and balancing of work and family were re-organized and privatized to contain the spreading of coronavirus. Consequently, boundaries between the private and the public became blurred, and new socio-spatial practices emerged.

Everyday organization of care is an important part of women’s unpaid work at home. Arlie Hochschild used the metaphor of a ‘shift’ to describe mother’s extra work loads; the ‘first shift’ is at work and ‘the second shift’ is domestic and care work at home. Unmet needs for rest and emotional comfort can create an imbalance between work and family life. The ‘third shift’ is then taking care of children’s stress and the longing for more family time.

The pandemic turned this situation upside down. Because of lockdown policies, families’ everyday mobility routines — to and from schools, childcare institutions, and work as well as daily shopping and leisure activities — were transformed. The established logistics between the first, second, and third shift fell apart.

For white-collar workers, family homes turned into workplaces, schools, and childcare institutions. Grandparents could no longer assist families with children due to socio-spatial regulations and social distancing put in place to protect older age adults as a particularly vulnerable group. The third shift gained new meanings of overseeing children’s homeschooling and early education.

Before the coronavirus, care loops between work, kindergartens, schools, shopping, and leisure activities were social activities connected to participation in formal and informal social networks. These loops are not haphazard but structured by welfare services, labour market policies, and gender ideologies, norms, and policies. Care loops are organized as daily practices related to activities like feeding, bathing, dressing, helping with schoolwork, and playing with children.

The Covid-19 crisis affected women differently than men, since women are more likely to take the second and the third shift in households than men. Not being able to organize daily care loops and leave home therefore became a great challenge for working families and inspired many to ask if Covid-19 would lead to a ‘backlash’ in gender equality?

Families working from home must combine paid work with all the complexities that come from children being present at home. In our work on local care loops and micro-mobilities of care, we use the notion of ‘patchwork’. By this we highlight that care practices are routinized activities that are also changing from day to day, depending on the available resources and constraints (of time, money, and caregivers), as well as the local geographies and distances that need to be connected to the loops. We can easily imagine that everyday life among mothers working from home offices must have been like working with a ‘patchwork quilt’:

“What is involved in women’s work? Much planning and imagination is needed. Women make decisions on the basis of how much time they have; how much money; what distances they have to travel; who is available to substitute them, to help, to share; who needs what. (…) Women continuously choose between alternatives, combining whatever variety of resources are available in order to maximize their value. (…) They carry the responsibility for this apparently trivial decision-making process: they work endlessly at their crazy quilts, striving for balance, trying to introduce some methods and pattern.

Care loops between home, childcare and work had to be replaced with new socio-spatial practices within the household. Kitchens became workplaces, use of spaces and rooms had to be re-negotiated and grandparents, childminders, and schoolteachers were only available online. New gendered power dynamics related to the collapse of boundaries between the private and the public will probably be revealed in future studies of who had unquestionable rights to occupy the best spaces in the house to work.

The daily patchwork of care is structured by different welfare regimes and class inequalities expressed in ideologies of gender equality and egalitarianism. Our comparative studies of egalitarian gender ideologies in Nordic social-democratic societies and post-socialist societies in Central and Eastern Europe find that social constructions of gender relations can be mixes of conservatism and egalitarianism.

Gender equality policies and universal access to public childcare facilities in Nordic welfare states have made contemporary families and childhoods mobile and multi-local. Work-family balances are closely connected to daily logistics and organizations of care loops. Middle-class families increasingly combine public childcare with paid live-in or live-out nannies or au pairs who often have migration histories.

Central and Eastern European countries have become more gender conservative, particularly when it comes to fathers’ involvement in the second and third shift. Mothers generally stay home on paid maternal leave until the child is three years old after which they return to paid work. Czech and Slovak mothers find informal solutions to their work-family balances and prefer to make care loops to grandmothers’ homes or to paid nannies in the neighbourhood instead of attending public childcare institutions. An interesting exception is Slovenia, where public childcare is socially accepted and of high-quality with well-educated staff.

However, Slovenian eldercare is much more familiarized. In a forthcoming book, edited by us, on ‘Care Loops and Mobilities in Nordic, Eastern and Central European Welfare States’, the Slovenian sociologist Majda Hrženjak discusses why during the first wave of Covid-19 pandemic Slovenia had one of the highest shares of deaths in elder care homes in Europe. She finds that models of organizing care based on the idea that services come to the user and not the user to the services requires numerous care-related micro-mobilities in which residents are transferred from elder care homes to medical appointments and therapies. This increased infection rates.

Slovenian elder care also relies on residents’ family members’ and friends’ help in taking residents for a walk and running errands for them. Because of staff shortages, female relatives came daily to help care for the bedridden. As a result, care practices were dependent on mobilities inside and outside institutions. During lockdown, these practices were reduced and residents were left isolated with insufficient care services.

Covid-19 pandemic revealed how fragile policies and practices sustaining gender equal work-life balances are. Mothers more than fathers were exposed to the breakdown of established care loops between home, work, and childcare. They had to reorganize, plan, and make decisions of how much time they have for paid work in home offices and for maximizing available resources to establish sustainable in-home mobilities among family members. Corona-related breakdowns of care loops affected all three shifts differently, but in gendered and socially stratified ways.

This blog post is based on an article published in the Journal of European Social Policy.

About the authors

Lisa Widding Isaksen is a professor of sociology at the University of Bergen.

Lena Näre is an associate professor at the University of Helsinki.

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