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The ‘impossible choice’ of being a working mum in lockdown

The Big Issue speaks to a working mum about the exhausting balancing act of looking after children and keeping a business afloat
Gemma Whates is trying to run a business and home school her two boys. Image credit: ALL by MAMA

When Gemma Whates started a company supporting working mums, she had no idea a global pandemic would bring to focus the stark realities of being a working mum

The 38-year-old from Kingston, in south London, launched ALL by MAMA in 2015, running courses to help mums start their own enterprise and selling products made by small family-owned businesses.

But the past year has been like no other. Since schools closed in the third national lockdown, Gemma is essentially working two jobs: business owner and homeschooler to her four and eight-year-old boys. 

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“Most schools have been able to provide more home learning this time around, and that’s great, but as a consequence, parents can’t keep up,” she said. 

“In my case, we’ve got two primary school children in the house, you have to be there and present and you have to actually teach.” 

Gemma’s day as a working mum starts at 6.30 am, getting learning resources ready for the kids and homeschooling runs from nine until three. Even with a few breaks in the middle, it can be exhausting to keep the boys entertained throughout the day while answering emails and work calls.

Following a TV break and dinner time, Gemma will put the children to bed and begin working her day job from eight in the evening until midnight. 

Despite this feat, she admits she’s under pressure: “It’s an impossible choice between your child’s education and your business.

“I don’t want my children’s education to suffer because I can’t commit to homeschooling them fully, but equally, I need my business to survive the pandemic. 

“I’ve got a small team who are all contractors but we pay them each month and I want to make sure I can continue to do that. It’s a hard balance.” 

And she isn’t alone. Charity Working Families told the Big Issue this week that parents had flocked to its helpline seeking advice after being turned down for furlough and struggling to find childcare. A poll of 50,000 working mums by the TUC also found seven in ten requests for furlough were turned down. 

Anna Whitehouse, an author and founder of parenting site Mother Pukka, called the challenge of working and looking after kids “not humanly possible”. 

“You’re looking at an average eight-hour working day, six-hour school day, 12 hours of parenting wrapped around that – that’s 26 hours in a 24 hour day,” she said. “And I’m hearing daily from women who are stepping back, standing down and logging off because they’re burning out. Some are quitting out of choice, many not.” 

The inflexibility from employers for working mums is something Gemma is familiar with. Her professional background is in marketing and the ALL by MAMA business was born after the all too common experience of struggling to progress after having children. 

“That’s why I started the community in the first place,” she explained. “I used to have a career I was really passionate about but after I had my first son I didn’t get the flexibility I needed. It’s an age-old story.” 

Currently, furloughing herself isn’t an option for Gemma as she needs to keep her business running. She said most of the 5000 mothers she works with had been impacted by school closures, with very few having the option of furlough. She added this was leading to businesses and mental health suffering as a result. 

Gemma said that many newly self-employed mothers set up businesses after coming back from maternity leave and to bring some income into the household. But in many cases, she said, they cannot access any financial support during the pandemic. 

“Often these small businesses are run by mothers because it’s what they decided to set up after maternity leave to bring some income into the household. 

“Many are unable to access any financial support at all and that can be detrimental to the business and make it really difficult to keep running during the pandemic. I think what’s really needed is financial support and subsidised childcare.”

Whitehouse agreed: “Who looks after kids home-schooling? Who looks after pandemic patients when out of hospital? Who takes a Tesco shop to elderly neighbours? Who runs community WhatsApp groups making sure everyone has everything they need? This unpaid labour is mainly strapped to female shoulders because – for all the International Women’s Days Sellotaped together – that’s the current working world we live in. 

“One thing that can change right now is seeing the Government supporting all businesses to enable them to offer a much more flexible solution and furlough. The system needs to step up for parents before we step back to the 1950s.”