Balancing Motherhood and Covid-19: Patriarchal Experiences in Turkey
The global Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on women’s motherhood experiences. In Turkey, as in all parts of the world, women’s experiences of motherhood are tightened as women carry the domestic burden of being confined to the home, weekend curfews, and flexible working hours on the one hand. On the other hand, being close to home has turned into an advantage for some women to be with their children at home. In the pre-covid period, women’s accusations that they had to work outside and spend less time with their children decreased because they stayed at home and could spend more time with their children than before the pandemic.
Interviews with women, caring about the experiences of women with the feminist methodological approach, show that besides the stimulating effects of the pandemic, it also has effects that reduce the psychological violence against women. This psychological violence through motherhood makes the woman think that she is inadequate due to love, interest and economic conditions, but sometimes this situation can turn into a coping with this psychological violence because the woman who stays at home due to the pandemic spends more time with her child.
Being a Mother: Balancing Motherhood and Working
The suppression of women through motherhood is the way patriarchy exploits women. Motherhood limits the woman’s right to be human and devalues her as an individual. In this direction, a woman emerges only with her motherhood. The patriarchy’s use of motherhood as a field of oppression (Millett 1987; Firestone 1993) is often combined with emotions due to women’s internalization (Millet 1987). For this reason, it is often not understood that there is pressure. While this state of pressure is not visible in an ordinary daily life or can be tolerated, when this limit changes, the pressure becomes visible.
Covid-19, a global pandemic, continues to build a new normal. Women are at the forefront of the populations that are greatly affected by these changes in working conditions. In this process, like many people, women lost their jobs or were stuck in the domestic space due to flexible working. On the one hand, the psychological pressure created by the constant danger of getting sick due to Covid-19 turns into anxiety and worry over the possibility of a mother passing the virus on to her child. While carrying the virus home causes stress, another situation that causes stress is economic income. This situation is caused by the relationship established between the immune system and health, as well as the fact that the loss of women’s job and income means a decrease in family income.
Considering that even the mask that should be used to protect against the virus has a cost, its reflection on the family economy is a sign of how patriarchy is using the pandemic skillfully. Patriarchal capitalism (Young 1990) shows its dominance in medicine and suppresses women with its discourses. Another issue that the pandemic has used skillfully is that the woman turns into a mother more than ever before during this period. But this transformed motherhood, that is, the new form of motherhood includes not only mothering the child but also mothering all the people in the house, the household. Pandemic motherhood is a new form of motherhood that emerged during this period: It’s much more inclusive, much more intense, much more anxiety-inducing, and much more involved than it used to be. At this point, pandemic motherhood turns the woman into an octopus, turning it into the center of the household. In Turkey, where patriarchy has been internalized and experienced intensely in many areas, motherhood is at the forefront of these areas. Being a mother in Turkey is seen as an integral part of being a woman, and policies towards women are determined accordingly. Many women resist the rhetoric that sees women only as mothers and instead they choose the life they want to live freely. Unfortunately, there are also women who internalize these discourses and experience their lives only as the mother of a child.
In Turkey, sometimes women are under pressure not because they are the mother of a child but because society determines how to become a mother and establishes the relationship between motherhood and womanhood. With the patriarchal social policies, women don’t see themselves as valuable because women generally evaluate themselves through their ability to practice motherhood whose standards are set by society. Therefore, as an ideological institution (Oakley 1982), while intimidating women, it also causes women to apply psychological violence to themselves. In the last year and a half, many women feel guilty even for the depression they have experienced due to the pandemic conditions (health, economy, business life, domestic labor, emotional relationships, etc.). However, motherhood is not a simulation that requires us to turn off our emotions towards other things in life when we choose to experience it as women; it is not a code loaded into artificial intelligence.
Motherhood is a field that a woman experiences, applies what she learns through gender roles (Oakley 1982; Millet 1987), and sometimes involves what she comes through her creativity. It is a state of being, not non-existence. But unfortunately, as always, in the pandemic, the patriarchal society expects the woman to destroy herself and her personality and to be the facilitator of the system by only existing for her family. While she prepares her husband for the new day for work (Firestone 1993), she should take care of her child and the elderly (grandparents) at home while at the same time constantly producing unpaid labor (Delphy 1977). Although work is often the way for women to get rid of this rigidity, the pandemic takes away this opportunity and puts more pressure on women. Even when this pressure is not realized through labor as physical pressure (Delphy 1977) and because the woman is happy to be in the domestic area and spend time with her child, she is psychologically worn out and experiences psychological pressure. The pressure she experiences or the point where she is liberated is related to how much space is opened for her to be herself in her home and live humanely.
This research consists of information obtained from online interviews and street interviews women who have children and are living in Turkey. The eight women interviewed in this study were randomly selected among the mothers living in urban areas who wanted to express their experiences due to the pandemic. In the context of women’s relationship between the pandemic and motherhood, short narratives were obtained through informal, open-ended questions. While some of the women were reached through online, some of them were came across on the street, in daily life, and narratives were obtained by collecting information on this subject. The names used are not the real names of the women to protect their privacy. In order to reach this information and prepare the article, I found it right to proceeded by using the feminist method and acting from a female point of view. The driving force behind this study is the impact of patriarchy on women’s experiences of motherhood. Therefore, the feminist method used to create this work based on patriarchy’s exploitation of women by patriarchy assumes that the work is political (Stanley and Wise 1993; Cook and Fonow 1985). It is also very political that patriarchy uses the pandemic to exploit women through motherhood. The patriarchal power (Collins 1990) combined with the capitalist power (Hartmann 2006) has led to transforming both the street and the domestic space into a contested space by squeezing women between work, life, and motherhood during the pandemic. Therefore, this study, carried out with the feminist method, reveals how patriarchal power is used through motherhood and how it affects women. As the author of the research I am a woman who is not a mother and living with my family. And also I’m writing my doctoral thesis on motherhood. Apart from the fact that the pandemic has affected my life in my academic research on my thesis, I must clearly state that it has affected my relationships with my parents as a daughter and with my siblings as an older sister to keep them safe and healthy. For this reason, I can clearly say that the health, immunity, hygiene relationship and mask-related issues that we encounter in the research are still the most important agenda of our lives. Of course, the most important issue other than this is that patriarchy has transformed the pandemic into a cleaning/hygiene area dominated by women.
Non-Normalization Process: The Interaction of Disappearing or Transforming Wage Work with Women and Motherhood
As in many parts of the world, in Turkey, new regulations have been made in working conditions for many sectors due to the pandemic. While these regulations sometimes remain within limits determined by the private sector, sometimes they have become legal for the public, as in the Circulars issued by the Presidency (see footnote). While the working hours of the banks and the working hours of the markets remained within certain hours, people could only go to the markets or grocery stores to do their shopping during the weekend curfews.
The shopping malls, which were closed for a while, were among the first units opened to stimulate the consumption and desire of capitalism, which were temporarily closed. On the other hand, cafes and restaurants, which were opened and closed once, are only open in the autumn and summer months, and since they are closed during the winter, many people lose their jobs and end up in debt. In the normalization period, which started on June 1, 2021, unfortunately, the entertainment, culture and art centers, which has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic, continues to remain closed, and many people, especially business owners, artists, and musicians are trying to survive as unemployed.
In this process, women who are not satisfied with being at home for various reasons (losing their job, losing their salary, being stuck in the domestic space, questioning their identity) describe their feelings as “great uncertainty, trapped, disappearing, losing self-confidence, losing their way”. In the following examples, we find women reflecting on working life and motherhood during the pandemic. Esra is a 38-year-old musician, she is a soloist in a restaurant with music in the evenings. She is also a mother with a 4-year-old child. Esra, who was unemployed during this period because the entertainment places were closed, had to exist at home only as a mother for a year and a half:
I’ve come to the point of forgetting who I am now. I don’t have a job; I don’t have any money I earn. Who am I? Am I just a mother? I am very bored. I’ve been at home for a year and a half, and it isn’t easy to endure both psychologically and financially. Why it has to be like this, I don’t understand at all (Esra 38).
Esra’s reflections show that working life is a place for women to find economic freedom and identity. Economic freedom is liberating for women by giving them a sense of control over their labor (Hartmann 2006). Losing this freedom causes women to question their value and causes economic difficulties such as reduced income. Esra continued by asking: “Is our work so worthless? The responsibility for what happened is thrown on the pandemic, but I still don’t understand being unable to sing while shopping malls are open.
Why are we the first to be overlooked? ” In this example, Esra both questions the policies and examines her value through her work. Before the pandemic, going to work at night was a situation that took away the tiredness of the moments she spent with her child during the day and at the same time made that time valuable; losing her job left her no space to breathe. While she existed only as a mother (Beauvoir 1976), her family also started to experience economic pressure with decreased income. Another woman experiences the coincidence of economic pressure and motherhood as follows.
Deniz is a 45-years-old woman, working in the dishwashing department of a restaurant. Her husband is a small businessman. This family, which has 3 children, has experienced challenging times with the pandemic. Deniz describes her experiences in this period due to the decrease in income as follows:
The pandemic has hit us all hard. Especially in sectors that have been closed for a long time. Before the pandemic, I had a job, and a good salary, combined with my husband’s, and we got along well. But when the sector closed, I lost my job. Our boss tried to support him financially whenever he could but did not like the salary. There are 3 children at home. You go shopping, the prices of fruits and vegetables are unbelievable, what salary will be enough? And because there is a pandemic, it is necessary to pay attention, to keep the immunity high, but how can I buy fruit every day? You get enough budget, but you eat one and give three to the children. I’m a mother because you can’t stand it. It’s okay if you don’t eat, but you feel even more incomplete if they don’t. You start to question what kind of mother am I, because you are not enough. So hard. We have suffered a lot of economic loss but reflecting on the mother inside me and her feelings is a much deeper blow. I cried, cried a lot, got angry, and shouted at the children as if it was their fault. Now that the sector has opened, I started to work again, but my hopes for life decreased. (Deniz 45)
Deniz’s statements show that she internalized the immunity argument presented by the medical authority in order not to catch the virus. The meaning of increasing immunity is to gain control over the virus, and it is the woman who is responsible for gaining control (Nettleton 1996). That’s why it’s gendered. While many mothers, like Deniz, are trying to raise the immunity of their children rather than themselves. For this, they feed the best they can to their children, not to themselves. Their hegemonic motherhood is shaken when they think that they cannot achieve this. It is possible to read hegemonic motherhood as a model built according to the characteristics of each society and imposed on women by the society.
Since all the women went through the socialization process by learning this form of motherhood, they internalized this model.
Therefore, in a country like Turkey, where what is expected from a mother is to devote herself to her children and to consider her needs before herself, when this cannot happen due to economic reasons, women have to face the pressure of patriarchal capitalism. This experience changes as she experiences intensive mothering (Hays 1996) according to her socioeconomic conditions. The meaning of the changing experience for women can even turn into emotional violence. As Elisabeth Badinter (1981) emphasized, the 20th century is the transition to the beginning of a model that includes emotional labor for mothers. The period of the 21st century, on the other hand, is the period of concentration in which emotional labor is experienced more intensely than it has ever been, in addition to the stress from the pandemic period.
This concentration period in mothers sometimes occurs through the discourse of risk because of having to go to work. As Ann Oakley emphasized (1982), the risk is both labeling and a form of labeling (cited in Nettleton 1996). Being an employee during the pandemic period requires both proving that it is not risky and also causes women to face the danger of constant risk. For example, Yeliz is a 34-year-old banker and has a child. While it is considered a luxury for many people who can continue to work in this period when there are many people who lost their jobs, Yeliz says that she constantly worriesabout her motherhood:
I admit that I am lucky to have a job because many people are unemployed. But every day I come face to face with hundreds of people, I am in contact with money. I’m indoors, so that’s enough. Yes, we sit with the mask all day, but to what extent can I trust the mask? I have to eat something during the lunch break; I have to drink water after it. So, the mask will have to come off, even for a few minutes. I come home in the evening, my child; I want to hug, kiss, smell. I want, too. But how do I kiss him? Do you kiss? You’re with people all day; you don’t know if you got a virus or not? As a mother, you want to live your love to the fullest with your child, but you move away from him as a mother. You are running away from love. But come and tell that to that little boy. How does a 3-year-old understand this? When you look into my eyes crying, I start to cry too. These thoughts are in my mind every night. My mother takes care of the child during the day because I can’t call a babysitter anymore, there is a virus, how can I trust the person who will come? How do I know where and with whom he is traveling? But my mom doesn’t see anyone at home all day. At least in that respect, I am comfortable. She can show my child the love that I cannot show. (Yeliz 34)
While love causes emotional exhaustion, the main reason for exhaustion is the excessive inclusion of emotions in motherhood. When this emotional state is experienced intensely, the woman begins to exist not for herself but only for her child. As a woman mother, she thinks that she should not be sick because she plays the role of caregiver and protector (Abbott, et al. 2005).
Şeyma, a 29-year-old woman who works as a cashier in a market and has a 2-year-old child, explains how this situation happened:
In this process, while everyone is told to stay at home, for some reason, we did not come to anyone’s mind. I would also like to isolate myself from germs to sit at home with my child. But I didn’t. We had to come into contact with hundreds of people every day. While many good/bad things were said about the mask, we breathed our breath with that mask from morning to evening. We have been in contact with coins all day. I always prayed for God to protect me. I wouldn’t worry so much if I was alone, but my child is much younger. What happens to him if something happens to me? He needs me. I feel so sad when I think about it; who knows, maybe people shouldn’t look at how the world goes and dream of giving birth. What will happen to our children in uncertainty? I breathe with these worries every second. (Şeyma 29)
The main concern of many women, like Şeyma, during the pandemic, as always, is that if something happens to them, this result will affect their children. This situation, as Mariam David (1985) emphasizes, is because motherhood is defined socially and gives women identity. The equivalent of this identity in women is shaped by the idea that she must survive for her child. Especially when staying healthy and surviving is a risk, such as a pandemic, women think this struggle for life is highly worrying. As the severity of anxiety increases, the psychological violence experienced by women increases. Anxiety sometimes arises from not being able to cope with the risk economically. No matter how much support is given in this process, the inadequacy of the support shows the emergence of capitalism as a form of oppression. At the same time, it leads to emotional wear and the idea of inadequacy.
Although surgical masks were distributed to homes free of charge at the beginning of the pandemic, the mask market emerged a while after this support was cut off. Masks of different prices and qualities, on the other hand, are a means of classifying people according to their economic status while classifying the risk at the same time (Beck 1992). Aside from the discourse about masks and the classification of masks according to their degree of protection (Ullah, et al. 2020), how many hours or days a mask will be used can turn into a form of oppression. Moreover Meryem is a 42-year-old woman with two children. While she doesn’t say what her profession is, she says it has social insurance. She emphasizes that her eldest son works as well as her husband. Considering that there are 3 people going out every day; this means the use of 3 masks. Meryem makes the following connections between the mask and her child who stays at home, whom she thinks she has to protect:
Sometimes I am ashamed that I came home from work wearing a mask and came out with it again the following day. Sometimes I use the same mask for a week; it’s not a lie. Not just me, many people are like this. I see it in the minibus; the mask has no color anymore. It’s been a year. While it was one mask, it became two masks, but nobody asks if you can buy it. Yes, I am ashamed because I had to use the same mask for days. For coming home and hugging and kissing my daughter, even though I didn’t feel safe. I wish it had been different if her mother had not come with a dirty mask but had perfume scents filled the room. (Meryem 42)
As Meryem explains, even getting and using the safe mask has become a class issue.
This situation, which shows the oppression of capitalism, is not only limited to capitalism but also causes patriarchal oppression by combining with the emotions and pressures included in being a mother. Thus, even how women experience the pandemic through motherhood becomes class (Smith 1990). We also see class impacted the pandemic through different occupations. Women in the education sector, such as teachers and academicians experience the pandemic, unlike the women I mentioned earlier. While the concerns of these women in the education sector are being stuck at home, some talk about the new order not as a limitation but as an opportunity that will not be easily took. Irmak, a 33-year-old academic, says that she was quite overwhelmed during this period as the mother of a 4-year-old child:
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy in the first days because we work from home. But as the process dragged on, both the lessons I gave and the housework began to pile up and leave me no room to breathe. I am in one room; my husband teaches in another room; in the other room, my daughter plays with her toys, but for a short time. She comes in the middle of the lesson because she wants a mother; she never goes to the father. I can’t call a babysitter because there is a pandemic, I can’t call anyone home, I can’t call anyone to help with housework. Everything fell on me. I’m ashamed to say this, do you find it challenging to spend time with your child? Sadly, ıt’s coming. (Irmak 33)
It is so sad that Irmak is ashamed to say what she feels because what she says conflicts with the meaning of motherhood. This conflict causes the Irmak to judge herself. However, it is a very natural and understandable issue that social isolation (Abbott, et al. 2005) is a problem for women who become mothers, as it is for many people. However, our patriarchal society turns this issue into one where women blame themselves. While Beyza, a 30-year-old female teacher and mother of 2 children, says that she has experienced something similar to what Irmak feels, 38-year-old Reyhan talks about her satisfaction with spending this period at home:
I do not want to say that the pandemic was perfect because it was an excruciating process for people. Both economic and emotional losses were incurred. But it’s like compensation for the years I’ve lost, the memories I’ve been trying to save but haven’t been able to. So maybe it was a bit silly, but can I explain? There are no weekends during the week because I am a teacher at a school in the private sector. I was coming home with a pestle; how should I take care of the child? It’s not that I don’t want to deal with the misunderstanding. Isn’t it okay? She’s already sleeping early. Working from home gave me this opportunity. It’s hard, it’s not easy, but at least I have emotional satisfaction this time. Think about it; you are missing any of the funny things that the child does; you are missing when you cry. But you are your mother. What kind of mother are you then? I was always asking myself this question; I was sad because she grew up without me. I’ve been with her for over a year, in every moment of her crying and laughing. It was so different to be next to you. I see this difference in my child; she is happier. (Reyhan 38)
Reyhan’s account, on the one hand, shows the state of motherhood transformed today (Badinter 1981), on the other hand, it shows that it can be interpreted in different ways by women. Living in a world dominated by capitalism and such deep inequality between economic classes means a struggle for survival for many people. In this war, unfortunately, emotions are pushed into the background. As Reyhan explains this means losing the meaning of life for many mothers. For this reason, as Emma Griffin (2018) discusses, when physical needs cannot be encountered or in a competitive life, it is a question that should be asked what emotions related to motherhood. Since it is considered the responsibility of mothers to overcome the inequalities caused by the system materially and morally. Women are not responsible for this system, they should not bear the consequences and emotional burdens. However, due to gender roles (Mitchell 1966), femininity integrated with motherhood places all emotional burdens of the child on women. While women are left feeling remorse, there is also a sense that they need to make up for something lost.
Thus, even situations such as the pandemic, continuing to work from home, the deterioration of social relations, and increased domestic burden can sometimes be seen as an opportunity for a woman to make up for the time she missed as a mother. Meanwhile, what is going on inside women when she neglects both herself and also by those around her? Although the pandemic is a reality that affects the psychology of all of us, many women have not been able to take the time to understand what is happening in their inside by putting their motherhood ahead of the pandemic. Therefore, studying how inside of mothers is affected by the pandemic will show what our emotional losses are. At the same time, it will encourage us to seek a way to relate to ourselves and to motherhood. I think there is a way to see these things as all working and speaking together.
Patriarchy and capitalism have benefitted from the covid-19 pandemic. While issues such as staying healthy, protecting the immune system, isolating oneself, and having a job become more important. Also they pose a risk. The risk, on the other hand, has always been classed and gendered. There are often emotional and economic risks in mothers’ risk assessments. While women are confronted with emotional violence over the material things they can’t have, whether they can earn or not, the reasons for this violence are patriarchy and capitalism. It is more painful when women experience this violence through their motherhood. Although this paper illustrates some of the dimensions between the pandemic and motherhood for women in Turkey, the complex nature of this relationship will unfortunately become more dire as income decreases and emotional violence increases.
Although the dynamics of each society are unique, when it comes to the common enemy of a global pandemic, maybe many mothers in different parts of the world have similar experiences to the ones written here. Although mothers want to be able to support their children more, their inability to do so is the fault of patriarchy and capitalism, not women. At this point, I would like to sincerely emphasize that I think that what we have to struggle with is the system itself rather than the feelings we experience such as remorse.
Freedom will only begin when we begin to realize this truth.
Abbott, P., Tyler, M., & Wallace, C. (2005). An Introduction to Sociology: Feminist Perspectives. Tyler& Francis Group.
Badinter, E. (1981). Reality, Motherhood in Modern History. Foreword.
Beauvoir, S. (1976). Le Deuxieme Sexe. [Kadın: Genç Kızlık Çağı] (B., Onaran, Trans.). Payel.
Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society. Sage.
Collins, P. H. (1990). Black Feminist Thought. MA. Unwin Hyman.
Cook, J., & Fonow, F. (1985). Knowledge and women’s interests: Issues of epistemology and methodology in feminist sociological research. Sociological Inquiry, 56, 2-29. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-682X.1986.tb00073.x
David, M. (1985). For the Children’s Sake: Making Childcare More than Women’s Business. Penguin.
Delphy, C. (1977). The Main Enemy: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Opression. WRRC Publication.
Firestone, S. (1993). The Dialectic of Sex. [Cinselliğin Diyalektiği] (L., Salman, Trans.). Payel.
Griffin, E. (2018). The Emotions of Motherhood: Love, Culture, and Poverty in Victorian Britain. The American Historical Review, 123(1), 60-85. https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/123.1.60
Hartmann, H. (2006). The Unhappy Marriage of Marxisim and Feminism. [Marksizmle Feminizmin Mutsuz Evliliği]. (G., Aygen, Trans.). Agora.
Millett, K. (1987). Sexual Politics. [Cinsel Politika]. (S., Selvi, Trans.). Payel.
Mitchell, J. (1966). Women: The longest revolution, New Left Review, 40, 11-37. https://newleftreview.org/issues/i40/articles/juliet-mitchell-women-the-longest-revolution
Nettleton, S. (1996). Women and the new paradigm of health and medicine. Critical Social Policy, 16(4), 33-53. https://doi.org/10.1177/026101839601604802
Oakley, A. (1982). Subject Women. Fontana.
Smith, D. (1990). Conceptual Practices of Power. Northeastern University Press.
Stanley, L., & Wise, S. (1993). Breaking Out Again: Feminist Ontology and Epistemology. Routledge.Ullah, S., Ullah, A., Lee, J., Jeong, Y., Hashmi, M., Zhu, C., Joo, K., Cha, H., & Kim, I. (2020). Reusability comparison of melt-blown vs nanofiber face mask filters for use in the coronavirus pandemic. American Chemical Society, 3(7), 7231-7241. https://doi.org/10.1021/acsanm.0c01562