One afternoon at the height of Lockdown 1.0, my husband found me sitting on our bed thinking of ending my life. I’d put our baby down for her nap and settled our two little boys in front of a film. Then I went up to our room.
How could I, the happily married mother of three adored children, have sunk to those depths – contemplating the very worst? It was undoubtedly the lowest point of my life.
Yet I wasn’t the only one to feel like that. All over the country, women found their lives turned upside down by last year’s Covid restrictions, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Caring for children, sick relatives, expected to turn home-educator – on top of holding down paid work in many cases – some of my closest friends would later confide that they’d been put on antidepressants.
In the past few days, an Ipsos MORI poll has found that working mothers were 45 per cent more likely than the general population to have suffered mental health problems during the spring and autumn lockdowns. I could have told you that months ago. So imagine my distress at last Monday’s announcement by the Prime Minister that the schools were closing again. The news took me straight back to those dark days last March.
Hands full: Flora pictured above with her young sons Jago, Gus and baby daughter Romy
I should explain that I wasn’t in the best shape before the schools shut the first time round. I’d been assigned a psychiatrist while I was pregnant, thanks to a history of post-natal depression.
Then, when our baby daughter was born, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and spent the first month of her life in intensive care. We were only just emerging from the shock of her traumatic birth when the world began shutting down.
My husband left his office in the City of London and worked 12-hour days in what had been my study. With him very much the breadwinner, the bulk of the home-schooling fell to me.
All of our baby’s NHS treatment was cancelled. She needed daily physiotherapy, which I now had to attempt myself and all the while feeding her every three hours.
I rushed frantically from baby Romy to the boys. I’d get four-year-old Gus set up on a task, turn to his brother Jago, aged six, only to find that Gus had slid under the table. I couldn’t meet anyone’s needs. Every home-schooling session seemed to end in shouting and tears. Once they were in bed, I opened my laptop to work but sat staring at the screen.
I stopped sleeping. When I did drift off, I was tormented by dreams that Romy’s limbs were growing at impossible angles. I cried non-stop, when I wasn’t shouting. It felt like a concrete block was pressing on my chest. The psychiatrist said I was having a severe depressive episode and wrote to the school asking them to take the boys in to give me a break. Her letter went unanswered.
When the announcement came that the schools were reopening, it turned out that our school was taking children back only part-time. By this point I was so ill that it felt as if my brain was having the equivalent of a heart attack. I remember screaming and hitting myself in the face on more than one occasion, to the great distress of my poor husband.
He’d be on one call to the hospital, then the next one to furlough yet more staff. It was then that I saw – with astonishing clarity – what I needed to do. I was failing everyone, so I needed to take myself out of the picture. I went upstairs and, well, I’m glad to say my husband found me before I hit rock bottom.
On top of holding down paid work in many cases – some of my closest friends would later confide that they’d been put on antidepressants (file photo)
You don’t need to look very hard to find plenty of similar stories. Take one of my oldest friends (let’s call her Emma). When we first met up after Lockdown 1.0 she told me straight away that she’d been put on antidepressants.
Emma is a whip-smart consultant working in the science sector. But as she puts it, she couldn’t do such complex work with ‘the kids screaming in the background’. Trying to home-school and keep everyone happy was both impossible and exhausting. ‘I started to go a bit loopy,’ she recalls. ‘I became obsessed with getting a cat to make lockdown a positive experience.’ But when the cat arrived, it tipped her over the edge. ‘Here was yet another creature that needed me. I just wanted to get it out of the house. At that point I realised I needed help.’
Another friend, who quit a leading law firm to retrain as a counsellor, tells me she fears she is ‘quietly going insane’.
She phoned her son’s school in tears on Tuesday, begging them to take him in.
‘He goes on about how he hates himself,’ she says (he’s eight). ‘He’s likely internalising all the anger I am projecting out.’
As with the first lockdown, she’s had to stop seeing clients because making confidential Zoom calls with young children running around is impossible. Her best hope is to negotiate one day a week in her husband’s home office.
It’s a story I hear over and over again: women’s jobs, careers – and with it, much of their self-worth – going to the wall as they do the lion’s share of home-schooling and parenting. Meanwhile, their partners, who have taken over whatever passes for a home office, put on their noise-cancelling headphones and crack on.
Joeli Brearley, founder of campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, points to a survey by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that found that for every hour of uninterrupted (professional) work done by mothers, fathers did three hours. The only time the parenting and housework duties were shared equally was when the father had been furloughed.
A mother, Moira, completes homeschooling activities with six-year-old Leo, right, and his three-year-old brother Espen in May 2020 (file photo)
Back in May when I was so unwell, I was prescribed tranquillisers and beta-blockers (on top of the antidepressants) to ward off any more thoughts of taking my own life. They did the job but I still felt so low it was hard to function. My psychiatrist talked about adding an anti-psychotic drug to my medication. ‘But I don’t need an anti-psychotic!’ I said. ‘I just need the schools to open!’
A worrying source of anxiety for the mothers left home-schooling is how far their children are falling behind, particularly those in the state sector. ‘We get a couple of crap work sheets a day,’ says one mother. But most private schools swung into action with a full timetable of Zoom learning within days of the first shutdown.
My children will, we hope, be OK: they aren’t among the 1.8 million youngsters who can’t access screens for home learning. But that widening gap and the anxiety that goes with it is yet another factor that clobbers women the hardest.
‘I call it the Worry Gene,’ says a friend. ‘And my husband just doesn’t seem to have it.’
I’ve been trolled before with comments such as ‘no one forced you to have children’. Maybe but none of us signed up to this – fitting an eight-hour working day around five hours of home-schooling and 12 hours of childcare.
I might be struggling to help my son with his Year Two maths, but even I can see that doesn’t add up.