CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 While the COVID-19 pandemic affected the entire population, lockdown was experienced in various ways. How did families in France reorganize their everyday practices? What roles did different members of households play in caring for and educating children, domestic work, and paid employment? How did practices evolve over the 9 weeks of the first period of lockdown in France? What meanings did the experience take on for those affected? Based on interviews carried out in the spring of 2020 with 18 parents of children under the age of 10, the authors, all sociologists, take what they call a ‘temporalist’ approach. The book recounts the experience of lockdown along three dimensions: paid activity or employment, family organization around children, and gender norms.

2 The book’s main message is that social class and material living conditions alone do not account for differing experiences of lockdown. In other words, affluent families did not have a monopoly on ‘successful’ lockdown. The authors identify three conditions for success. The first is that individuals had control over the timing or quantity of work that they had to perform, allowing them to keep it from spilling over into their time for personal life. This was more likely to be the case among civil servants as opposed to private-sector professionals, who often worked atypical hours, leading to work-related suffering and doubts about the meaning of their careers. The second condition is that parents organized their children’s activities without overinvestment or excessive moral pressure (no ‘policy’ regulating the use of screens, for example). Third, household chores were shared equitably. In contrast, those obliged to take on intensive remote work or those prevented from seeking a job were more likely to have a negative experience of lockdown. But perceptions were ambivalent and could shift as the time of lockdown went on. At first, some perceived it as an opportunity to break free from their usual schedules, which they saw as too intense, and enjoy an enchanted pause with family; but as the weeks passed, in some cases it proved burdensome, as the difficulties of reconciling parental and work imperatives became clear.

3 The general switch to working from home underscored inequalities in computer equipment between private and public sector workers, in favour of the former. And the mere availability of a computer is not enough: a reasonably secluded space to be able to work in decent conditions is also needed. Where space for an office was lacking, particularly in small homes, makeshift arrangements were made (often in the bedroom). This material difficulty with remote work has been mentioned in other publications, but the authors observe that parents did not systematically seek to separate themselves from family life during working time, and some (particularly women) sometimes preferred to work in the living room in order to take care of children at the same time. Ultimately, the authors conclude, inequalities in this situation were less material than cultural and less linked to the women’s difficulties negotiating with their spouses for separated space; instead, they argue, women created such unfavourable arrangements themselves, having internalized their roles with regard to both work and children. The authors also observe that when one spouse worked outside the home, they had a sort of advantage over the other who was in remote work with respect to the general organization of the household.

4 In the lives of couples, the enjoinder to have a ‘successful’ lockdown resulted in a powerful activation of the norms of ‘good parenting’. The challenge of ensuring the continuity of children’s education created pressure for parents to constantly maintain and monitor their children’s well-being, finding things for them to do to keep them from getting bored, establishing schedules, and inventing routines where the day was punctuated with episodes of activity. Schoolwork was an indispensable activity and was even more scrupulously performed by poorer families. Parents with more cultural capital tended to put less emphasis on the importance of these tasks, considering that they could see to their children’s intellectual and cultural development without aligning themselves with school norms.

5 As for the general organization of everyday life, families where both parents continued their paid activity felt that there was not enough time in the day. During lockdown, working-class families, who were more likely to be made at least temporarily unemployed, were able to readjust their schedules, which are more often out of sync during normal times. For them, lockdown offered a chance to ‘slow down’, taking time to share moments as a family: time together as a couple, with the children, cooking, playing, or watching a movie together; in short, ‘reinventing themselves’. This ‘enchanted’ lockdown model was seen among inhabitants of rural or peri-urban areas who had characteristics such as holding qualified employment in the public sector, considerable autonomy at work, a major reduction in workload, equitable division of domestic work, and children seen as autonomous and as helpers.

6 In theory, the continuous cohabitation of parents and children could have been the occasion for increased paternal involvement. In reality, however, the previous unequal distribution of tasks between spouses persisted. The bulk of the burden fell on women, who orchestrated domestic work, although the increase in the total volume of domestic and parental tasks forced men to do more. In configurations where the mother worked during lockdown and the father did not, gender norms were nevertheless not reversed. The authors emphasize that women seem to have found it easier to obtain a decrease in their workload from their employers than to access a more equitable distribution of household tasks with their spouses. The issue also concerned the quality of men’s involvement, which was deemed to be of lesser value (lacking autonomy in managing the home or imagination for activities with children or preparing meals). For example, one respondent noted that her spouse kept an eye on his computer during the periods when he was responsible for childcare, whereas she was completely available to her children during her own time slots and was more often interrupted during her scheduled periods of remote work.

7 With their subtle transcription of the interviewees’ words on the perceptions of the experience of lockdown—one from which the well-off did not always emerge as winners—the authors shed light on the complex web of social inequalities, which are not limited to material conditions or power relations between the sexes. Their book provides a nuanced check on the expectation of an explosion of inequalities at the start of the crisis; just as afterward, INSEE established that ‘inequalities and the rate of monetary poverty seem to have remained stable in 2020’ (Insee Analyses, 2021, no. 70) and that COVID-19 was ‘more deadly for men than women’ (Population & Societies, 2022, no. 598).

8 The book calls into question the intense pressures on parents around the conditions for child development, which generate overwork for mothers and feelings of guilt. The authors lament that the public authorities, fully mobilized to limit the spread of the epidemic and to shut down economic activity, left families to fend for themselves in fulfilling their protective functions. This criticism of the management of the COVID-19 crisis echoes those of the composition of France’s COVID-19 scientific council, chaired by a physician surrounded mainly with infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists. Its members included a sociologist and an anthropologist, but their role was mainly limited to shedding light on individuals’ levels of adherence to lockdown restrictions and vaccination policies. It is difficult to see what public interventions in the private affairs of families could have been concretely implemented in the emergency context of 2020.

Xavier Thierry
Translated by
Paul Reeve
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
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