In March 2020, urban middle-class mothers found themselves without the reproductive labor of domestic workers. Schedules and routines proved indispensable mechanisms through which they organized their families’ lives and coped with life at home.
A week after the first local person tested positive for COVID-19, the Sri Lankan government imposed a nationwide blanket curfew from March 16 to May 11, 2020. With the exception of essential services, all public and private sector employees were ordered to work from home. Informal daily-wage earners, specifically domestic workers, were banned from traveling to work. For eight weeks, people could not leave their homes even to buy groceries. The government ordered retailers of essential goods to switch to mobile distribution by visiting neighborhoods; in the city, online food order and delivery platforms burgeoned. Once the initial panic about food shortages subsided, middle-class families living in the capital city of Colombo began to settle into a “new ordinary”—working from home, online schooling, and sourcing groceries and household essentials from erratic delivery services. For most urban middle-class women, the lockdown also meant managing household work and childcare without the reproductive labor of domestic workers.
Three weeks into lockdown, I reached out to urban middle-class women in my network of colleagues, students, friends, and acquaintances to ask if they were willing to keep a weekly diary for a month. By asking women to describe their ordinary activities, I intended to capture how the everyday—the routines and relationships enacted at home with family—was changing during this extraordinary time. My curiosity was partly piqued by advice meted out by popular public health websites, including Harvard Health and Psychology Today, on how children thrive on routine and predictability, advising parents to create schedules and stick to routines to support children’s emotional resilience. I wondered who would take on the responsibility of household routines and children’s schedules.
In her work on the ordinary, the anthropologist Veena Das observes that the everyday is elusive; “Its very ordinariness makes it difficult for us to see what is before our eyes.” Anthropologists, she says, must “conjure” the everyday by “imagin[ing] the shape the ordinary takes in order to find it.” Without the cultural anthropologist’s essential toolkit—being with people, looking at people, and talking to people—I turned to a complementary method often used to evoke people’s personal lives. Diaries elicit the everyday by allowing people to record and evaluate ordinary experiences. Diaries are also a confessional device that encourages reflection.
Fifteen urban middle-class women responded to my email. Of these, six women were either never-married or married without children. Nine working mothers shared their weekly diaries with me. In addition to basic demographic details and household composition, I asked women to respond to the following four prompts: (1) Describe how you are feeling at this moment, (2) Do you have a routine you generally follow? (3) Describe an interaction or an activity from the past week, and (4) What aspects of your “old” life do you miss? What aspects of this “new” life do you appreciate? I promised to share my entries with my respondents as a way of reflecting on my life and building trust.
Routines and schedules
There is mounting evidence from across the world that the burden of reproductive labor during the pandemic has disproportionately fallen on women, especially mothers with school-aged children (see for example, Bahn et al 2020; Chauhan 2020). As the diaries reveal, in Sri Lanka, lockdowns and the shift to online schooling plunged well-established middle-class family routines into complete disarray. Limited access to the paid reproductive labor of working-class women that most Sri Lankan urban middle-class households rely on has only exacerbated the unequal division of unpaid labor based on gender roles and norms at this time.
The diary entries detail the sheer volume of work women had to contend with on a daily basis. Urban houses in the tropics must be cleaned every day, humidity meant changing clothes daily, and most families cooked lunch and dinner. In addition, women kept abreast of neighborhood WhatsApp groups and online delivery platforms to know how and when to source food, supervised children’s schoolwork, monitored children’s screen time, devised alternative activities to lure children away from screens, and checked on elderly parents. Shalini, a mother of two teenagers aged 16 and 17, wrote, “It’s a daily effort to manage the house and all of us in it.” Responsibilities were not equally shared between husbands and wives. Nimali, a mother of 10-year-old twin girls, wrote, “My husband has no other choice but to help around,” but this only meant feeding their pets and checking on the children while she cooked, cleaned, and laundered. Even when her elderly father-in-law moved in during the lockdown, it was Nimali who had to “set an alarm at 6.45 a.m. and make tea for him.” Shalini’s husband, who spent “most of his time working on his iPad […], cooked a curry for lunch sometimes.”
Devising schedules was a way of coping. Dharini, a single mother of a 13-year-old, wrote, “I try to wake up at 5:00 a.m. so I have time for a coffee, meditation, and an hour of work. Then I exercise and organize breakfast.” She had drawn up a roster to share household duties with her mother, who she lived with. When it was her mother’s turn, Dharini would work in the mornings; if not, the afternoons. She encouraged her son to create a timetable and write a daily to-do list to help him focus on schoolwork and balance it with extracurricular activities like art. “I switch off early evening and spend time with my son, organize dinner, and watch TV.” Without paid household workers, Shalini also created a schedule for the children: clean the house before breakfast, schoolwork, lunch and relaxation, family time, and dinner. Most mothers admitted that monitoring children’s screen time was “stressful” and an “ongoing battle,” especially when fathers “did not set a good example” and “spent all day staring at a screen.”
Schedules allowed women to carve out time for themselves in an otherwise full day, and create a boundary between self and family. The time between breakfast and lunch were their office hours. Children were expected to stay in their rooms, focus on schoolwork, and be quiet. Lunch was a family meal, after which everyone had time to “chill.” In Colombo, April is the hottest month of the year. Shalini wrote how she “loved” switching on the air-conditioning in the living room where they “hung out together while doing their own thing.” Shalini and Dharini would read and take a nap. Dharini worked on a “mini-project [such as] sorting through all my photos.” Nimali wrote how she went through “all the photos in my phone which made me feel good about myself and the things I have achieved.” In the evenings, they would chat to family and friends before eating dinner. Women’s responses to the question, What aspects of your “old” life do you miss? were unequivocal: they missed time on their own and meeting up with friends. Schedules allowed women a welcome reprieve from household chores and children.
The emphasis on family time in schedules reveals the conscious effort women make to nurture emotional bonds with children. Every evening Nimali baked “something for tea” with her twins; during bedtime she “watched cat videos with them.” Shalini organized movie nights and “family workout sessions,” which her older children “really enjoyed.” Dharini played games with her son; after dinner she would ask her mother to share family stories. In her study of personal lives and relationships, the sociologist Lynn Jamieson observes that intimacy involves practices of close association enacted through daily interaction, habit, and routine. Rather than taking togetherness for granted even at a time when there was little choice but to be together, mothers scheduled collective activities to nurture bonding.
The diaries highlight how the lockdown in Sri Lanka exacerbated the unequal gender division of labor in urban middle-class households. They illuminate how women organized and managed their children’s and their own lives. The diaries reveal why schedules and routines are indispensable mechanisms through which urban middle-class women carved out time and space for themselves when physical and emotional demands of work, family, and household threatened to overwhelm them. The diaries also highlight how mothers consciously invest in nurturing closeness and connection with children by scheduling family time even at a moment when families were spending more time together than ever before. Ultimately, the diaries present mothers as organizers-in-chief to reveal the labor that is family making.
Asha L. Abeyasekera is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Colombo. She coordinates the MA in Gender and Women’s Studies. Her research focuses on gender, intimate relations, and subjectivities in contemporary South Asia. She is the author of Making the Right Choice: Narratives of Marriage in Sri Lanka (2021).
Cite as: Abeyasekera, Asha L. 2021. “Coping with the Everyday during Lockdown in Sri Lanka.” Anthropology News website, March 5, 2021. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1591