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Has COVID-19 worsened or improved Jamaican family dynamics?

A Jamaican mother feeds her toddler. Photo by Carlotta Tofani on Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.

Worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a slowing down of economic activity. In Jamaica, the mainstay tourism industry has taken a hard hit, with the sector expected to lose billions of dollars. Agriculture suffered due to disruptions in food systems and other businesses have experienced pay cuts and layoffs.

Jamaica's Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) — a conditional cash transfer (CCT) programme — acts as a cushion for many low-income families, who are particularly vulnerable to the economic fallout of the pandemic. But, despite the government's development of various COVID-19 assistance programmes to act as a buffer, many parents are feeling the effects of their shrinking economic power.

In addition to being tasked with covering household expenses, the majority are also being asked to homeschool their children while working from home. To figure out how different families have been coping with this new normal, I interviewed a trained, Jamaica-based marriage and family counsellor, Marcia Hamilton, and asked her about the effects of the pandemic on parent-child relationships:

While the pandemic provides opportunities for bonding, many parents — especially mothers — are currently overwhelmed by the added responsibility of homeschooling while working from home.

Hamilton noted that the socioeconomic standing of the family plays a critical role: Some families in rural Jamaica do not have electricity, others do not have internet access. The demand for parents to secure these resources so that their children can continue to get an education may leave such families frustrated, and could interfere to some degree with parent-child bonding.

The type of family structure is also a key contributor, in that nuclear families may fare better than single-parent households, as additional responsibilities can be shared. In fact, the merits of extended families have come into focus during the pandemic.

Single-parent households

A recent study, which surveyed 223 individuals, found that single-parent households account for 41 percent of Jamaican families. A substantial number of children born from unmarried couples live in single-parent households, typically with the mother. This often happens as the result of unplanned pregnancies that occur before parents are self-sufficient. Thus, such family structures tend to be low-income.

Dr. Ralph Thompson, a highly respected Jamaican educator, noted that effective socialisation is often compromised in single-parent households. In addition, children's growth and development are often stunted, due to a lack of nutritional needs.

One teacher who requested anonymity  to protect the identity of her school and students said that the pressure on such families is enormous:

A working-class single parent just requested [that] we speak, because she cannot cope with the demands of working while trying to properly homeschool one of her children, and that at this rate she is tempted to leave the child on the street.

This particular parent, the teacher explained, has a minimum-wage job and more than three mouths to feed, proving that pre-existing family structures and socioeconomic conditions influence whether the COVID-19 pandemic is fostering or harming family life.

In a 2006 article, professor Maureen Samms-Vaughan of the University of the West Indies campus in Mona, Jamaica, noted, “Parents living in poorer circumstances have higher parenting and life stress levels.” She made mention of work done by Jamaican sociologists, showing that “highly-stressed Jamaican parents do not spend as much time interacting with their child[ren] and much of their interaction is inappropriate, with high levels of harsh discipline”.

While this does not mean that the pandemic has harmed parent-child relationships in all low-income, single-parent households, it does point to the reality of dynamics in families that that struggle economically.

Nuclear families

There are both working- and middle-class families in Jamaica, with parents who actively participate in the development of their children. The majority of these households follow Christianity, a religion that places a strong emphasis on marriage at the core of its value system. Religious influence aside, however, nuclear families are more likely to cope better with increased parental demands because the workload can be shared.

The parents I interviewed, all of whom preferred to remain anonymous for the sake of their families and the schools their children attend, admitted the restrictions required some adjustment. One parent said the pandemic left her feeling overwhelmed, even though her husband shares in the additional responsibilities:

My experience has been one of exhaustion and frustration. I have to monitor three children to ensure that they are completing their schoolwork; the younger ones require closer supervision. I also study online, and I go into work a few days a week. When I do go into work, however, my husband stays home with the children. We have always been a tight-knit family, so nothing has really changed. We usually speak with [the children] about what is happening, and they ask questions.

Another mother who is part of a two-parent household added:

I am a teacher and have to maintain a normal teaching schedule while parenting my two children who are at home. In the first few weeks we were happy to be together at home; we would go on morning walks and watch movies together. Now, we are also able to attend online church meetings together. Before the pandemic, Sundays and Saturdays were usually very busy […] but now, we are more relaxed; in this forum we [are] bonding as a family.

She emphasised, however, the importance of both job security and support:

There are many positives of being home. This COVID-19 pandemic has helped me to give my family my best self. I must thank God that we are managing, [that] we also have job security. For the most part, we are getting our full salaries, so at least we don’t have that financial burden to think about.

My husband has been an exceptional support system, I could not do this quarantine without him. When he goes to the supermarket, I will clean and sanitise the items when he gets home. When I start my classes in the mornings, he feeds the kids. When he has early meetings, I take over. There are some hours of the day when I get my alone time. Sometimes my husband gets his alone time.

Extended families

Counsellor Marcia Hamilton says that extended families can be immensely helpful in challenging situations, especially in cases where single parents may have a child with special needs. Having a reliable extended family network, whether they live in the same household or close by, allows a parent to leave the child in the care of extended family members while they work or run essential errands.

One parent highlighted the merits of living in an extended family during the pandemic:

Sometimes [my son] gets to do other activities with his aunty and grandparents, so I get time for myself; they also help to socialise him. I would say the pandemic has fostered bonding because [with reduced work hours] we spend more time together, which has helped me to know more about him. We also get to do more fun activities together.

On social media, some parents have shared their experiences and voiced their concerns about family life during the pandemic. In response to a United Nations Children's Fund Jamaica Facebook post highlighting the possibility of child abuse during the pandemic, Janise Keene commented:

In conversations with some of these young minds and their parents I have come to realize and have concluded that they are mentally and psychologically distraught and stressed. There is also going to be long term psychosocial ill effects on our children. Did you know many adults are also not managing? Some of you are behaving as though this pandemic is an easy walkover. How are we going to help our children?

Several netizens empathised with a teacher speaking about her hectic schedule, with one Facebook user noting:

I'm doing the very same thing but with a 7 yr. old in grade 1 and a 5 month old baby. All this while teaching my grade 3 classes online.  At nights I literally feel like crying. I wish schools could reopen tomorrow.

While Jamaica's current work-from-home orders will expire at the end of May, it is still unclear when schools will physically reopen. Citizens who are not in high-risk groups (over age 65, immunocompromised, et cetera) will also be able to return to work on June 1.

While many Jamaicans will be elated by this decision, it begs another question: With schools still closed, who will homeschool the country’s children once parents go back to work? One concerned citizen wrote a letter to the editor highlighting the fact that childcare must be considered.

As the government has not yet outlined what structures it intends to put in place in this regard, whatever unfolds come June 1 may yet be another novel experience that families across the island will need to adjust to in the time of the coronavirus.

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