Lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19 heighten care burdens within households and ‘bubbles’. Responsibility for meeting such burdens often falls disproportionately upon women. It is nevertheless important for research on gendered inequalities during COVID-19 to attend to the particularities of how such care work is experienced by differently positioned women. In Aotearoa New Zealand, Indonesian migrant mothers’ experiences of lockdown were mediated by the disadvantages they faced as non-native speakers of English, as well as by the ideology of Ibuism (‘motherism’) they had been socialised into during their lives in Indonesia. This led them to find life under lockdown both rewarding and stressful in ways that were distinct from other women in Aotearoa who were confronting similar demands, writes Nelly Martin-Anatias et al.
Indonesianists and Southeast Asian (SEA) specialists have rightly been focusing on the recent experiences of Indonesians in Indonesia as they grapple with the Delta variant. However, it is also important to do research on the experiences of Indonesians in diaspora so that we can find ways to support them. The Care And Responsibility Under Lockdown (CARUL) Collective, which was created in March 2020 by LSE SEAC Associate Professor Dr Nicholas Long and Dr Sharyn Graham Davies, director of the Herb Feith Indonesia Engagement Centre at Monash University, has been doing exactly that.
After being COVID-19 free in the community for more than six months in Auckland and almost for a year in many parts of Aotearoa New Zealand (hereafter NZ), the country needed to enter another Level 4 lockdown – the strictest stage- starting from 18 August 2021, when everyone needed to stay at home with their “bubble”, except for grocery shopping, going to pharmacies, and exercising locally. Both the government’s reaction and the people’s are the reflection from their pandemic consciousness (Long et al, 2020). The government’s swift movement is again met with a positive response from many New Zealanders (NZers) based on our latest survey under the CARUL collective. Filled out by approximately 940 NZers, the majority support the government’s snap decision to implement the strictest lockdown in the country. While the majority strongly agree to this, we understand that there may be groups of minorities that have been affected more than others, and one of them is migrant mothers. Our concern is grounded on one of our last publications on the lockdown Ibuism and the interviews we did last year. During the 2020 national lockdown which occurred from March to May 2020 for about seven weeks, we interviewed eight (8) Indonesian migrant mothers during the alert levels 3, 2 and 1 (the most relaxed stage) and post-lockdown in May-June 2020 and the interviews were done either via Zoom or in person. The recruitment was done via social media posts, word of mouth, and WhatsApp groups. As a background, these Indonesian mothers are heterosexually married to Indonesian men and moved to New Zealand, temporarily or permanently, for various reasons from studying to following their husband’s work relocation. In this regard, some of them needed to leave their professional career in Indonesia.
Among other messaging that has been used by the government during the global pandemic since last year, there are three important ones e.g., “Stay at home,” “Stay with your bubble” and “We’re in this together” which will be discussed from the perspectives of the Indonesian migrant mothers in NZ. In order to fully understand the discussion in the later section, let us now try to understand the ideological understanding that may have inspired the devotion shown by the migrant Indonesian mothers during the 2020 NZ national lockdown.
Ibuism (motherism): The patriarchal ideology that may have inspired these moms’ devotion
Compared to their NZ fellow mothers, the Indonesian migrant mothers seem to treat mothering as their kodrat (destiny) as a woman, where they need to put their husband and their children’s need in the centre (Ibuism or motherism). While their role is central in the household, for many, the role is often seen and self-perceived only as their husband’s wife/companion and their children’s mother as argued by a feminist Indonesian scholar, Julia Suryakusuma.
Our 2020 survey showed how the NZ mothers are equally overwhelmed when it comes to the child-rearing and the lockdown homeschooling. However, while the NZ mothers see child-rearing and the lockdown homeschooling as ‘work’ that can be negotiated and divided with their partner or the father of the children, the Indonesian migrant mothers treat their mothering as part of their kodrat (destiny) as a woman. Their domestic and child-rearing roles are automatically assumed, while their husband’s involvement is highly regarded and marked, as recounted by Intan who shares how she felt physically fatigued during the lockdown, due to the increased domestic work, i.e., preparing the meals and teaching their teenage children during the lockdown. When asked why she didn’t direct their children to ask their father for their school matters, Intan argued that “My children feel more comfortable asking me than their dad” hinting at the sense of comfort she offered to her children. This is quite surprising given that her husband presumably has a higher English proficiency due to his professional job and his higher educational degree(s).
It seems that for her children, the lockdown homeschooling is not only a matter of their parents’ linguistic skills (and perhaps, also intellectual capabilities), but is also related to the emotional distance or the accessibility of the parents when they are at home. For many Indonesians, a married woman needs to have this sifat keibuan or motherly nature, and their un-wavering care towards their children’s needs. Ayah or father, on the other hand, is often seen as someone who is distant, busy making a living, thus “don’t disturb them when they are at home”. Thus, perhaps, it is because their mother is more ‘visible’ at home, so for her children, she is more approachable and can provide more comfort to them. In this light, Intan appears to reflect her identity as a ‘perfect’ Indonesian woman, with her sifat keibuan or her motherly nature.
Mothering during lockdown: Physically and mentally demanding
Mothering is intensive, emotionally absorbing, time-consuming, labour-intensive and is often seen as gendered work for a woman, as argued by Sharon Hays. Pre-lockdown Mothering, while intensive, seems to give more space for their migrant mothers to have some flexible time when it comes to organizing their family’s activities. As Lintang, Saras, and Intan narrated before lockdown, they could at least have some ‘spare time’ to do their own stuff once they sent their children to school and their husband to work. During the lockdown, this ‘alone time’ was almost non-existent, since they needed to do the child-rearing 24/7, do the house chores, teach their children’s homeschooling and organise the timetable, so that their children could study while their husband could work without any interruption while they were staying with their bubble. A similar narrative is also shared by Saras who needed to teach her 9-year-old son all day, from morning to afternoon, leaving her very limited time even to grab some food or to shower. It is so intensive that they often used the words pusing (headache) and stres (feeling stressed) to refer to these newly found routines during lockdown. While pusing and stres, they still assumed these additional responsibilities and increased domestic work highlighting that for the migrant mothers, their motherhood is complex and stands at the intersection of their personal and cultural choice and understanding.
“Stay at home” and “stay with your bubble” for the Indonesian migrant families in New Zealand
During the national lockdown in 2020, the word “bubble” is redefined to refer to the New Zealander’s exclusive social circle (Trnka & Davies, 2020) and becomes a lockdown buzzword in NZ. With the current national lockdown in NZ due to the Delta outbreak as a result of the ‘travel bubble’ with its neighbouring country, Australia, starting from 18 August 2021, the buzzword has re-emerged and needs to be re-used in the NZers’ life to make sure we limit our movement in order to flatten the curve and eliminate the virus one more time.
For the migrant families, to “stay at home” and “stay with your bubble” may also entail not having access to school, to their children’s teachers, family friends, friends, or leisure facilities. For Nia, a mother of a 4-year-old son, this means her son cannot access the playgrounds near her residential areas, due to alert Level 4 restrictions, where she can also meet other mothers while their children play. During the alert Level 4, meeting other mums and children means violating the “stay at home” policy and breaking her “bubble”. Thus, for her, lockdown also means no access to her groups where she can at least refresh and socialize with other mums, while her son is playing with other children. For other participants, restrictions during the alert Level 4 are also translated to being unable to send their children for their Saturday activities, such as swimming lessons. To “stay at home” and “stay with your bubble” for these mums means they cannot at least have “a break” from the child-rearing, even on weekends.
Nia further mentioned the lack of access to ‘outside’ helpers. As lockdown mothering has intensified for her, she often imagined that her lockdown life would have been ‘easier’ and less ‘stressful’ if she were in Indonesia. In Indonesia, as she recalled, she would have received some help from either her mother-in-law or her domestic helper (Pembantu Rumah Tangga, who is customarily a woman) to do the domestic chores and the child-rearing. The husband seems to be missing from this narrative. This perspective seems to be shared by Tina, a post-graduate student who believes that a man is not attuned (tidak telaten) to be a child caregiver. In other words, when it comes to the domestic chores and the child-rearing, it is always seen as the woman’s job.
However, it is also important to note that it is during lockdown that these mothers saw their husbands’ increased involvement in the domestic chores. As Lia and Lintang narrated, lockdown has given some extra time for their husband to spend more time with their children or to occasionally help them with the domestic chores, such as dishwashing and child-rearing or cooking, in which pre-lockdown, their time is limited due to their busy schedule outside home. This still shows how child-rearing and domestic chores are gendered issues for these migrant mothers, as their husband’s involvement is still marked and highlighted.
While the physical burden has also been shared by some of their NZ mothers as reflected on our CARUL survey, these migrant mothers needed to shoulder another burden, due to structural inequality and their identity as a second language speaker of English. This linguistic discrimination is uncovered when these migrant mothers needed to assume their new role: As a teacher during their children’s lockdown homeschooling.
Lockdown homeschooling: A new territory and linguistically challenging
The 2020 lockdown homeschooling was short-lived. While short-lived, the Indonesian migrant mothers revealed that they have been physically, mentally, and linguistically challenged. The government has been very good and fast in responding to the logistical and technological needs of the people. While logistical needs are well-supported, there is one aspect that seems to be overlooked; that is the minority’s linguistic ability as second language speakers of English. In terms of their English proficiency, aside from the two post-graduate student mothers, other interviewers have reported that they have been struggling when it comes to understanding school concepts, let alone teaching it to their school children, as shared by Dewi, a mother of two sons (8-years and 3-years old):
It was hard especially for us, who are used to learning the concept in Indonesian, [to teach] in a different language. Here, I needed to teach (my child) in English. So, I had to learn the language (English) first, then after that, I had to learn the materials. It was hard, especially the literacy, because I have very limited English.
Dewi needed to do at least ‘one teaching day’ to teach herself – to familiarize herself with the concepts on her son’s school materials and to make sure she understood them correctly as they were all written in English, a foreign language for her. Every day, Dewi needed to teach her 8-year-old son during the lockdown. It was not easy, as she not only needed to understand the concept, and but also needed to teach it in English. A similar complaint is also shared by Saras. Pusing (headache) and terpaksa (required due to imposition) are the two words repeated frequently by these mothers, when it comes to their children’s lockdown homeschooling.
Now that NZ is in another national lockdown, this issue is becoming relevant again. Our observations towards the government’s recent speeches and daily updates, however, still see that the NZ government pays more attention to logistical and technological needs, leaving these mothers’ linguistic issue -again- overlooked. Perhaps the (mis)conception that everyone speaks English is too prevalent and is widely believed even by the government, leaving these migrant mothers to struggle by themselves when it comes to lockdown homeschooling. “We’re in this together” government’s messaging, again, seems to be jarring uncomfortably with these migrant mothers. It is our hope that the NZ government is paying more attention to the migrant mothers who are second language speakers of English. They exist and need to be assisted linguistically, more than with the logistical necessities.
Hikmah: Appreciation delivered during the 2020 lockdown
Just like many other Indonesians who have been taught to see ‘the good thing’ despite the difficult thing, these mothers, while exhausted, are still able to see the good thing or hikmah during the lockdown. Lintang, a housewife moving to Auckland due to her husband’s work relocation, shared that the homeschooling lockdown offered her an opportunity to learn what her 8-year-old son has studied at school. She admitted that prior to the lockdown, she didn’t really get involved with her son’s school materials, noting that she completely trusts her son’s school system and the teachers. During lockdown when she needed to assume the teaching role, she admitted that she learned for the very first time what her son actually learned at his school and found the materials were intellectually interesting, even for her. While exhausted, she recalled that she enjoyed the teaching-learning moment with her son which for her would not have happened unless terpaksa or required. Lockdown seems to give her that particular opportunity.
Lockdown has also brought another hikmah by minimizing the distance between the two-worlds, i.e., domestic chores and the husband’s work. Lintang recounted how she felt more thankful towards her husband. Through lockdown, she has come to understand how demanding her husband’s work is and how hard he has worked for the family. Similarly, Lintang’s husband has come to notice and appreciate Lintang more, as he witnessed how hard his wife has worked to juggle between the child-rearing and the domestic chores, while prioritising her husband and children’s needs. This long overdue recognition and appreciation was also experienced by Lia, who eventually received her husband’s verbal compliment for her scarification and devotion during the lockdown.
While long overdue, the dedication to keep their “bubbles” together- safe and healthy- is still needed to be verbally and sincerely expressed, particularly during this difficult time. And once again, during the 2021 NZ national lockdown, these mothers’ dedication and devotion are much needed. Hopefully both the NZ and Indonesian government and husbands do not overlook all the hard work and dedication of these migrant mothers and find ways to assist them during the current lockdown in order to keep their “bubbles” and themselves safe and healthy.
Notes: The interviews were completed by the lead author, Dr. Nelly Martin-Anatias in May-June 2020 in the participants’ native language, Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian). The interviews were then translated into English by Nelly. This piece is drawn from the publication ‘Lockdown Ibuism: Experiences of Indonesian Migrant Mothers during the COVID-19 Pandemic in Aotearoa New Zealand’ by Dr. Nelly Martin-Anatias et al. that is accessible here and is part of the CARUL (Care And Responsibility Under Lockdown) larger research project. To learn about other CARUL projects, you can view them here.
* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.