I slipped the mask over my 10-year-old son’s ears, showing him how to adjust it and fix it, making sure he had spares in his schoolbag. When he looked up at me, his big eyes wide and waiting for approval, I tried not to cry. This latest front in the war on Covid – schoolchildren masking up – feels tough.
I wasn’t alone. Every mother I spoke to on the first day of the new restrictions in schools, under which children from third class up must wear masks in class, was glum. It felt like yet another element of our children’s precious childhoods being chipped away by the pandemic.
The mask proposal was signed off by the Cabinet after being discussed at a meeting on Monday night. In attendance at that meeting were the three coalition leaders – Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan – along with chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan. Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn, Professor Philip Nolan and Dr Cillian De Gascun of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) were also there.
Eight men – not one woman – at a meeting where it was decided to bring the issue of mask wearing by children to the Cabinet. Yes, there are women at the cabinet table, where the decision was rubber stamped, but two years into a pandemic, we really have to ask ourselves about how the decision-making process is being conducted.
Up and down the country, I imagine it was mainly the mammies carrying the can on this one, explaining to little ones why masks were necessary, making sure they fitted and packing a few spares in their child’s bag.
It’s fundamental that women be centrally involved in the decision-making process. One of the features of the pandemic has been their absence.
We know that, internationally, women have suffered disproportionately across a whole range of domains, from caring to careers. The situation for women in minority or marginalised groups is even worse.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has already warned that women’s absence from Covid-19 taskforces will perpetuate the gender divide.
In this country, the clarion call of campaign group Covid Women’s Voices – which is made up of female healthcare workers, teachers, academics, lawyers and others who observe daily the gendered realities of the pandemic – is that without adequate representation, the needs of women are not heard and not catered for.
But we need to be heard because we’re the ones who have carried the biggest burden on the domestic front, caring for ageing parents, working from home and homeschooling. We need to be heard because in the majority of cases, we’re the ones at the school gates, the first faces our children see when they come out of class. The face we show up with is the mirror our child looks up into in these uncertain times.
We need to be heard because on top of all the other things we’re doing at home and at work, we’re also the ones soothing children when they come in from school crying because their mask fell on the toilet floor and their other one ripped or they’re scared what might happen if Granny or Grandad gets Covid.
This is a scary time for all of us. New variants, transmissibility, vaccines and ongoing restrictions have made for a daily diet of fear and, in some cases, loathing. Trying to keep fears at bay is what every mother is working her hardest to do right now so that childhood still remains a place of fun and innocence for her child.
The pandemic has seen very many women put their own needs in the back seat to focus on those of loved ones including parents, partners and children. We’re not saints but I know many a woman simply at breaking point with the task of getting through this pandemic with the extra load she’s carrying.
As mothers, when it comes to anything that causes disturbance to our children’s emotional lives, our radar is up and bleeping. They say when a child is born, a mother will sleep with one eye open, one ear turned to the ceiling for the faintest noise. Covid-19 has brought us back to this high state of watchfulness for our children all the time.
We pour all our effort and all our hearts into making life easier for them. If we cry, we make sure to do it in the car. If our hearts have broken just a little bit over sending them to school with masks on, we don’t let them see it. Covid-19 has robbed them of so much – we try to shelter them from our worries about what this is doing for their interaction and socialisation.
All I could think of when I put my son’s mask on was that his friends wouldn’t see his mischievous smile when he laughed in class; that he wouldn’t see their smiles reflected back; that so much of what they share in class will be lost. But I told him this was for the best and perhaps it wouldn’t last too long.
We might all be in this together, but not all of us are experiencing the pandemic in the same way. When the history books are written, I wonder if our grandchildren will ask us: “Where were the women?” Will we be footnotes in the story of the pandemic?
The work we do every day is fundamental in the battle against Covid-19. We need more seats at the table. We will be holding on to this until election time.