First lockdown, then Storm Filomena: Why Spanish families are struggling to maintain work-life balance

After enduring strict coronavirus restrictions, parents in the Madrid region are once again having to juggle childcare duties with teleworking with schools closed due to the record-breaking snowfall

Adrián Cordellat (l), his wife Diana Oliver and their two children Mara and Leo.
Adrián Cordellat (l), his wife Diana Oliver and their two children Mara and Leo.Andrea Comas

“I’m feeling really down today,” tweeted Silvia Nanclares last week when it was still unclear whether the Madrid region would open its schools the following Monday due to Storm Filomena. “I can’t face another round of childcare and remote working. Even if it’s for a short period. I have no energy left.”

First, it was the months-long coronavirus lockdown, which confined millions of families to their homes, then came summer and just when things were starting to return to normal, with schools reopening in September, Spain was hit by Storm Filomena, which paralyzed Madrid with record-breaking snowfall and forced schools to close until Wednesday. For Nanclares, who has a two-year-old son with her partner, it was one blow too many.

Nanclares and her partner are just one of many couples in Spain struggling to juggle working from home with their responsibilities as parents who are overwhelmed by the difficulty of separating their private and professional lives.

The children demand attention all the time and I feel guilty for not being able to play with them as much as they need
Adrián Cordellat, freelance journalist

Different social psychology studies indicate that the home is not the best place to carry out intellectual tasks if there is no room with a door and no rules to regulate access. “We study the negative effects that open offices have on performance if there are no partitions,” says Verónica Sevillano, professor of psychology at Madrid’s Autonomous University. “These same conditions are present in the home – a lack of privacy that hinders concentration.”

The biggest drawback of teleworking while children are home is, she says, the inability to set a proper work schedule, since there is often a constant demand on our attention. “Different studies have shown that if an intellectual task is interrupted, it takes about 15 minutes to recover focus,” she says. “We don’t realize why we are so angry but it is pure frustration.”

According to a study carried out by Madrid’s IE Business School, which analyzed how the human resources departments of 100 Spanish companies had helped staff adapt to working remotely, more than 90% had focused on keeping employees motivated in order to maintain productivity and had launched activity programs for workers’ children to keep them entertained during their parents’ working hours. Other human resource departments were interested in knowing which time slots best fit the new working from home situation. “Work-life balance policies are not new in this country and when the pandemic started there were already many companies with contingency plans,” says Pilar Rojo, director of the Human Resources Center at IE. “It would not be true to say that Spanish companies have done nothing to adapt and care for their employees during these months.”

But not all families have felt their companies have had their interests at heart. Nanclares, who teaches creative writing at various educational centers, decided to speak out last week. “The companies don’t call to ask how you are or what you need,” she says from her home in Madrid’s Malasaña neighborhood. “They take it for granted that you will be able to get everything done and it annoys me that I have to pretend to be able to adapt to anything.”

The 45-year-old explained to her various employers that she was unable to prepare classes and teach them online while taking it in turns with her partner to look after their two-year-old son, whose childcare center was closed due to Storm Philomena. “I can’t stand the idea of one more week without school. Psychologically, we have been pushed to the limit; now, on top of everything, they are asking us to go out on the streets with shovels [to clear the snow]!” she says, in reference to the regional and municipal government’s call for residents to help clear snow from building entrances and roads.

Dia de la Mujer
María Guruceta works remotely while looking after her 15-month-old daughter at home in Madrid. Andrea Comas

Although there is still a shortage of data on how remote working has affected work-life balance, the burden of childcare continues to fall primarily to women. In the wake of the pandemic, requests by women for flexible hours nearly doubled. In the past year, in 73 of the 160 companies awarded the Equality in the Workplace label, requests for flexible hours have risen from 570 to 777 in the case of women and from 291 to 420 in the case of men, according to a study published in December by the Women’s Institute that analyzes the impact of the coronavirus crisis on balancing family and professional life. Since last March, teleworking has increased from 35% to 70%, according to this report.

Regarding innovative measures employed by these companies since the outbreak of the pandemic, six implemented the right-to-disconnect policies, which is one of the measures included in the new law regulating remote working, which came into effect in October. This policy means that workers have the right to disconnect at certain points during the day; for example, to not receive email while at dinner time. Of the companies analyzed, 26% have also offered remote emotional support services during the pandemic.

Companies take it for granted that you will be able to get everything done and it annoys me that I have to pretend to be able to adapt to anything
Silvia Nanclares, creative writer teacher

As a single mother to her 15-month-old daughter, María Guruceta, 43, would like to see state aid to pay for someone to look after her child for a few hours a day. “With the pandemic and now Filomena, I have to pay to work,” she says. “I have had to take on a childcare professional because I can’t cope myself. It has made me feel very vulnerable.”

A lawyer with an NGO in Madrid, María has reduced her workday to six hours, but even so, she cannot balance her work with the demands of parenting, and is unable to call on her mother for help as she is considered at higher risk from the coronavirus. “This week, I found myself working as the sun came up with my child lying on top of me,” she says. “Nobody realizes that a single parent has to take the baby with them in a sling even if they’re just going down to put out the trash. I don’t have enough money to hire a person for the hours I need.” The only help she receives from the state is €100 a month as a working mother.

The Equality Ministry insists they are aware that work-life balance policies are not comprehensive enough and that “childcare is the B side that nobody bothers to take into account.” This year, the ministry will launch the Co-responsible Plan, funded by €200 million from the general state budget and set to supply professional caregivers to families with children under 14 in their care. The service will involve either a professional going to the family home to take care of the child or the parents being able to leave their child in a public childcare center. The details of the scheme still need to be finalized by the Equality Ministry and regional authorities. “We know that with €200 million we will not solve the problem entirely,” explains a spokesman from the ministry. “Our goal is to take measures that do not involve women leaving the labor market.” The childcare pool will not only be aimed at families with jobs, but also at those where one of the parents is actively seeking work.

“We have been living in chaos for too many months and the government has not offered us any help,” says Adrián Cordellat, 36, a freelance journalist who shares the care of his seven-year-old and four-year-old with his partner. “It is taken for granted that you can work, take care of your children and now also remove the snow from the street.”

Mar Cadiñanos helping her daughter Vera, seven, with her homework at home in Madrid.
Mar Cadiñanos helping her daughter Vera, seven, with her homework at home in Madrid.Andrea Comas

During the first month of the coronavirus lockdown, he woke up at 5am every day to get started on work, but now he doesn’t have the energy. “I am exhausted,” he says. “The children demand attention all the time and I feel guilty for not being able to play with them as much as they need.” Under the government’s support plan, he is only allowed to stop paying his monthly Social Security contributions, if he can show that his revenue has dropped by 70% or more as a result of the crisis.

“Me and my partner, who is also self-employed, no longer know how to organize ourselves,” he says. “We have clients who cannot wait, yet remote learning from home is already being normalized, which is not an option for us.”

Meanwhile, divorcee Mar Cadiñanos, 42, who shares the custody of her seven-year-old daughter, Vera, with her former partner, says she is doing fine. She has her daughter for four days at a time, which means she can get through 80% of her work when she is alone. “I am resilient,” she says. “And this situation does not seem like the end of the world to me, but I don’t know how couples who are with their children 24/7 do it. Being separated during the pandemic has made it a bit easier.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS