Only Edvard Munch could have captured the scream of nature. But would he have perceived mothers screaming together as another kind of nature’s scream too? In Boston, mothers, led by a therapist, gathered to scream together, to have a meltdown. As the pandemic reaches a third year, women at home caring for children unable to go to school, cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry and trying also to work from home are at the end of their tether. But they cannot throw tantrums; only children can do that. The screaming was a relief, expressing their pent-up frustration and exhaustion, even rage. It was not very far from Munch’s scream of nature: it was a wordless protest against the cruelly intransigent conditions of life. Studies show that the lockdown caused by the pandemic has re-established an unequal distribution of responsibilities at home. Even when men are coming forward to help, their contribution seldom makes a meaningful difference to the ceaseless round of women’s duties.
It is women, studies show, that are dropping hours of work, not the men working from home. This does not only mean economic loss at present but is also likely to affect women’s careers in the future. Besides, employers would find it easier to retrench women employees whenever there are job cuts. Working mothers know all this only too well; it is hardly surprising that screaming together was so cathartic. Research shows that while housework, managing online and hybrid schooling and childcare are visible, mothers also carry an invisible mental load — of cognitive and emotional labour. The constant planning and organization that goes on inside a woman’s head is cognitive labour, while the anxiety and tension associated with it is emotional labour. Mothers with children who need special help have far heavier visible and invisible loads.
In India, the loads are multiplied many times. Household work often includes constant care of the elderly besides children. There are a huge number of households where schooling through smartphone or computer is either unaffordable or impossible because of a lack of signals, so children, especially first-generation learners, are losing touch with education. This mental burden on mothers — fathers too — who try to work in risky circumstances to bring food to the table and educate their children can only be imagined. Even then, women are dropping out of the labour force in alarming numbers. Women made up only 24 per cent of the workforce earlier, but 28 per cent of job losses were of women during the pandemic.
Given the chance, would mothers in India be able to scream their hearts out? Letting go of all inhibition and the centuries of training in silent endurance? Perhaps all over the world mothers, especially of young children imprisoned at home for months, are now ready to scream, swear, wail, howl and generally let go once in a while. That would truly be a scream of nature.