Burnout, depression stalk Vietnamese mothers coping with pandemic stress

By Long Nguyen   February 24, 2021 | 11:13 am GMT+7
Increased financial insecurity and even heavier domestic burdens are stressing out Vietnamese mothers as they struggle with the fallout of Covid-19.

Le Thi Phuong, an hourly wage worker at a textile firm in Hanoi’s Long Bien District, starts her 90-minute lunch break at noon by rushing home to feed her children, whose school and kindergarten have been closed due to the new Covid-19 wave.

After lunch is done, she cleans the dishes, helps the children sleep, and returns to the factory, "sometimes after screaming and yelling at my babies."

"Sometimes I wonder why I have to carry such a burden. I cannot lose the job or let my children stay at home all day without any care," said Phuong, whose husband works at the same factory, "but is next to helpless when it comes to housework."

Given the widespread and deep impacts that the pandemic has had, 35-year-old Phuong is not the only mother bearing their brunt.

Millions of Vietnamese mothers are waging a daily struggle with taking care of their children and trying to earn a stable income. Their children not going to school yet again has complicated their situations.

A mother who has lost her job, takes her son, suffering from leukemia, to their hometown in central Thanh Hoa Province after the boy was discharged from the Hanoi-based National Institute of Hematology and Blood Transfusion, July 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

A mother who has lost her job, takes her son, suffering from leukemia, to their hometown in central Thanh Hoa Province after the boy was discharged from the Hanoi-based National Institute of Hematology and Blood Transfusion, July 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Since early February, Nguyen Thanh Quynh has found it very difficult to work with her six-year-old son at home.

The owner of an online clothing store has to spend hours responding to her patrons’ messages and orders, "but none of this can be done if my son is around."

On a Monday morning in February, Quynh was sitting in the kitchen while her son was having an online lesson with his teacher on Zoom.

"Mother Quynh, please help your son turn off the microphone when I am speaking," the teacher said as the boy interrupted her lessons by screaming and dancing on his chair.

After a while, the rambunctious boy complained he could not see his teacher due to the weak Wi-Fi network and demanded to watch videos on YouTube.

"I cannot do any work or talk to anyone, I just need silence to run the business and make some money, and it has become such a luxury," Quynh said, adding the three-month break from February to May last year had been a nightmare.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she had to close her store last May and operate one online to contribute much needed income for the family. Her husband, an office worker, is away from home during the day, and she has to handle her business and her son by herself.

"I know it’s my son, but staying at home all day with him makes me and my wallet shrink. Sometimes, I do not want to wake up in the morning anymore," said Quynh, adding that she had no time to have her hair cut and her nails done for the Lunar New Year holiday.

Mental issues

In Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen Thi Hoa, 38, felt tired all the time, got angry at her children and cried in the middle of the night. When she visited Nguyen Tri Phuong hospital last September, she was told that she had depression.

One of the reasons was that her working hours at a Binh Tan District company were cut, so she stayed at home and took care of her children even as she tried to find more jobs. She was stressed out.

In a 27,000-member Facebook group of people with depression, many women have shared stories of their mental breakdown because of several factors related to the pandemic, including job loss, overwhelming housework and indolent husbands.

Doctor Le Nguyen Thuy Phuong from the Geriatric and Psychiatric Department of the Nguyen Tri Phuong Hospital in Saigon warns that women are two times more likely to suffer from depression than men.

The risk is exacerbated when Covid-19 forces people to stay at home and cuts off social connections, she added.

The pandemic has set up a perfect storm for women, beginning with financial security and the feeling of worthlessness that it brings, compounded by increased dependency on husbands, worsening the pressures and blame that are foisted on them in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society.

In 2020, Vietnam saw a 10-year record high unemployment rate of 2.48 percent, up 0.31 percentage points over the previous year, according to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam (GSO).

The nation’s labor force shrank by 1.3 million workers to 53.4 million last year. Among the unemployed, 51.6 percent were women.

"I came home and burst into tears when my company told me they would not hire me anymore. How useless and weak I was!" Le Thi Yen, a delivery woman, summed up her experience and feelings last June when her employers in Saigon’s District 9 sacked her.

A mother takes her six-month-old daughter to the Hanoi Center for Employee Service in Cau Giay Districti to apply for unemployment benefits. Data from the center shows that of women account for 65 percent of people applying for unemployment benefits. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

A mother takes her six-month-old daughter to the Hanoi Center for Employee Service in Cau Giay District to apply for unemployment benefits, June 2020. Data from the center shows that women account for 65 percent of people applying for unemployment benefits. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Vietnam’s long-standing domestic inequality worsens the problem.

While taking care of families and their children, a large number of women also take up positions in the labor market, work longer hours and earn more than ever before, instead of staying home and being completely dependent on their husbands who are highly unlikely to get involved in housework.

A survey by the Institute of Labor Science and Social Affairs and the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research revealed only 3 percent of surveyed husbands wash dishes at home, with only 0.5 percent offering to do so all the time.

"I have one head and two arms, just like my husband, but he does not want to share the responsibilities equally," Yen said, adding they’ve had several arguments on doing household chores.

The impacts of domestic imbalance amid the pandemic hitting women the hardest is borne out by a recent research by the Vietnam National University of Agriculture and the National Economics University.

"When your child is sick, they will blame the mother. I am unable to sleep when I think about how I can protect my family from the pandemic and keep my job at the same time," Hoa said.

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), when the country began its social distancing campaign last April, reports of domestic abuse to the hotline of Vietnam Women’s Union increased by 50 percent, and the number of people that needed protection at the Peace House, a shelter for survivors of violence against women that is managed by the union, increased 80 percent year-on-year.

Some women stressed out by the Covid-19 pandemic have leaned on their larger families, especially in caring for the children.

Yen sent her four-year-old son to her mother in the southern province of Tien Giang, and picked up her husband’s mother from Long An, also in the south, to take care of her 10-year-old daughter in Saigon.

"That is the best choice I can make, having the grandmothers take care of my children when I am busy working," she said, adding it was just a temporary option "until the grandmothers also get stressed out in taking care of the kids."

Mothers like Yen know that they have to be strong to sail their family through the Covid-19 storm.

"What if my children get sick? What if I lose my job? What if the schools remain closed and I must maintain this situation?" Phuong mused as she fed her three-year-old daughter against the sounds of a YouTube video for children, before returning to work at 1:30 p.m.

"We will make it through this, the problem is when."

 
 
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