Portrait

Coronavirus: families at breaking point?

Sociologist Ulrike Zartler from Vienna in front of an empty playground due to the corona crisis.
Family sociologist Ulrike Zartler of the University of Vienna is engaged in trailblazing work: over a year, she has been interviewing families all over Austria in the context of a longitudinal study, “Family life and corona”, in order to find out how they are coping in the pandemic and what they would need. Source: Luiza Puiu/FWF

End of March 2020: Every day, Andrea R. takes her son to the local primary school in Lower Austria. All schools are closed, but they provide day care for the children of so-called key workers. The seven-year-old is one of two children at this school who fall in this category. His mother suffers from feelings of guilt and the family tries to catch up on schoolwork during the weekends. People are generally confident that the crisis will be over within a few weeks, that schools will reopen after Easter and everyday life will be resumed as usual.

Change of scene, one year later, March 2021: Every morning, Monika S. sets up her laptop on the kitchen table which has served as her home office for the past year. Before that, the single parent of three discusses the schedule of the day with her two children who are in academic secondary school. The two are in two different schools with alternating school attendance and online schooling and different start and finish times. In the course of the pandemic, the leisure activities of these two teenagers have seen a marked shift to the digital sphere: on days where classes are held online, they spend up to ten hours in front of the computer screen. The youngest child is in the second year of primary school and has in-person schooling. The mother is concerned about the 8-year-old falling behind on his education since school operation is far from regular. Hanging above them like the sword of Damocles is the daily risk of classes having to close down because of coronavirus-induced quarantines.

Pioneering work on “Corona and family lives” – first data

The above scenes are two examples of constellations reported by families to Ulrike Zartler. Since the first lockdown in Austria was announced on 16 March 2020, this family sociologist of the University of Vienna has been asking families all over Austria about how the pandemic has changed their lives and how they coped with new challenges such as schools closing, working from home or home-schooling. With her longitudinal study Corona and family lives Zartler is breaking new ground, since no detailed data previously existed on the impact on families of a global pandemic such as that caused by the Covid-19 virus

Interviews all over Austria

Together with her team, Zartler interviewed roughly 100 parents with a total of 181 children at nursery-school or of school age in the whole of Austria. Two thirds of the respondents were interviewed over the phone in very intense sessions of up to three hours, one third wrote diaries that were closely aligned to the interview guidelines. Initially, Zartler assumed – as we probably all did –that this would be an exceptional situation that would take no longer than a few weeks.

Treasure trove of data – FWF ensures continuation

Meanwhile Zartler has now concluded the tenth wave of interviews and is currently analysing her results. “This is a treasure trove of data,” she says. The fact that her project has just been approved by the Austrian Science Fund FWF under its SARSCoV2 emergency funding scheme ensures that the data can be analysed and the study continued.

“This constitutes an enormous treasure trove of data,” says Zartler. By approving the project under its Coronavirus Urgent Funding scheme in mid-March, the Austrian Science Fund has ensured data evaluation and the continuation of the study. Source: Luiza Puiu/FWF

Role overload, more conflicts

The central results in a nutshell: parents feel overtaxed by their many roles and they feel abandoned and overlooked by policy-makers. The potential for conflicts in families has increased at all levels. School children show marked signs of mental health problems. Families whose resources were challenged even prior to the crisis are particularly affected: this includes, above all, single parents, but also families in cramped living conditions, with insufficient technical equipment and confronted by existential threats such as job loss or short-time working arrangements.

A welcome sense of deceleration?

At the onset of the pandemic, one often heard people say it was a time of “deceleration”. But did families actually experience something like a holiday atmosphere during these early days? “Since many leisure time appointments, such as taking the children to football training or private tuition, were cancelled, there was indeed a short phase that felt like taking a breather to some families – which really goes to show how much pressure families are under in everyday life,” Zartler notes.

By Easter 2020, if not earlier, the parents were seriously upset.

Ulrike Zartler

However, that sense of relief did not last longer than two weeks at most. How long it lasted, and whether it was actually felt at all, depended strongly on a family’s resources and living conditions: how big is the home? Are there enough laptops for working from home and home-schooling? Do the parents have serious financial worries because of short-time work schemes or job loss? Can parents provide schooling to their children in terms of content and educational approach? Can they reconcile childcare and work? “By Easter, if not earlier, the parents we interviewed were seriously upset, because children had become invisible to the public eye – and the younger they were, the more invisible,” says Zartler.

A rollercoaster of emotions between hopes and fears

Since the first lockdown in March 2020, school life has been characterised by ups and downs, and parents of school-age children have been caught in a rollercoaster of emotions between hopes and fears. Any parent with several children in different schools can quickly feel overwhelmed by the scheduling complexity. A brief review of how Austria’s schools have operated during the last year makes this very obvious.

Schools open and close repeatedly – a timeline

Schools and nursery schools close on 16 March and the children are scheduled for remote classes for at least nine weeks. Day care is offered at schools only to parents who are key workers. Pupils return to school, staggered by age-band, on 4, 15 and 25 May or 3 June, respectively. Schooling is provided in shifts, alternating between remote and in-person classes. In September, school starts largely regularly, but quarantine-related class closures become necessary from week one. After the autumn break, pupils aged 15-18 have to return to distance learning.

It is not only desirable, but indeed absolutely necessary for families to get more resources and support.

Ulrike Zartler

Most other school types follow suit as of mid-November but return to in-person schooling on 7 December, while the older students have to remain in distance learning. As of 7 January, all pupils have to go back to remote schooling. After the semester break, in-person instruction is resumed: daily for primary school, in shifts for everyone else, alternating between classroom and online mode. Everyone is tested at school. In case of a positive rapid test, the child needs to be picked up from school. If the result is confirmed by a PCR test, the entire class has to be quarantined. All school openings and closures are announced at short notice at press conferences.

Individual negotiations instead of policy backing

The timeline of different phases of schools opening and closing illustrates how much flexibility was asked of parents with children in different schools with different schooling modes. And the extent of flexibility they could show depended on how understanding their employer was. “Working parents had to negotiate everything on an individual basis and felt completely abandoned by policy-makers,” says Zartler.

The family expert receives consistently positive feedback when she appears in public. “The parents are happy that someone is reporting their problems and thus giving them a voice.” Here, Zartler was a guest of anchorman Armin Wolf in ORF’s (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation) news program in October 2020. Source: ORF

Statutory parental leave during the second lockdown? Sadly, no!

The fact that all childcare and education duties were simply transferred to the parents became obvious once again during the second lockdown in November: although the right to take special parental leave when schools are closed had been enshrined in a law, it could not be invoked. The official argument: since schools offered day care, they were not closed. Many parents were not happy with this argument and saw themselves faced with a choice: either keep the children at home and supervise them, on top of their own work, in times outside of online classes – which differed greatly in length and quality from school to school – or take them to school where they could be looked after but were unable to participate in online classes.

Verbal abuse in parents’ WhatsApp groups

This predicament meant parents were feeling pressure to justify their choice vis-à-vis to sides – with regard to both other parents and their employer. If they took their children to school day care they were not taking the infection risk seriously and were acting in defiance of the government’s recommendations. If they kept their children at home they had to juggle childcare with their own work. This dilemma led to divisions among parents which were given explicit and alarming expression in heated debates that sometimes culminated in verbal abuse in parents’ WhatsApp groups.

Parents feel abandoned by policy-makers.

Ulrike Zartler

Strategies: working at odd hours and parking the children in front of the TV

What strategies did parents choose to manage the balancing act between working from home, home-schooling and taking care of the family? Zartler tells of women who start their day at four in the morning so that they can get three hours of work in before waking up the rest of the family, or of mothers who park their children next door in front of the television set while taking part in a video conference, in order to give the impression that everything was fine. “If that were true, we wouldn’t need schools and childcare facilities,” says Zartler, who perceives this discussion to be disparaging to educators. She quotes the following example: “Would you trust a nursery teacher who claims that she was able to provide excellent care to the children while answering emails and conducting a few telephone conferences on the side? That is exactly the situation parents were in when working from home.”

Exhausted and muddling through in the autumn

After the first tough phase of the pandemic in the spring, many parents had no opportunity to recharge their batteries in the summer either: holidays had been used up, care networks involving grandparents had already broken down in March. In the autumn, parents felt resignation and lethargy on top of exhaustion – the latter already clearly discernible in early summer. “I can’t go on, but I have no choice, I have to muddle through somehow,” is how Zartler describes that state of mind. When school started, the heightened performance expectations added an additional burden: now children were expected to catch up with everything they had missed out on. “Some parents were really desperate. Their additional role as teacher massively overtaxed many of them in terms of content, didactics and keeping the children motivated,” Zartler reports.

Concerns about children’s education and mental health problems

In the autumn, parental concerns reached new heights with regard to schooling and educational opportunities, but also with a view to the children’s mental health. “Some parents were distraught because their children showed signs of psychological stress, such as depression, bouts of aggression, eating disorders, bed wetting or sleepwalking,” Zarter notes.

One in two pupils suffers from symptoms of depression

In early February 2021, a study by the Danube University in Krems corroborated these findings with alarming figures: one in two pupils suffers from symptoms of depression, anxieties and sleep disorders. This concerns a grand total of roughly 1.2 million children and adolescents. A particularly alarming number: 16 per cent of the 3,052 pupils interviewed report suicidal thoughts. This is a marked increase compared to the previous figures. Yet another worrisome fact: compared to 2018, pupils used their cell phone twice as much in 2020, viz. at least five hours daily. This is added to the screen time spent in distance learning. Preliminary studies have shown that psychological problems rise along with longer daily cell phone use. The authors of the study perceive an “urgent need for action” and demand psychological counselling and more physical exercise for the children and young people.

Single parents are particularly affected

It is the parents who have to mitigate the mental health problems of their children – and they have to do it while feeling the strain themselves. They are plagued by existential fears, loss of income, worries about their own old parents, who many of them also look after, and the permanent uncertainty about the future. As Zartler notes, the extent to which someone is overburdened depends greatly on their general circumstances. The groups whose resources were scarce even before the crisis are particularly affected: mainly single parents and socially deprived families with cramped living conditions, but also families where the level of potential conflict and violent aggression runs high.

Pandemic as a social accelerant

“The pandemic has exacerbated social inequalities. It has revealed which groups are particularly vulnerable and which social spheres are found wanting, such as employment without social protection and a school system in which pupils are left behind,” notes Zartler. Her diagnosis confirms the findings of Bernhard Kittel, a sociologist at the University of Vienna.  In his longitudinal study “Austrian Corona Panel”, Kittel has been exploring from the outset how people in Austria are coping with the pandemic. He arrives at this central insight: “The pandemic has exacerbated the divisions in society.”  

Partners fight about housework

This crisis has clearly pushed families to their limits: in addition to role overload and anxiety about livelihood, families have experienced a marked increase of conflicts – both between parents and children and between the parents. The most frequent bone of contention between the partners was who would take on how much of the extra burden. In stark contrast to initial, almost euphoric, hopes in the spring of 2021 that the crisis might provoke a shift in roles, all studies pertaining to this issue show that the existing role definitions were cemented rather than blurred: in families where the mothers were shouldering the main burden of family work, they also carried the additional burden in the crisis.

Potential for conflicts: postponing divorce

Another important effect which surfaces in any crisis, as Zartler notes: people are forced to question life-changing decisions such as getting married, getting a divorce or having a baby. Uncertainty about income or the loss of family income following short-time work or job loss may lead to a divorce being postponed and the couple continuing to live under one roof. “A high conflict potential, psychological and physical violence may become an enormous problem in such families,” explains Zartler. She also notes that cramped living conditions in many families will also lead to children being much more likely to witness fights between their parents.

“New normal” – the things families need

One year after the first lockdown, Austria’s families are still living in a state of emergency – often referred to as the “new normal”. The uncertainties remain. What things do families need? More unequivocal information; functioning childcare facilities and an effort to provide them on the part of policy-makers; financial, organisational and legal support such as regulations for working from home. But they also need something that policy-makers could implement very quickly: appreciative communication. “Parents can only pursue their professions if they know their children are well looked after and not merely tolerated at an institution. They want to be able to make use of the care services for their children without feeling guilty about it,” Zartler states.

Stigmatised parents and children

This is an allusion to Chancellor Kurz, who said at a press conference on 21 April 2020 that it was “not shameful” to put your children in day care “if you can’t cope anymore”. This statement not only revealed a lack of appreciation for educational institutions and educational professions, but was also sorely lacking in any recognition of the important societal tasks that parents have taken on during the crisis. “In this way, Kurz communicated that only parents who are completely in over their heads should send their children into day care. This stigmatises both the parents and their children.”

Family is not private. It fulfils important societal functions and needs an appropriate environment in order to do this.

Ulrike Zartler

Giving parents a voice

The extent to which parents feel abandoned by politicians is also revealed by the strong positive response Zartler is getting from the public: “I have never received so much positive feedback on any previous study. The parents are happy that someone is reporting their problems and thus giving them a voice.” There can be no doubt about the parents’ fundamental motivation to do their utmost to support the system in times of crisis, but they would like to see some recognition for their efforts and appropriate circumstances accorded to them by policy-makers.

More money and support

In all the discussions, one should not lose sight of one fundamental aspect, says Ulrike Zartler: “Family is not private, but an integral part of society that contributes essentially to its perpetuation. Families need an appropriate environment in order to be able to provide their services – including caring for the elderly, looking after children or helping people regenerate so that they remain able to work. It is not only desirable, but indeed absolutely necessary for families to get more resources and support at all levels.”


A family, childhood and youth sociologist, Ulrike Zartler holds a professorial position at the Department of Sociology, University of Vienna. As of 1998, the 49-year-old scholar had a research position at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna and, between 2000 and 2007, at the European Centre for Welfare Policy and Social Research in Vienna. Her research focuses on family, childhood and youth sociology, transitions in life journeys, divorce/separation and their consequences, social media in childhood, youth and family, as well as sociological analysis of family and child legislation. She is the mother of two school-age children.


Further reading

The social fever curve of coronavirus


Comments (0)

Currently no comments for this article.

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.