During the COVID-19 pandemic many countries enforced mandatory stay-at-home orders. Lockdowns severely disrupted both the professional and the family spheres. We examined whether, and how, self-identity changed during lockdown in a study where 14 working parents kept a daily diary over a period of seven weeks of mandated home lockdown in France.
At the start of the lockdown, participants experienced various challenges to their identity, leading to considerable self-reflection. Over time, they gradually began to view their new situation as an opportunity to change their behavior from being aligned with social norms and expectations, towards something that reflected more on their aspirations and beliefs of who they wanted to be.
At the beginning of the compulsory lockdown, the participants were adapting to a completely new way of life in which they had to work from home while looking after their children. Almost all of them had no action plan for the new situation, as this episode of mandated domesticity was supposed to last only two weeks.
Participants who were now working from home reported that their professional and private lives had completely merged, and that the blurred boundaries between their separate identities as workers and parents were threatening their overall well-being. The participants did not create enough space between work and parenting, and continued to be both available for a phone call during typical working hours and for the parenting demanded by their children.
Rather than establishing new norms and rules regarding what parenting and work look like during lockdown, the participants seemed to continue to work in the same capacity as before, and in some cases overworked to make up for lost work hours due to caregiving. Consequently, those participants who were trying to navigate work and childcare and/or home-schooling responsibilities reported an increase in fatigue and stress.
The participants who experienced a significant decrease in their professional activity or whose activity ceased altogether experienced significant work-related identity threat. These participants felt robbed of their work identities, leading to feelings of loss. The participants who had lost their jobs continued to mourn the loss of their work-related identities and even experienced a certain level of grief. Moreover, they reported feelings of anger and, rather than accepting the situation as beyond their control, they tended to resist it.
When the government announced that stay-at-home orders would continue for an additional four weeks, the news was not well received, generating further frustration and increased strain on participants. While this period was filled with anguish over the continued lockdown directive, it also appeared to trigger an attitude of making sense of the situation, leading to more reflection about their identities. Participants now expressed a need to take control over the situation and define for themselves what moving forward would look like in terms of their work and family identities. They also reflected on the fact that the continued isolation implied less social pressure around what ‘normal’ behavior looked like, which allowed them more freedom to think about what they, themselves, really wanted.
The participants who were home due to job loss began to make sense about the importance of their work identities to their overall lives. The evidence that emerged suggested that they were adapting well to having more time with their families, and they seemed to grow increasingly ambivalent to the situation and how it had affected them both professionally and personally.
They reflected on who they wanted to become after the lockdown, which was in most cases very different from who they considered themselves to be before the lockdown.
The participants who were caring for their children while working from home began to embrace an identity and lifestyle that felt more authentic and was less focused on societal norms. Participants who experienced any degree of job loss also began to express how the lockdown was fostering identity change and expressed a greater sense of appreciation for family and leisure time. Almost every participant started to construct a revised sense of self that reflected a more flexible approach to integrating both work and family identities based on their own terms rather than what society expected of them.
The participants highlighted that while they were looking forward to the end of the lockdown, it had also led to some unexpected positive consequences in the form of deep reflections about their own needs and wishes, leading to a redefinition of their work and family identities. Participants reconstructed a renewed sense of self by rejecting old ways of working in place of new practices in which idealised ‘worker’ and ‘parent’ norms were relaxed in favor of more authentic identity expressions and a greater balance between work and family identities.
To conclude, the lockdown initially led to an identity threat for working parents. Throughout a period of seven weeks, the participants of our study started to use the lockdown period to reflect upon and revise their work and family identities that better aligned with their internal beliefs.
Sophie Hennekam is professor in Organizational Behavior at Audencia Business School and Head of Research for the Management Department. She studies issues related to diversity, equality and inclusion.