Historians in Lockdown: The Covid Diary of Dr Ludivine Broch

Dr Ludivine Broch is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Westminster.

I wear Marigolds now. Bright yellow Marigolds. I spend so much time cleaning and washing up and then washing my hands and the kids’ hands that it’s the only way to protect my hands. And when I slip on my Marigolds, I suddenly feel like I can tackle that pile of dirty plates so much more efficiently. There, I said it: my Marigolds make me happy.

I also fantasise about the Dyson handheld hoover. I have a small handheld hoover but it does not have enough suction power – every time I use it, I’m a little disappointed. I use it 2, sometimes 3 or 4, times a day, to pick up various crumbs, dirt or the Pom bears my daughter crushed on the floor with her feet, gleefully. My kids have started to moan about the loud noise of the hoover – they never used to do that, because I never used it that much before. (incidentally sometimes I just keep it on for extra long because it drowns out the noise that they are making).

I make an effort to look nice during the week. ‘Effort’ is a bit of a stretch – but I make a point of wearing some rings, of brushing my hair and of wearing clothes which are not leggings. It helps to distinguish between the weekends, and mentally I feel more prepared and in control – in the morning at least, for a brief moment.

And it’s then that I realise what lockdown has done to me:

I’m turning into my mother.

I’m currently on maternity leave, you see, and my daughter has just turned 6 months old. My older daughter is just 2 years old, and my son, who is 4.5, is in Reception at school. So when lockdown happened, and all school and childcare options disappeared in an instant, I became a full-time stay-at-home/homeschooling mum. Let it be known that for those first 2 weeks, I drank a glass of wine every night.

Until the end of my maternity leave, I am discovering what it is to be a SAHM (stay-at-home-mom). So far it is exhausting; enriching; frustrating; hilarious; isolating; intimate. I have felt empowered to realise that I actually can take care of my own children (I’ve been known to be scared of them) for 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. My husband WFH, but due to the nature of his work he maintains his same, very long, inflexible hours. Yes, there is shouting. Yes, there are tears. Often theirs. Sometimes mine. Yes, sometimes I enter a third state where I imagine myself picking up a plate and smashing it against the tiled floor. I have also inhaled a few imaginary cigarettes. These things make me feel better. BUT we have a home, we have job security, and we are in isolation with people we love. However corny it sounds, I’m enjoying the little things more. I feel more grateful than I have in a long time.

And of course, I am really looking forward to returning to work.

In this SAHM bubble I’ve created – where I barely watch the news or leave the house because someone is always in need of a snack, or has peed on the floor, or has bitten a sibling, or I need to help them build a volcano – the reality of coronavirus thundering on beyond our walls doesn’t escape me. It was at some point in mid-March – 17 March to be precise – I was suddenly seized by the terror that we would run out of baby milk powder. As pictures of empty supermarket shelves were flying around, I couldn’t help but think of the experiences of rationing and food deprivation that millions had experienced during the wars. I felt sick at the thought that I might not be able to get the formula I need to feed my baby whose main source of food would still be formula for the next 7 months. When I couldn’t order more than 2 packs of baby formula on Ocado, I panicked. When I couldn’t even get onto the Ocado website because it had stopped working, I couldn’t sleep. I started going to different pharmacies to buy the formula – I could only by 2 each time, you see, and one pack lasts five days. I then bought overpriced formula in bulk online.

‘Stop panic buying, Ludivine!’ my husband said. ‘It’ll all be fine!’

‘That’s what they said in 1914!’ I responded. ‘ “It’ll be over by Christmas”, and was it?!’ Even if it felt a bit OTT, I knew I was right: peoples’ lives can change very swiftly, very suddenly, and I wanted to be a bit prepared.

Long story short, we now have a healthy stock of baby powder.

My Aptamil stash can see us until late August.

So as schools shut down, as products became rationed, as movement and travel became controlled and even banned, I could not help but realise the numerous links to the world war years which I have studied and researched so much. James Connolly underlined recently that we are suddenly getting a personal insight to what isolation and rationing can feel like – and I agree. Never before had I experienced anything close to what was happening in 1939-40; now my relationship to my research is changing. Food became my obsession, too. Not only that, but I felt an urgency to write, to document, to witness the events as they change day to day. And it feels like nothing will ever ‘go back to normal’ after lockdown, but rather what follows will be new norms, new codes, new structures.

From a professional point of view, I have lived the lockdown at a maternity leave distance, seeing emails go by in the weeks before about preparing for distance learning; then seeing messages to students about all the new arrangements and how to access X, Y, Z; now seeing messages about the work that needs to be done over the summer for what will be a very unpredictable 2020-21 academic year. The conferences I was organising in June were postponed to next year.

At the end of my maternity leave, things will change radically, because I’ll be going back to a very different academic setting than the one I left. Modules will be adapted to online teaching, reading lists and exercises will all have to adapt to online-only access.

There will be so much work to do; yet, I won’t be able to just put my Marigolds away.

As Helen Lewis wrote in The Atlantic ‘When people try to be cheerful about social distancing and working from home, noting that William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton did some of their best work while England was ravaged by the plague, there is an obvious response: Neither of them had child-care responsibilities.

The burden of childcare, of homecare and of care in general will fall on mothers, on women. I can already see it in the Zoom interface and the class WhatsApp group: even when partners take on shares of the burden (and there are many), it is nonetheless the mothers – the working-mothers, the sick mothers, the tired mothers, the stay-at-home mothers, the depressed mothers, the crafty mothers, the part-time working mothers, the kind mothers – who are carrying most of the burden following the disappearance of childcare and schooling. The effect it will have on our work, on our lives, on our selves, will have to be examined by future historians.

Basically, I am Sue.

There are other realities, too, which are made so much harsher by the current circumstances. A friend of ours passed away in the early days of lockdown, very suddenly, in his sleep, leaving behind a wife and a one-year daughter; aside from all the devastation this has caused, they were not able to hold a proper funeral. My husband’s grandmother lives on her own, in total isolation, in a tiny bungalow, and feels sad. A friend delivered her baby by herself in a hospital in France, and stayed there for 10 days with the baby in NICU and without anyone by her side, because her husband, daughters or parents were not allowed in. Our friends had a new baby, and the grandparents met their grandchild through their living room window. My baby may be 1 year old before she safely sees her grandparents again, and this makes me sad.

I want to end on a lighter note: my current LOCKDOWN HITLIST. Because, amidst the real anxiety and fear, the resister Daniel Cordier described the period of the Phoney War in a way which resonated instantly with me when I read it a couple of weeks ago:

Pour la première fois de mon existence,’, he writes, ‘j’étais libre et vivais en famille. J’ai honte d’avouer que la drôle de guerre fut la période la plus heureuse de ma jeunesse: outre le bonheur d’intégrer une vraie famille, je partageais mon temps entre lecture, ski et politique.’ (Cordier, Allias Caracalla, p19)

‘For the first time of my life, I was free and lived with my family. I am ashamed to admit that the phoney war was the happiest time of my youth: aside from the joy of being part of a real family, my time was split between reading, skiing and politics.’ And I think there is truth in enjoying the slower pace of my days.

Life is tough, and some days are particularly hard. But with small children, no matter how difficult it gets, slowing down the pace has its lovely moments.

My Lockdown Hitlist

  1. Discovering the children’s illustrator Mo Willems through his lunchtime doodles which I got super into along with my son (I now consider myself an ‘expert doodler’)
  2. Knowing I need to devote 15 minutes every morning to doing some yoga (with Sarah Beth, my new online yoga buddy) because it makes me feel oh so much better and helps carry me through the day; and by the way of Cosmic Kids, getting my kids into yoga.
  3. Ordering from local shops and restaurants which have transformed themselves delivering left right and centre.
  4. Playing Ticket to Ride Europe on Saturday nights with my husband, my brother and my sister in law as we all drink red wine.
  5. Making sourdough starter with my kids, and then making sourdough bread, and then watching them enjoy it.
  6. Watching the Jon Klassen book come to life via Little Angel Theatre.
  7. Watching Royal Opera House performances on youtube on Friday nights, with the kids, who were mesmerised.
  8. Taking a virtual tour of the Picasso and Paper exhibition
  9. A WhatsApp group chat with 2 friends I met through my son’s school where we spend a lot of time moaning and laughing and sharing memes/GIFS.
  10. Sorting through my archive photos from my research trip last year for half an hour in the evenings after the kids are in bed as a way to unwind and reconnect with my work self – slow progress, but so calming.
My son, as I write this: ‘I’ll just sit here quietly, and make some music.’

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