Experiences of 2020
Since the beginning of Spring 2020, we have been using this space to share regular blog posts from women across many walks of life in Scotland. We hope to give a platform to voice how the events of this year are affecting you; your family, relationships, work, education, home life, mental health, wellbeing, and many more aspects of life.
The stories shared allow us to give evidence to decision makers at all levels, ensuring women's experiences are focussed on throughout the Coronavirus response and into the 'new normal'. We hope they'll also provide a form of support and solidarity to others in similar situations, or educate our wider audience about their role or position.
Click below to select individual stories, or scroll down to read them all!
The events of 2020 threw every aspect of life into a whirlwind; work, education, relationships were forced to adapt, and the experience of being a woman in society evolved alongside them.
During lockdown, I’ve been a student, a retail worker, and a Trustee of the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP), a youth-led organisation that represents the democratically elected voice of Scotland’s young people. As members of SYP, we consult constituents, hold debates, create policy and engage decision-makers with the most important issues facing young people in Scotland, and as Trustees on SYP’s Board it’s our job to ensure the charity keeps running smoothly.
But as you can imagine, SYP was forced to drastically adapt our ways of working. Like many other charities we made the move into online engagement, and as a Board we were faced with the difficult tasks of making sure this transition was as pain-free as possible.
Being a woman in a professional and political environment has never been easy; if you’re too loud then you’re “bossy”, but if you’re too quiet then you’re “weak”. In certain situations, it can take a mountain of courage and self-assurance for a woman to speak their mind, when a man in the same surroundings could do so with ease. I am incredibly lucky that SYP is such a welcoming and inclusive organisation that amplifies female voices; it’s a warm atmosphere that unfortunately not all women are greeted with in their circles.
However, now that organisations like SYP are engaging with members via video platforms as opposed to face-to-face engagement, it can be even more difficult for women to raise concerns to their peers and superiors, making it far more likely that women’s voices will be suppressed instead of uplifted, during these disruptive and politically charged times.
Having delayed our AGM and extended our Board term due to COVID-19 restrictions, we experienced resignations on SYP Board, leaving me as the only female voice left on the team. My colleagues did all they could to ensure I was able to speak my mind freely, but as a woman in a male-dominated environment, it can be easy to revert back to the misogyny you’ve internalised and consumed from everyday society. I have learnt to recognise these habits in myself, and with the support of my peers I can combat them, but not every woman has this strong support system within their organisations or workplaces, particularly within political spheres. When this goes unaddressed, women risk losing their voices altogether, and progress that their professional settings have made by amplifying female colleagues swiftly backtracks.
With less opportunities for women to raise concerns in a safe, in-person environment, it is now more imperative than ever for organisations and workplaces to encourage and champion female voices. Women within SYP are making sure we do just that, and the Convenors of our subject committees began discussions around this, drawing up an inclusion statement that be used to train members and staff and increase understanding of the difficulties facing minority groups within these environments, including women and minority genders. After these discussions, a large amount of our male members expressed that they had never been aware of how real an issue this was, and the positivity and empathy following these discussions has been overwhelming.
During the uncertain times of a global pandemic, we should be placing equality at the forefront of every professional setting, and stand behind all the incredible women- the doctors, the carers, the teachers, the volunteers- who have played their part in guiding us through these difficult times.
On day 7 of lockdown I wrote this: I was supposed to spend the weekend writing that book I've always wanted to write, but I can't bring myself to open the Word Document on my laptop. Isn't this what I wished for? A quarantine-shaped excuse to finish the book. But now it's the Word Document that's holding me hostage and the whole world won't be released until I comply with its demands: to finish the damn thing. Then I remind myself that this is a pandemic, and not a writing retreat.
204 days later, I still haven't opened the Word Document. And I'm trying really hard to not be hard on myself for not working hard on it. For the first fortnight of lockdown I went into survival mode to distract myself from the collective trauma of the pandemic. I climbed up Arthurs' Seat every morning before work, trying to keep up the pretence that I am healthy and invincible at 24-years-old while breaking news alerted me of the soaring death tolls.
I've been living alone for the majority of this year, and have consequently realised how much I depend on friends and family for nourishment and inspiration. Everything feels lighter when I'm in their company. This year I've learned that there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. I distinguish between the showy squares of Instagram which capture happy couples are perfecting sourdough bread and what happens behind the scenes. When restrictions eased, I made active decisions about who I let back in, and the company I keep.
Creative progress has certainly slowed this year, but it has made me reflect on whether how much I take on is sustainable. I co-edit a feminist arts magazine called The Debutante which is my pride and joy. The magazine investigates the legacies and continued relevance of women surrealists in contemporary artistic practice. Issue 2, which published in October 2020 (a few months delayed for obvious reasons), explores artistic journeys across borders, seas and psychological landscapes, and confronts ecological and transnational crises. My co-editor and I are still learning a lot from what 2020 brought to the fore. With the resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement, and given how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted under resourced communities, issue 2 strives to be more intersectional in its feminist approach. It's part of a wider learning process, and it's by no means enough.
I will finish that book, but I won't touch it this year. I'm focusing on creative projects which bring me (remotely) closer to people, as I rely on that contact and connection to maintain good mental health. It's still in its early formation but I'm starting up a writing column called 'Scottish Women Curators'. This will be a space to conduct feminist interviews about curators' career journeys, challenging curatorial conventions and discuss fantasy exhibitions. I love forming bonds with inspirational people, and learning from their experiences. Watch this space!
You can find Rachel on Instagram at @rachel.ashenden / @scottishwomencurators or email her on email@example.com for potential collaborations.
Comparison isn’t objectively bad, but it’s dangerous when used for the less tangible things - like how your life’s going. I graduated in 2019, hungover from three years in art school and forced to confront my total cluelessness re: what I wanted to do with myself. I dealt with this by shelving any desire to start my career yet, and ran off to live in Italy – procrastinazione! On Valentine’s Day, I’d chopped the last threads of the abusive relationship I’d been in. I carpe diem-ed in 2019 more than I ever had before, because I was finally able to. I got butterflies every time I looked at myself in the mirror. It was bizarre and wonderful.
Next to a year like that, 2020 has been…different. I moved back from Italy in December and back to my parents’ in Annan. Trash-talking your hometown is tacky but Annan was a far-cry from Florence. A lot of my memories there weren’t very fond ones (see: previous abusive relationship) and returning there felt like I’d gone backwards. I cried quite a lot and was persistently gloomy – and that was before the pandemic.
I began 2020 on Universal Credit, and at the start of February I’d gotten a job in retail. One month in, I was made redundant. Naïvely, claiming benefits and redundancy weren’t things I’d ever expected for myself; you’re misled throughout your education to believe that once you’ve been to university you’ll be on an upwards socioeconomic trajectory. I was unemployed for 4 days before starting a new job in a local factory, producing PPE for the NHS. In May, I was offered a freelance role working with an arts organisation I’d volunteered for in the past. I took that on alongside my factory job and burned through the worst of lockdown by working A LOT.
I wasn’t immune to the pleasure and curse of having lots of time to think. On a bad day, I’d be sitting at a sewing machine at 7 in the morning trying to flick a very stiff ‘off’ switch on the mental picture show of past traumas that for some reason decided to play in my head that day. On a good day, I’d take in how good my lunch tasted, or think about what I actually wanted to do with my life in a way that felt day-dreamy and exciting rather than utterly terrifying.
Those bad days felt consuming at the time, but the good days have shaped the real outcome of this year for me. It’s been a strange and rare opportunity to troubleshoot myself. I’ve paid off my debts and saved. I’ve finally moved back to Glasgow – months later than I’d planned, but financially stable and with actual GOALS. I’ve got a better idea of what kind of career I’d like to pursue, and learned from seeing others struggle that this career really shouldn’t be what defines me because everything is so much more precarious than we realised. The pressure is off, and yet I’m moving forward more than ever. I’ve even started seeing a therapist, which is huge for me!
2020, compared to 2019, has been different. It’s forced me to face myself in unfamiliar ways. It’s given me a motivation which I didn’t know I could have. I’m lucky – I feel guilty even having the privilege to view this year as one that’s given me the space and time to grow, when other people have lost loved ones. I’m not alone in using this year to re-evaluate my life in ways I haven’t previously though, and I hope this weird, life-changing, ‘unprecedented’ time has at least made us able to slow down and look after ourselves a little more than we used to.
My worry began when the panic buying started. When people were buying toilet roll for the year, pasta was a pleasure of the past and paracetamol nowhere to be seen. The strict lockdowns occurring throughout Europe, and my shocking behaviour where I found myself racing a man to the shop shelf for the last box of coco pops, catalysed my realisation of the seriousness for what was ahead.
For the following week, I kept in touch with my family, Grandparents and Grannie notifying them of the early shopping times introduced in the supermarkets and to stay safe. Before I knew it, my flatmate and I were to move out of our student flat. The night of the broadcast my flatmates mum got on the midnight boat from Northern Ireland to Scotland, and the following day my mum collected me to go home to Aberdeen.
This has been a frightening, sad and difficult time. My thoughts on the lockdown are the struggle and suffering of people left behind. Where alike many over summer, I couldn't work my usual hospitality job, instead I volunteered to provide hot meals for those in need. My grannie and grandparents couldn't socialise like usual. My brother has the battle of securing a job, and my friends and girlfriend have had to improvise their talents. All of this is a challenge to people's mental health. I think more than ever, it is essential for communities to arise in encouragement, support one another and, for people to know we are here for each other.
As a politics student, lockdown brought me to question the systems of the day. But it also made me appreciate how far humanity has come, where we have technology and communication platforms to aid the combat of COVID-19. I spent time looking after myself and bettering my perspective on life. I spent the most time consecutively I had in a long time with some of my closest friends, however via zoom, still valued and sentimental. Lockdown was a blessing in disguise for me because of the time I got to spend with my family, and I was able to support my mum working so hard for the NHS throughout the pandemic.
Personally, lockdown and the elements of it that limit our lives, I am happy to do, knowing the purpose is to save someone's life and to protect people's health. I welcome the new norm such as 'circuit breakers' if they are necessary to control the transmission of the virus. Lockdown and the new normal is challenging, and it's nothing like my generation, or even my parents, have experienced, but we must come together.
I am part of a deep-connected student community to which I am grateful for. The Women's Football Club has announced a buddy scheme to help new students settle into life in Stirling. We must do our part, to look out for one another and for our neighbours, stay connected socially as we can, to look after our mental health and those of others.
Pre-2020, as a self-employed storyteller and a carer for my autistic seven-year-old daughter, stress was already part of my life. There was also lots to appreciate - my kid is the funniest, sweetest person I know and I am consistently blown away by how tough she is when dealing with all the challenges that the world throws her way.
However, my girl feels things very strongly (contrary to what poorly researched TV might tell us about autism) and she can become pretty overwhelmed if she’s worried or if other people are distressed. Staying calm and squashing my own feelings when she’s struggling is essential (showing her when I’m wound up would be like throwing petrol on a rapidly spreading fire) and near total self-control has become my default.
This seemed doable until lockdown, when we were all cooped up together and my job came almost to a standstill. With no dashing about for projects, no quiet time for creativity, and essentially no chance to just be myself, I started to really struggle. I tried my best to help my daughter cope with feeling anxious and frustrated, to jazz up the dreaded home-schooling - even with my husband doing plenty of the childcare, I felt that the responsibility to steer our ship was mine. My sleep deprivation grew worse, my shoulder muscles become ridiculously taut but I couldn’t let myself see what my own needs might be. I was permanently tuned in to my kid, unable to switch off as my brain whirred away inside my exhausted body.
I couldn’t out run the emotions forever, of course, and when I cried for the first time in almost a year (while watching a rom-com that actually had no tearjerker moments), it became clear that I was burnt out. I needed help, and I was lucky enough to have people around me who wanted to be there, to remind me that it didn’t all fall on my shoulders. My husband was great at encouraging me to have a guilt—free nap or walk, even when I knew our kid wanted me glued to her side. My parents would remind me over the phone that sharing my struggles didn’t make me disloyal to my beloved girl – they were also very keen to be on grandparent duty again as soon as it was allowed. I’ve been able to, gradually, get creative again and I can see now that having this for myself is key to my mental wellbeing. I’m especially lucky to have a daughter who, with all her daft jokes and giant cuddles, really is the greatest joy in my life.
For me, caregiver burnout was brought to a head by the pandemic - I’m very aware that right now there are others who have less support, whose children have more complex needs, who have no chance at an outlet for themselves. I honestly don’t know if I could cope if I were walking in their shoes…