Anybody who thinks that the quarantine will lead to a baby boom — has never had even a quarter of a child. That was one of the popular jokes to circulate on Israeli social networks during the first COVID-19 lockdown.
Similarly, a widespread text message referencing the plight of marital relationships under lockdown read, “The Ministry of Health is announcing the cancelation of all events and weddings. A friend of mine is asking: Is there a chance that weddings will be canceled retroactively as well?”
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The list of zingers and one-liners, memes, jokes, and overlaid text on pop culture references all skewering life in the time of the novel coronavirus is long (and still growing).
Israeli media researchers Dafna Lemish, of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and Nelly Elias, of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, recently published a thematic analysis of humor circulating on Israeli social networks that focuses on the challenges parents face.
“Humor in Israel is a very important resource for coping with various kinds of crises and conflicts. There was a significant wave of humor after the Yom Kippur War, later on – after the Gulf War, and now we are witnessing the same pattern regarding the coronavirus pandemic,” Elias, co-author of the new study, tells NoCamels.
The researchers collected 396 distinct items, “including image macros, some of which appropriated global visuals originating in the United States; plain typed textual humor; comics; illustrations, like graphs and pie charts; PowerPoint-style texts; and realistic homemade photos.”
This ‘hardship humor’ of how to cope with the novel coronavirus crisis as it continues to change our normal serves is an important outlet for parents’ anxieties and distress, according to the new study — titled, “We Decided We Don’t Want Children. We Will Let Them Know Tonight”: Parental Humor on Social Media in a Time of Coronavirus Pandemic – recently published in the International Journal of Communication.
“And of course, parental humor was just one category of humoristic items that were circulated in Israel since March 2020. We also collected items on the shortage of toilet paper and food, obesity, obsession with hygiene, difficulties of celebrating Jewish holidays under the COVID-19 threat and of course conflicts related to marital and romantic relationships,” Elias says, noting that she and her research partner Lemish specialize in media, children and families, and thus decided to limit their analysis to parental humor.
Parenthood is all about a rollercoaster of emotions. The COVID-19 pandemic “seemed to mainly exacerbate negative emotions,” according to the study.
“Parental humor had a subversive dimension that openly challenged the dominant norms and the romanticized yet highly demanding ‘mommy myth,’ with the expectation for endless patience, love, and devotion,” the authors write. “In the past two decades, media representations of motherhood (and parenthood more generally) have been broadened to include more nuanced and complicated non-normative models in television programs, mommy forums and blogs, and various social media. Such public discourse openly expresses the difficulties of motherhood and the associated frustration and anger at being invisible and taken for granted.”
And yet, the parental resilience and ingenuity in navigating new restrictions to daily life with a heavy dose of humor did not surprise the authors.
“I was not surprised by parents’ resilience since Israeli parents (especially mothers) are used to raising their children under quite difficult circumstances: they have three children on average and constantly maneuver between intensive childcare and work demands,” Elias tells NoCamels.
“But what surprised me is the fact that many jokes broke several taboos regarding how Israelis talk about childcare and children in general. Having big families is a norm in Israel and children are perceived as ‘blessing,’ but in the COVID related humoristic items we found some alternative voices calling, for example, not to make any more children or emphasizing the tremendous burden the children place on their parents, driving them crazy and making their life almost unbearable,” says Elias.
Examples of this taboo-breaking Israeli humor includes the title of this paper, as well as other similar barbs of parents “offering” to sell their children: a big, colorful sign on a balcony of an apartment building read, “For sale: 3 children, without brokerage.”
The authors found that many parents resented being stuck at home and caring for their children 24/7, with schools and workplaces shuttered. “One good thing came out of this situation of being stuck at home with the kids—I am not afraid of death anymore,” reads a text message by one mother.
Another popular message that circulated on social feeds: “Given school closures, parents will beat the scientists and find a corona[virus] vaccine in five days!”
For the authors, it was important to highlight in their study that “the humor flourishing in Israeli social networks does not necessarily accurately represent parents’ public opinion and attitudes,” it does, however, give “a glimpse into views that lurk behind the façade of ‘children are a blessing’ —a common Hebrew expression.”
Israel’s fertility rate is famously higher than that of the average in other OECD countries. In 2017, the average Israeli family had between 3.30-3.71 children while OECD rates are 1.6 children per family and in the US, 1.9 children.
“At the same time, Israel does not support families with children financially and structurally, as might be expected from a pro-child society,” write Lamish and Elias. “School days in Israel are short (averaging four to five hours in elementary school) with limited day-care options for after-school hours. Daycares for babies and toddlers are costly and in short supply, and not universally available. This is particularly problematic given that 74 percent of women (25‒54 years old) are part of the workforce.”
This reality gave birth to a slew of jokes aimed at grandmothers – who, thanks to COVID-19 rules were told to stay at home. Many families in Israel rely on the assistance of grandparents.
“I am really tired of watching my mother’s grandchildren,” read one hilarious text by a mother.
“Due to school closure—mass escape of grandmothers from family WhatsApp groups,” read another popular post.
And then there was an animated image macro taken from Disney’s The Lion King featuring young Simba and his father, Mufasa, staring at the horizon. The text says, “Mommy, what’s there on the horizon?” “It’s your grandma running away. She knows I need a babysitter.”
And while many of the jokes have an Israeli element to them or are in Hebrew, the authors say they “received very positive feedback from colleagues in different countries who told us that the article (and the examples we used there) made them laugh and that they easily identified themselves with difficulties the Israeli parents were facing in those jokes.”
Indeed, in March, an Israeli mom of four went viral with a rant on distance-learning in the first days after schools shuttered their gates. A teacher herself, she unleashes the indignation other parents are feeling toward teachers, they deem are demanding too much. “If we don’t die of coronavirus, we’ll die of distance-learning,” she says in the video rant.
In this study, Elias and Lamish write: “In reflecting over the glocalization of the humor we studied, we note that we were able to locate some of our image macros in global sites, while the overlaid text appropriated them to the Israeli context. However, many of the texts, photos, and graphics were uniquely Israeli in nature; thus, we found the existing mixture of global and local content.”
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And while the reported numbers of infections and deaths due to the novel coronavirus continue to worry many, humor – and especially, dark humor – is needed to overcome anxieties and distress.
Elias agrees that humor is an element needed to survive and revive, telling NoCamels, “As a mother of two young children, for me these jokes served as a huge relief and helped me to reflect on my own feelings and thoughts.”
Viva Sarah Press is a journalist and speaker. She writes and talks about the creativity and innovation taking place in Israel and beyond. www.vivaspress.com