Academic Parenting During a Pandemic

Post authors: Dana Turjeman, Sondra Turjeman, and Meghan Duffy

This began as a subsection of the post from last week on going back to a new normal as academia begins to reopen, but it became so lengthy that we made it its own post. Students who are parents are often an overlooked group, and advisers who are parents might keep their personal and work lives pretty separate. Certainly, we know from conversations with other academic parents with school-aged (or younger!) children that many of us are trying to figure out how to juggle this new and ever-changing situation. There can be a sense of being alone in trying to figure this out, and sometimes there is little acknowledgment from our institutions or colleagues about the additional challenges for parents with children. We hope that sharing resources, strategies, and concerns will be useful to parents, and will also give people who are not currently home with children a little more insight into some of the things their colleagues are juggling — a little empathy can go a long way.

But first, we want to acknowledge a few things about our perspective: our children range in age from 1 through 9, so our perspective is biased towards younger children. Dana and Meghan are at home with partners right now, and although Sondra weathered most of the storm alone (see tips below), she did have support too. So, while we try to address issues that might arise for a variety of parenting scenarios, we know we won’t have captured everything. In a comment on our post last week, Brian McGill astutely noted that ‘one of the core realities of COVID 19 [is] that even though one virus reminds us how globally interconnected we are, the reality is if you ask 1000 people there are 1000 different stories about how COVID has affected them.’ We’d love to hear from folks in the comments, especially from people facing a different set of circumstances as they parent through this pandemic.

A quick overview of the current situation and some of the issues parents are facing as things re-open:

  1. The current situation: Many schools and daycares have announced they will not be opening until the beginning of the next school year at the earliest. And, even if camps, daycares, or schools are open, similar to what was discussed in our previous post, not all families will feel safe sending their children. Moreover, many programs are operating at reduced capacity, which might mean part time schooling, at best; others have not survived the pandemic and will be closing permanently. Finding daycare spots might be impossible this fall, and many parents will continue dealing with the technical challenges of needing to work with no, or partial, childcare. This is a challenge for all parents but is especially acute for those who are single parents or for families where one or both partners must work outside the home (see more discussion of this below). Furthermore, what initially seemed to some like (hopefully) a relatively short amount of quality time with the kids, has now stretched on for months. Parents may feel more pressure to enrich or homeschool their children (or to ramp up their earlier efforts; see here for some evidence on fundamental problems and inequalities in homeschooling). This all adds more strain to the work-home balance. At the same time, with more experience, we’ve hopefully started to figure out some strategies that make things a bit easier. (We have not, however, figured out how small children can require so many snacks!)
  2. Going back to daycare or school will not be as easy as switching on a light: Even though it might be easier to not need to care for kids at home, returning to school in the age of COVID-19 will have major obstacles. The kids will need time to adjust, and school and daycare will look different. It’s likely that many schools that re-open will be part-time, with kids in school some days but not others. Furthermore, prevention methods (rules regarding food, parents entering buildings, hand washing) will likely become stricter. In addition, we know some parents will feel like they are working on borrowed time — that it’s only a matter of time until there is a COVID-19 case in daycare (or camp or school) and everything shuts down again.
  3. Guilt, so much guilt: On top of everything being different, after being home with their children, some people might feel like having kids at home was actually not THAT bad (sometimes even fun!), so sending them back to full time daycare might make the guilt of paying someone else to care for your kids much more profound. Moreover, some families will decide not to send their child(ren) due to concerns about infection risk; that may lead to feelings of guilt about “choosing” a very challenging work-from-home-while-homeschooling scenario, and to concerns that others will be less sympathetic about that struggle than they were last spring. For many parents, concerns about whether they made the right choice by sending their child to school/daycare (or not!) will become the new norm. This is another case where people are trying to balance a million different competing factors the ability of children to learn, to socialize with friends, concerns about them getting sick or bringing the virus home, the ability to get work done, etc. People will arrive at different decisions, and we need to not judge people (and remember that we often don’t know about major factors that may have impacted their thinking, including health conditions or finances.)

Some strategies and other considerations and factors:

While we definitely don’t have it all figured out, given that this phase at home (full or part time) seems likely to extend for at least a few more months, we thought we’d share some strategies that have been working for us (but, again, things aren’t always smooth! Indeed, sometimes things are a hot mess!) as well as some other considerations and factors:

  1. Screen time: Many parents have relaxed previous screen time rules. We’re trying to make sure our children still get a good amount of activity, and that the things they’re watching (or games they’re playing) are age appropriate. But, in many families, there is a lot more screen time than there used to be. It will be hard to walk back whenever things get back to normal-ish, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it!

    Dana and her partner were quarantined with their 3yo and 5yo. She and her partner had some hopes for a schedule, but this is how it evolved:
    Table showing rapidly relaxing standards. By May, almost every cell involves TV.

  2. When we’re working: This is obviously something that will vary a lot between people, based on their natural rhythms and their situation. Some people are night owls making work after bed-time a possibility. Others do NOT function in the evenings, have poor sleepers, late bedtimes and/or early wake-ups, or just cannot get in extra hours aside from when their children are awake. Some people have a partner at home and can divide work time throughout the day. Meghan and her partner trade off work blocks during the day (most days, Meghan gets kid free work time 8-10AM, noon-2PM, and 4-5PM). Dana is also at home with a partner and mainly working afternoons and nights (but this means she misses having leisure time and bingeing TV). For Sondra, whose partner was not home most of the time, dividing tasks into focus-heavy (coding, writing, meetings) and focus-light (emails, scheduling, household things — laundry, bills, making lunch, dishes) allowed her to maximize the few hours she had.The focus-light tasks were completed in the few minutes her kids were occupied with a puzzle or other non-messy activity (you probably are already aware of the dangers of letting preschoolers have unsupervised time with art supplies!) For others, work time depends on the time when you can find outside help — for example, one friend who is a single mom has a babysitter who comes for 5 hours during the day, making that her work block. Other people, though, might not be able to afford extra help or may feel uncomfortable bringing others into their homes. 
  3. Being the main or only parent: Because Sondra was the “on-duty parent” most of the time, she learned to work during naptime (her “super-productive” hour-and-a-half of the day) and a bit on weekends and she and her partner renegotiated household chores. She also asked her partner to consider using one vacation-day a week so she could work a bit and maintain her sanity. The biggest change though was that at least internally, she released herself of almost all work responsibilities (she’s in the writing stage of her PhD, so this may be easier for her than for others). We are in the middle of an international crisis — it is okay to just read the news and take care of your children for a bit if that’s all that you can manage. With this new mindset, everything that she could accomplish was a bonus, and as the pandemic continued and she adjusted to the new normal, she was able to better balance working with kids at home (see tips below).

    We have all heard the saying that it takes a village, but during the COVID-19 outbreak, many of us have been cut off from our villages, our daycares, our families, and our other supporters. We may also need to find new “villages” — for example, making connections with neighbors, offering to add a few groceries to your list for a neighbor who cannot get to the shop, or going in on a shipment of art supplies together.

  4. Where to work from home with kids: For some without a dedicated home office and with little ones running around the dining room, there may be time to work (thanks to a supportive partner or babysitter) but no place to work. Sondra got a lot of work done on an ironing board in her bedroom. It can double as a sitting and a standing desk.
    woman smiling at the camera with an open laptop on an ironing board right in front of her
    Meghan is very fortunate to have a space where she was able to set up a desk and where she can close a door to get some distance from her kids. (Sondra, meanwhile, had to resort to taking the doorknob off her door a few times, since her doors don’t lock.) Meghan set this up in a rush in mid-March, and it took until mid-May for it to occur to her that it would be worth rearranging furniture to make that space more amenable to working, since this is clearly going to be going on for a while. Another approach is that some folks have been able to get permission to go back into their offices for things like teaching prep, after arguing that this was an essential work duty that could not be performed from home with young children.
  5. How to tell others you are working at home with kids: For those without kids or without young kids, or with “easy” kids or with partners who are doing the bulk of the parenting or– or — or — (everyone’s situation is unique), a gentle reminder of your constraints can go a long way, however uncomfortable it may be. Remind others when you are most likely to be available, be clear about what you can and cannot reasonably do when you are the responsible parent on duty, and try not to feel too guilty about it (we know it’s hard, especially if we felt like we had figured out the kids + research juggling routine prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, and now we have to figure everything out all over again). Open communication is important now more than ever — we could be dealing with this for the long-haul, so it is best to set honest expectations as soon as we can.
  6. Whether to schedule work things while watching the kids: We’ve been figuring out which meetings can be done while watching the children and which need to be done at a time when we can fully focus on work. Meghan schedules most of her one-on-one calls with lab folks while she’s also watching the kids, which frees up higher concentration times for editing their manuscripts and other tasks that require complete focus. Recently, she had a call while chasing her preschooler who had just learned how to ride a pedal bike around the block. (Insert your own life lesson about us both learning how to balance here.)
    small child in pajamas riding a bicycle with no training wheels, viewed from behind as he pedals down a sidewalkAt the same time, she knows multiple mentors who are helping students with code or something similar during their meetings, which requires full attention and cannot be done while chasing a small child around the block. Moreover, while Meghan’s approach has been efficient from a work and childcare perspective, there is an additional cognitive load of trying to do multiple things at once. Sondra, for example, cannot have meetings or chats while with her children she feels that she cannot give others the focus and presence they deserve when she is “on duty”. Even when not trying to have a work meeting while watching the kids, working from home with kids requires an awful lot of task-switching, which is cognitively hard.

    For many single parents or parents who have a partner who is an essential worker, this was especially hard, as we discuss more below.
  7. Household divisions of labor: Divisions of labor within the household that worked prior to the pandemic may not hold up, and partners might need to renegotiate how things are divided (e.g., if one parent used to handle all the soccer practices and the carpool duties, that might mean that parent can now take on more of the housework). Parents may also decide to change how they did things in the past perhaps ordering more pizza or letting laundry pile up. These may need to be continually revisited as things continue to shift.
  8. Merging some of the previous points: In some cases, one parent will have more flexibility in their work schedule and this might often be the parent who is the scientist or academic, since research can be malleable work with no set working hours. It might be easy to have that parent  be with the kids during “regular” work hours and then try to fit in their work outside typical working hours. We firmly believe in working at the times that work for you (and your family), but it is also important to make sure you are not straining yourself and have enough time to RECHARGE. Similar to the above, this might require repeated discussions about how things are being divided and organized, especially as circumstances shift as things reopen (and potentially close back down). 
  9. It’s okay to lower expectations: We can’t do it all. It’s hard enough to meet deadlines when our kids have full-time care or school. Expecting to have similar productivity for a sustained period given our new normal will lead to stress and frustration. It is likely that many people will need more time to complete graduate school but, as we noted in our post last week, it will also be important for people in evaluative positions (e.g., dissertation committees, hiring committees, tenure committees) to recognize that these are not normal times and to adjust expectations accordingly. We have to think carefully about how we can ensure funding, opportunities, and personal support.
  10. Dealing with uncertainty and an ever shifting landscape: What things will look like in the fall is so uncertain, but what does seem certain is that things that are working now will stop working as well, and we’ll need to figure out a whole new set of strategies. Meghan knows her very large course will be meeting online, but is not sure exactly what that will look like, and how challenging it will be to fit that in while homeschooling at least part time. This is another place where we need to try to be flexible and not pre-worry about things, while also recognizing that we need to do some planning ahead.
  11. On a positive note: empirical evidence suggests that there has been a shift towards more equitable divisions of household responsibilities. Some of this is because many women are essential workers, but it is also because now men are less likely to skip bedtime due to the “requirement” to stay late at the office. This means that the gender gaps can potentially get narrower, and that parents who didn’t have the chance to spend much time with their kids can now do it more often. Furthermore, having extra time to bond with your children may be an unexpected gift that you might not have allowed yourself in pre-Corona times (or at least the first month may have been a gift).
  12. But it’s not all good news: In a new survey of over 3,000 academics, most said they are busier now than before the outbreak began, and that was especially true for women (57% of women reported being more busy vs. 43% of men). And a different survey found nearly half (46%) of parents rated their stress levels as at least 8 on a 10 point scale, vs 28% for adults without children. This certainly matches our anecdotal impressions.
  13. Impacts on single parents: One single parent who we spoke with about this noted that everything above applies for her, just often dialed to 11. Financial precariousness and mental health challenges were already more likely to be issues for single parents than for partnered parents. Moreover, during the pandemic, there has been a chronic lack of support, with a single parent knowing they are responsible for everything 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the foreseeable future. This has been compounded by the shutdown making it harder to access emotional support from friends, family, and community members, even on top of the physical isolation it brought on.

    The question we raise above of whether to schedule some work while watching the kid has an entirely different calculus for a single parent. Sometimes, there was no choice (e.g., for single parents who were teaching last semester, when everything shut down and babysitters weren’t as much of an option). Other times, there was more of a choice (e.g., whether to work on a manuscript), but none of the options were good ones. Not surprisingly, this all takes a big toll and makes planning for the return to “new normal” that much more challenging.

  14. Giving birth and parental leave: Birth, which we often prepare for or anticipate months in advance, looks very different in the pandemic era. Hospital regulations about whether visitors are allowed and the number of visitors that are allowed are changing rapidly, so some people are giving birth with much less support than they originally expected. The post-birth time will also likely be different than anticipated. Parents may feel much more anxiety about taking their baby in for regular check-ups and immunizations (indeed, routine vaccinations have dropped precipitously during the pandemic). New parents also may not be able to have as much family support as they normally would, based on social distancing and challenges associated with travel. New parents who had been planning on attending parenting support groups (e.g., lactation support groups, ‘mommy-and-me’ type activities) might feel more isolated if they cannot take part in those (although there are quite a few options on zoom now). And it’s important to remember that, especially in the US, parental leave policies are often terrible (to put things lightly), so some people will be navigating working with a newborn during a pandemic something that is likely to be especially stressful if work requires leaving home. At the same time, new parents who are able to work from home and who would otherwise have had to return to work quickly might appreciate some extra time with their newborns. And those that have other siblings at home may be coming to terms with the fact that their bonding time with their newborns is now being shared with their other children as well this could be great for some and doubly exhausting for others. 

Concluding thoughts

Okay, so there are a lot of things to figure out and a lot of things that are hard or worrying. A commonly used phrase during the pandemic has been “this is not what we signed up for” — it applies to academic parenting, too! These attempts to do our work while parenting our children (including homeschooling) and also attending to our own physical and mental health, all in the middle of a pandemic, is, at some level, too much. We have definitely had our fair share of moments where it just all felt ridiculously hard and impossible.

At the same time, there have also been some nice things about this very strange time we’re living through. Meghan really appreciates the big hugs she gets from her kids when she comes downstairs after a work block, and getting time outdoors with her kids midday is pretty nice (as long as they aren’t fighting too much over a particular toy!) Sondra has found that the shutdown led to time to teach her daughter about the local plants and wildlife in her building’s garden (she is an ecologist after all) — the edible ones were the biggest hit. She has also used the extra quality time as a way to improve her kids’ English while their Hebrew-speaking daycares were shut down. Dana has found she’s able to be productive even while both she and her partner are working from home alongside and caring for their daughters. She thanks Lego (courtesy of her own adviser’s son) and Netflix for hours of entertainment. She was also surprised with her ability to work during non-standard hours and re-appreciated having an equal partner. 

In the comments we’d love to hear about the things that have worked for other scientist/academic parents during the shutdown, the things that you’re worried about or navigating (or maybe even totally nailing!) as things reopen, and also about the unexpected upsides, and downsides, of this weird work-from-home time. Also feel free to brag about things your kids have learned or done recently — we have kids, so we get it! 

 

Acknowledgements

We are very grateful to Katherine McLean for very helpful feedback on this post!

 

About the authors

Dana Turjeman is a PhD student in Quantitative Marketing at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where she is also the wellbeing and research productivity chair in their PhD forum. Sondra Turjeman is a PhD student in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she studies animal behavior (reproduction and migration) using molecular tools. Meghan Duffy is a regular writer at Dynamic Ecology, and a Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan.

5 thoughts on “Academic Parenting During a Pandemic

  1. Thanks for the post. Helpful just to see how everyone trying to work with kids has similar problems. We have been finding the unknown duration one of the hardest things to handle, both for rational planning and emotionally. Your reminder to repeatedly revisit schedules, expectations and responsibility is good advice for this I think.

    Also, love the biking photo. Pajamas all day (including outside) is definitely an expectation that has shifted in our house since March….

  2. Great post and important topic! My situation is definitely different (and almost certainly easier) in that my two children are a freshman in high school and a freshman in college. They don’t need moment-by-moment (or hour-by-hour) supervision, more like checkins a few times a day and they are actually able to help around the house (mow lawns, do dishes).

    For the highschooler I think the experience was not that different from my own of having to find a new normal (not seeing friends, having to find a way to ensure exercise happens, etc).

    I will say though that although not hard on the parent in anywhere near the same way as a younger child, COVID has been really hard on college students and required some careful attention from parents. Especially freshmen who were just regaining their balance when they got sent home with essentially no notice. Helping process that grief was important. Helping to find a new set of expectations for the summer (e.g. summer internships that were already announced and very much looked forward to got cancelled). And now dealing with grief and decision making around a very different fall. I’m proud of how my son has handled it, but it has been very hard on him and we’ve worked hard to be supportive.

    I will say apart from the emotional, on a practical level having two teenagers in the house with no school to keep them on regular hours has probably been my biggest challenge. Both my boys are likely still kicking around the house making noise at 1 or 2AM. And rarely ready for dinner before 9PM. Meanwhile I still have 9AM meetings.

  3. Thank you for this post–it’s really helpful to feel less alone! I’m in the situation in #14, as my daughter was born in April. I’ve already taken more time off than I’d originally planned, but I’m really anxious about starting again in August. Even with my partner’s support, I have no idea how productive to expect myself to be. Can I justify being paid full time if I know I’ll only get 4-5 hours of work a day (and even that broken up with feedings or distracted by the crying in the other room)?

    The emotional toll is also a huge component. We’d moved to a foreign country for my job, so there was already some isolation. But now with no ability to visit or be visited by family and friends, we lost the support system we expected with our newborn, as well as all the time we expected to share with them. Add that to the ever-present postdoc stressors of a looming contract end date (with potentially fewer jobs to apply for) and anticipating needing to move at some point (also complicated by the pandemic), and some days it takes a substantial proportion of my energy just to stay mentally and emotionally afloat.

  4. Thank you so much for posting this! It is very challenging to be in the situation of having my work day essentially cut in half (sharing child care and homeschooling of a 4 and 7 year old w my also ‘full time’ employed partner), but while working with colleagues who are largely not in this situation. If you are reading this as a chair or dean of a dept/faculty, perhaps one thing you could do to help is reduce service for people in this situation. When you only work four hours a day, a single service item can wipe out an entire work day, and I’m certain this is not what is best for either our research programs/students or our institutions.

  5. Pingback: Ask us anything: what will the short- and long-term academic job market in EEB look like? | Dynamic Ecology

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