Pandemic Academic: Mothering from the Home Office
Twelve years ago, Baby #2 fell asleep in her carseat on the way to the hospital for the weekly mother’s support group. Insomniac Baby #1 had taught us a crucial sanity lesson: let sleeping people sleep. So I picked up Mama, PhD from the passenger seat and settled in for some unexpected reading. Since the book landed squarely in both my personal and professional wheelhouses, I wasn’t initially sure whether I was nurturing myself or working.
I worried a lot in those days about allocating my time fairly. During my maternity leave, I was not in the classroom, but I was still responsible for advising graduate students, university and professional service, and my own research. I was writing a report about the flaws in university FMLA administration and was reluctant to cheat a system I was trying to reform by shortchanging my work hours. After perhaps too much reflection, I convinced myself that I might use the essays in class or my writing, so I credited that time in the car to work instead of family.
Now that the babies are teenagers, I recognize that my behavior wasn’t based on worry so much as it was a finely-honed strategy. I’ve spent sixteen years now flowing between parenting and working on a moment’s notice. The method behind my madness is always asking myself: Amanda, what’s the next thing that’s due soon that you are most equipped to focus on right now?
Americans often talk about “work-life balance” as if they possess calibrated blocks of time that can be weighed against one another and moved at will. My approach to time management more closely resembles a lava lamp, blobs of red goo oozing through a hazy yellow medium. Either work or parenting might happen at home or at the office, depending. Some tasks require the office, but other work is best done at home. The digital history project I edit requires the double monitor setup at the office, and meetings with students and colleagues likewise stay at the university. But meetings and classes so fragment my time that it’s hard to write on campus. The easy chair in the living room at home is my writing nook.
Email is most resistant to containment. At our orientation for new department chairs, a colleague announced he wouldn’t answer email in the evenings. His family certainly welcomed his attention, but I couldn’t succeed under such constraints. Although I avoided talking about it, my kids needed me after, and sometimes during, school hours. If I tried to slay the email Hydra during the workday instead of corralling it after dark, I would overstress my office time and say goodbye to productivity. Sometimes academics criticize colleagues who write after-hours emails as if the senders are demanding immediate responses. I suspect that behind most off-hours email is an academic trying to do her job with integrity, while also quietly managing family responsibilities.
In recent years, the need to switch rapidly between parenting and working has diminished as my kids have grown. My children don’t interrupt quite so often, have after-school activities where other adults supervise them, and can occupy themselves at home. But family health matters continue to demand flexibility. My husband and I maintain opposite teaching schedules so that neither of us has to cancel class to collect a sick child from school. The day I taught my last class in December, my daughters and I were in a horrific car crash, the kind we felt lucky to survive. Even as I regretfully watched the follow-up medical and psychological therapy appointments eat into my spring semester sabbatical, I took the time I needed to heal. I laid low and worked whenever the trauma temporarily released its hold on me.
Just as I began to work wholeheartedly again, the pandemic re-awoke my dormant flexibility. Like half the planet’s population, my family is in lockdown to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19. Alone with the same three people for weeks on end, I again bend around our competing needs, aiming to keep the household functioning, manage our finite internet bandwidth, and maximize my own work time.
As I write these words, it’s 2:04 p.m. I haven’t yet bathed or changed out of my PJs. In eleven minutes, I plan to interrupt my writing for a shower while Teenager #1 Zooms into choir. In lockdown, I’ve learned that she comes naturally by her ability to project her voice. When my husband is teaching remotely, behind a closed door, I must pull out the noise-canceling headphones so his calculus lesson doesn’t distract me from the history of bison in North America. “Zooming” slows down the internet so much that reading a physical book is my best occupation during his class time—but I have to be able to block out his booming voice. It’s similarly hard to focus when Teenager #1 sings. Later, while she sits with her father during his virtual office hours for in-person algebra help, I abandon the bison and answer emails instead.
One silver lining of the current crisis is not having to wake anyone up for the school bus. But Teenager #2 is determined to retrain her night-owl sleep pattern and sets her alarm clock for 6 a.m. Some mornings, though, she can’t stay awake and naps for several more hours. I take advantage of that quiet time to read as much as possible. Rather than cook a hot breakfast, I sustain myself with baked goods and fruit until the house gets noisy. When I explain to Teenager #2 that I postpone eating until she’s awake, she rolls her eyes and tells me to eat when I’m hungry. Haven’t we taught her to “listen to her body”? But she hasn’t spent years weaving a life-cloth in which family and job are warp and weft. She doesn’t realize how much more noise four awake people make than three, that when she wakes up the number of possible interactions increases fourfold. The afternoon will mean constant disruptions as I chivvy along her remote schoolwork, help everyone negotiate Wi-Fi access, and entertain their unceasing series of anxious questions, random thoughts, and pithy commentary.
In the late afternoon, we take a walk. Teenager #2 counts the exercise towards her remote PE requirements, the most time-consuming schoolwork. We mostly chat about her favorite video series. But I slip momentarily back into work mode, stopping to photograph traces of my neighbors’ pandemic experiences to share with a colleague’s Milwaukee Coronavirus Digital Archive.
Role-switching is not a fail-safe time management approach. On the way to that shower at 2:15, I tripped over Teenager #1’s meltdown about being locked out of the Zoom meeting her teacher hadn’t yet opened. That meltdown eventually devolved into her screaming at me to stop interfering in her education. No one wants me to ask the teachers whether the due dates are real or if there actually will be grades this spring, information that might ease their stress. Both children resent when I ask school administrators to convey compassion to their displaced students. The evening of the first school-at-home day found me hiding in the basement after I lost the whole afternoon to managing my frustrated family. I was righteously sure they owed me several hours to work alone in the cold and dark but blessedly quiet room. Most chores are squeezed to the margins around my family and professional commitments, so the house remains its familiar mess.
Nor can I figure out when to look at the news, which seems to get worse every hour. Starting the day with the news erodes my optimal work time. Reserving news for the evening threatens my peaceful night’s sleep. But I lack the resolve to live in ignorance. Most days I peek in intermittently, which satisfies my need for connection but is emotionally disruptive. I am so upset the day Wisconsin votes in the presidential primary that I give up work altogether and draft my tax returns. I’m more confused than usual about whether reading the news is personal or work time. Will understanding the pandemic protect my family? Or am I the historian processing information that will soon manifest in my teaching?
Social media shows off how well many friends are coping. Some have designated “work from home” spots that they leave when the workday ends. Moms remake their (already immaculate) dining rooms into classrooms. They share hour-by-hour family schedules that incorporate work time, recreation, and meals that must magically appear at noon. They aren’t trying to shame anyone else, just modeling what works for them in these strange times. These are folks who need structure to thrive, the same way other people need a tidy home or a walk in nature. My husband has the discipline to close the study door when he is prepping or teaching his class, never hearing a distraction elsewhere in the house that demands his attention. I admire how my friends are offering their best selves to their families, colleagues, and students in this crisis.
I can’t follow any of their examples in normal times, much less now. So what’s my superpower? I can pivot on a dime between working and mothering and mostly maintain my equanimity. I can’t share a photo of the mental shift between these roles, but the transition is real. And it’s getting me through today, mostly intact so far. Maybe I’ll even get some reading done before Teenager #2 wakes up.
Amanda I. Seligman is professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her most recent book is Chicago’s Block Clubs: How Neighbors Shape the City (University of Chicago Press, 2016).