Professoring and parenting
in a pandemic

by Giovanna Chelser

Though I have never wanted to parent a child, I write this with genuine love and respect for the friends in my life who are parents and guardians to children. As a colleague, I am in awe of and concerned about the unseen work that they do. Over the course of the coronavirus “shut down” and movement to online teaching, I heard from parents through social media friendships and in my former role as Program Director of Film and Video Studies at George Mason University. In mid-March 2020, the early days of the pandemic response in the United States, amidst directives to socially distance and teach online, the stress on university educators simultaneously caring for young children at home was extreme and acute. While reimagining their courses in Distance Learning modules, and advising students remotely, parents were doing double-duty as educators in Algebra, PE and History at home. Frighteningly and detrimentally, parents in my spheres were reaching the limits of what was humanly possible. They faced significant psychological strain, and some serious physical stress-induced aliments, while navigating a global health threat and a wall of school work for their young children at home.

In the coming months, parents – and particularly single parents of young children – would and continue to endure great and overwhelming challenges. In the higher education sphere specifically, universities offered little concrete support to working parents. The University of Florida faced backlash and changed course after a July communications to employees indicated they could not simultaneously care for children while working for the University from home. The Washington Post reported that 2 million women had dropped out of the labor force by October 2020 because of what many saw as a choice between their children’s care and their careers. In CNN’s analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics, they revealed that all of the jobs lost in the American workforce – 156,000 - during December 2020 were held by women and the primary job losses endured were in positions held by women of color.

In April 2020, Inside Higher Education ran an advice column on “professionalism” for university educators offensively titled “Instructors, Please Wash Your Hair.” Comments poured in, many from educators alarmed by the author’s condescension, misguided priorities, and lack of empathy amidst a global pandemic that was testing everyone’s ability to survive financially and spiritually. The author has since apologized.

Comments from readers underscored the stresses of parenting and professoring from home in the pandemic at https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/04/16/

Many universities commended their senior level administrative pivots while eliding the work by adjuncts, faculty and staff on the ground. At my institution, George Mason University, our senior administrators touted themselves and IT services in a press release about George Mason’s response to moving 5,200 classes online. Meanwhile, educators and staff, many who are parents to young ones, were doing the most impactful work—retooling syllabi, urgently rebuilding course content, and empathetically connecting with each student individually—while being pushed to their limits. Their efforts in attending to the pandemic in home life ranged from working around technology issues, turning laundry rooms into Zoom rooms, while procuring food and supporting at-risk family members and worrying about elderly parents they could no longer see and support in person. Meanwhile, at many schools, shifting decisions by higher administration gave faculty, students and staff little time to prepare for the inevitable. In Spring 2020, the stresses of life in a global pandemic intersected with the brutal police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and a national uprising for racial justice in all sectors. Faculty and staff of color were asked to shoulder an enormous burden in simultaneously living through the moment themselves while supporting BIPOC students and responding to newly expressed “white guilt” in their own institutions. Workloads for BIPOC faculty and staff tilted heavily as they were called to serve on emerging and long-overdue Equity and Diversity initiatives, the lasting structures and impacts of which remain questionable.

Zooming in a pandemic became a performance of normalcy. To Zoom-educate requires a quiet place, freedom from familial demands, high-speed perfectly functioning internet, and good lighting. Even for me, as a kid-free person but as a disabled person with a traumatic brain injury, focusing on a Zoom interface sending multiple streams of information is grueling to synthesize. Parents searched for quiet spaces at home amidst constant familial demands. Performances of imagined normalcy in the Zoom classroom of 2020 were choices but were rushed through as a given. In her essay Rebecca Barrett-Fox outlined why imperfection should have been embraced at the start of the pandemic,

“For my colleagues who are now being instructed to put some or all of the remainder of their semester online, now is a time to do a poor job of it. You are NOT building an online class. You are NOT teaching students who can be expected to be ready to learn online. And, most importantly, your class is NOT the highest priority of their OR your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.” (2020)

For, planning could have gone the way of Berea College who ended classes, concluded grading, and conducted final correspondence offline as needed via ‘snail mail.’ Berea financially supported students in traveling away from campus. Those institutions and departments like Berea who made swift and bold moves at the start of the shut-down enacted administrative compassion, supporting health both physical and psychological. Effective and empathic decisions embraced imperfection, faced reality, and lowered expectations from students, instructors and staff alike.

In order to hear from those laboring in double-duty as parents teaching at home and instructors teaching and advising online, I invited a group of staff, adjuncts, and faculty around the United States to provide insight and documentation of their lived experience. Most answered my questions in written form during stolen moments from April to August 2020. Some offered stream-of-consciousness emails and interviews by phone. 60% of the respondents are people of color, 80% identify as women, 10% are non-binary, and 10% are men. 50% are single parents and / or primary caregivers to their children. Each person interviewed acknowledged their privilege and many reflected upon racial and economic injustice. All educators work at institutions that remained open but online as the pandemic shut-down began. Together, these interviews (some anonymous, others named) constitute a snapshot and a document of the parent “professoring” during a pandemic. They reveal increased labor, extraordinary problem solving, collective sorrow and anger felt during the beginning of the pandemic and the 2020 uprising for racial justice. In academic units and institutions, we must support university employees impacted by the Coronavirus shut down who urgently became full time care givers and educators to children at home. My hope is that in reading these stories, administrators and senior faculty will do that work over years to come. For the detrimental impact on professional careers, trajectories, and the physical and emotional well-being of our colleagues who parent will last beyond the administering of vaccines.

Click here to see excerpt of introductory video for their course by Nico Opper, Director and Producer of the ITVS / PBS Series “The F Word: A Foster to Adopt Story” and Assistant Professor of Communication, Santa Clara University. Professor Opper’s piece sets expectations around the realities of their classroom from home, coupled with child care in a pandemic, and introduces their Teaching Assistant.

Leena Jayaswal, Professor and Interim Dean for Faculty Affairs, School of Communication,
American University, parent to a 10 year-old.

"I was in Paris when WHO declared this a pandemic. I changed my flight and came home as soon as I could. I picked up my son from his dad’s and quarantined for the next 2 weeks. We did not leave the house at all, even for food. My son’s school was cancelled for those weeks, as they scrambled to figure out what to do. My son’s father was still being required to drive into DC for work, so, all the schooling came down on me and me alone.

My son was anxious about doing online schooling. So, I literally had to sit with him and watch the videos with him and then help him do his homework. Usually, I could not attend to my own duties until noon or 1pm. I ended up catching up on my work after I put him to bed, when I would work for a few more hours. Research was absolutely the last thing I could think of. It still is. I can’t find the time to do any of it. I am so fortunate to be a Full Professor, and have the PRIVILEDGE not to worry how this will affect my career. I am absolutely keeping this in mind as my tenure-track colleagues move forward, kids or not.

My normally non-anxious boy became a little more needy. He is usually an ‘I can do it by myself’ kind of kid and that changed. I ended up spending more time with him, and when it was around school work, we both were yelling at each other, and for WEEKS, each time it ended in tears for both of us.

[At American University] there were resources for us to go to, but most of it was all on our own. I did reach out to the Photography adjuncts and asked how I could support them. Since I am Interim Associate Dean, I was in meeting after meeting working with the administration, so we did a lot together as this group.

I have never felt this much of a failure, a failure with being a parent, and a failure at work. I have worked extremely hard in my career to “appear” one way in academia, because I’m a woman and a woman of color. I never wanted my failures or weaknesses to be shown because I never wanted it to be a reason or excuse for others to use against me. I cried every day with my son as we did homework. That lasted for the first few weeks, but then I got some ideas from my friends that were also my best moms and that helped. We got into a groove at the end of it and there were no more tears. But I also let lots go, i.e. research. I just couldn’t do it all. My ex-husband was eventually able to help, we discussed strategies and ways to make our son feel empowered to do the work. Because we were able to do this as a team, it worked. I am lucky to have a relationship with my ex that is not hurtful or vengeful and that we both ultimately just really love and care for our son. Luckily, I also have best friends who are moms to help lift me up, as we all rotated with our own mental breakdowns.

I have to say that George Floyd has thrown me more than the Pandemic did. The amount of work put on women and people of color to deal with the University on issues of racial injustices and racial inequalities is far more of my time and mental space than the pandemic. If the University can turn things around so quickly on the pandemic, they should look at racial injustices/ inequalities, etc. with that same urgency. I have had to deal with more white fragility these past two weeks than I have my entire career. I have felt more exhausted by these events in terms of my personal life and work than the pandemic."

Lori Yi, Academic Advisor, George Mason University, parent to a 2 year-old and 6 year-old, lives with her partner and his elderly parents – one with dementia.

"When the shutdown happened, it was during the peak of my advising cycle. My entire day was full of advising appointments with only a 30-minute break for lunch. I had to make a full breakfast for the kids, fix and gulp down my own lunch, and quickly pass them on to my father-in-law, which mainly means he lets them watch TV all day long. When I had 10 minutes between meetings, I quickly made the kids a morning snack, made sure they were drinking enough water and going to the bathroom. Then, another snack in the afternoon for the kids, more emails and appointments. By the end of all of that, I was stressed, tired, and overwhelmed. Once 5:00 p.m. hit, I started dinner, fed the entire family, put the kids to sleep, and cleaned the house with my partner. Nights were just a blur to then wake up and start all over again.

Image by Lori Yi of her current office located in her bedroom and across the hall from her children’s bedroom.

The pandemic also hit during my busiest time of the semester, course registration for Summer and Fall 2020. In addition to my usual duties, this added a layer of unknowns that was difficult for everyone involved. I’ve had to learn a brand-new system to deliver Orientation Advising online while continue to advise current students about Fall semester when that’s usually settled by end of April. I felt like I had to choose between my students and my kids. There were days where I made my kids the priority and others where my students came first. Either way, I felt guilt about not serving both sides adequately.

Image by Lori Yi of George Mason University. Her first home office in her laundry room flared her eczema. This required moving to the bedroom across the hall from her two young children.

I broke several times over the past three months. With high levels of stress and my dusty work environment, my usually maintained eczema flared into hives across my face and both arms. Although I met online with my dermatologist, went on antibiotics and got stronger creams, it’s still a problem going into month nine of the pandemic.

I was able to create my own schedule and had the freedom to accomplish my work when I could with the additional responsibilities. I wonder and have heard about staff whose supervisors expected work to only happen during 9-5 hours and weren’t accommodating to their role as a parent/guardian."

Damien Coor, Adjunct Professor of Cinematography, George Mason University

"Simultaneously, my 11 year-old (5th grade), 9 year-old (4th grade) and 8 year-old (2nd grade) were now enrolled in the “Damien and Maria Bilingual Home School for Coor Children” or DMBHSCC for short. I was the Head Master, Gym teacher, History teacher, IT, Technology Enrichment Specialist, Math Aide, Language Arts and Science teacher. My wife, Maria was the Spanish Language Arts, Spanish Literature, Math teacher, Lunch Lady and music teacher. It was a heck of a ride. But we all survived.

All of our problems were “First World,” and at no time did I lose sight of how lucky we were compared to so many during this challenging time.  Right now, three weeks after their school has ended, we are just resting, reflecting and preparing for whatever the future holds as our new “normal.” Although, amidst all of the uproar of our nation’s continued struggles with inequality, it has given me time to have serious conversations with my children. I remember being about 8 years old when my parents made me watch Roots. This feels the same. We watched the news and watched footage of these men being killed. It was a lot for them to digest but it sparked a dialogue amongst my multi-cultural family unit, which I am grateful for."