I have been working since I was 18. I worked full-time through all of my degree programs: bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and a doctoral degree. I have four active children and a non-academic partner who works daily from 8 to 5 and has to travel (even now) at least once a month. Busyness of home and work are my commonplaces. I have always had to balance the multiple areas of my life by finding small pockets of space and quiet places to work. In grad school, we were talking in class about our work habits, and one man commented that he needed big chunks of time to be productive, which he accomplished by blocking off certain days and times on his calendar. When the question came around to me, I admitted that I sometimes worked in 15 minute blocks at the school pick-up line, or I used my hotspot to grade papers in the car while my kids had sports practices. But even these small spaces of time were private and uninterrupted by the demands of home/life. My work didn’t always happen in a traditional workplace, but I was in my work space.
As a parent and a tenure-track assistant professor at a teaching-focused state institution, work-life balance was something I sought when going on the job market a couple of years ago. And I thought I had found them in the tenure-track position I accepted in a department that values our work time and our life/home time through flexible scheduling, family-friendly policies, and support systems for COVID-19. My job includes research, but it is not a “publish or perish” situation, and my service commitments are manageable. Under normal conditions, I have been able to keep up with my work and my family/home/life using that same balance I have relied on since I was 18.
But then, this: a pandemic which shifted all of our university classes online with just one week for faculty to make the shift before students were required to login. At first, I thought, Okay. I can do that. I’ve taught online before. A lot of my materials are already online-ready, and my students are used to accessing the LMS for their coursework already (submissions, links to OER readings, lectures/slideshows). A few changes, and we will be “good.” Now, add in that my four kiddos would also be learning from home in an online environment (which they are NOT used to) and the five of us would be home all day, every day for the foreseeable future, and suddenly, the idea of work-life balance became impossible.
Today is not a good day, which is starting to sound like a cliché in our new normal of trying to balance family and work in the middle of a pandemic. But, really, today is not good. Meltdowns, screaming, crying, lack of focus and motivation -- by me and my kids. No one wants to do any work. And even when I try to force the kids to do a little schoolwork or to get some of my own work done, I spend more time dealing with everyone’s issues than working: my brother took my toy; she is using all the Internet and I have class meeting on Zoom; I need help with my math, science, Spanish, writing, everything; what is my password (for the gazillionth time). Even the dog is especially barky and clingy. I respond as best as I can and try to muddle through some grading, which requires a focus that I don’t really have today.
Then I hear giggling in the background. The maniacal giggling that typically leads to crying and screaming because these giggles aren’t the “happy I’m having fun giggles.” They are the ones that mean I have to intervene, which means I have to stop working and find the source of these giggles. Then I have to determine appropriate discipline/caring/parenting measures and oversee that those measures are enforced/enacted/enabled. So, even longer until I am able to get back to work. I have 17 papers to grade for one class, and I’m almost halfway through the first paper. Only 16 ½ papers to go. I have already been working for over an hour.
And this is my new uncommon/commonplace: many of my colleagues are in this same space and place of balancing their work and their families/homes/children/pets/parents. We are all in this space together, and none of us seem to know the best ways to do it. Advice abounds on social media: have a schedule, let kids do what they want, work at night, work weekends, trade with a partner. But these solutions haven’t worked for me yet because they require more energy than I have left after trying to be everything to everyone.
I have lost my space and place to work and, with that loss of space and place, I’ve lost some of the meaning that I create for myself through meaningful work. No classroom, no office away from home, no quiet/alone time at home to think and write. “Hunker down” orders have not made me long for social interaction. Quite the opposite, in fact: I long for solitude. I miss the “balance” I was creating for myself through work space and family/home/life space; these weren’t always physically separate but I had space to myself. Space to teach, research, and serve. Space to mentally “switch” modes. Kids are at school and I don’t teach until noon? Time and space to write and research. This child has sports practice for an hour? Time and space to grade papers while I wait in the car.
These spaces are nonexistent right now, unless I stay up too late or get up too early which disrupts my “essential worker” partner because my new home office is in our shared bedroom. When we first went into “hunker down” and online classes, my home office was wherever I could find a semi-quiet place to work at home: the family room couch, the dining room table, a chair in the living room with my laptop propped on a side table and books to be tall enough for a Zoom meeting, always on mute because who knew what noises would be heard otherwise. In the first few weeks, my dog loved the extra attention and stayed cuddled by my side, literally wrapping herself around my neck on the couch or snuggling under my arm with her head on the edge of my laptop making it difficult to use the touchpad at times. Several weeks in and she is also seeking quiet places to be alone by sunning herself on the floor or whining to go outside and lay in the grass. She isn’t interested in being my coworker any longer.
When my university announced that summer courses would also be online, I decided that I needed a more permanent place to work at home. I bought a desk, a small whiteboard to track writing/research projects, and a lamp, and I set up this new workplace in our bedroom to be separate from the kids when I needed to be. I set the kids up with a long folding table in the family room so they also would have a place for school work (but they don’t work there anyway). One child works at the small desk in his room, spreading notes and books out across the floor and across his bed; one works while laying in bed with her laptop; another child works on the desktop in the living room (when he does any work); and one child prefers to work near me, which means she is usually laying on my bed with a laptop or a book while I try to work at my desk. My door is usually open so kids walk in and out, interrupting with questions about their schoolwork, what food they can eat, if they can watch TV yet, to tattle on a sibling, or just to say they are bored or want a hug. Even the signs posted on my door that say, “Stop! Mom is recording or in a meeting or writing,” give permission to barge in. I tried to create a physical place where I could create a mental space to work. And sometimes it happens. I can teach, grade, or write for small blocks of time until someone or something else needs my attention. But everything takes longer than I planned because of these interruptions and because I have to work harder to “mask” those things that are so visible and in front of me right now in order to get to that work space.
I sit to write, to work, and I find myself drawn to the myriad household chores/tasks that still need to happen even in the midst of a pandemic. I feel guilty for ignoring the everyday things that need done, and I feel guilty that I’m not working “enough.” I think, I'll just put in this one load of laundry, then I'll be able to sit down and work, but that one load turns into two loads, picking up the living room, gathering dirty dishes, realizing that the bathroom needs cleaning, and, oh fuck, it's time to make dinner. When my work place is my home, it’s hard to justify a dirty, messy house because my "real" work is taking care of my family, aka mothering, as I’ve been told by my own maternal examples and society for years.
Two months into this pandemic, work-life balance is changing for me. It no longer means a quiet place/space that I have scheduled into my day by my kids’ out-of-home activities. It no longer means shutting the door to my university office so I can write or grade or plan lessons without being disturbed. It has become a small chunk of time/space here and there where I can think about work without having to think about home/life. And then, home/life rears up in my face again and I’m brought back to the place where I am right now. Maybe we will watch a movie or bake bread or go for a walk. Right now. In what was once the middle of my work day. Work and life/family have become one place and one space.
I worry that this new “balance” is actually unsustainable in the long term. I am concerned about the continuance or a second-round of hunker down orders in the future. I don’t know that I can keep wearing the masks of motherhood and teacher-scholar without suffocating.
There was a recent popular article by Kitchener that discussed how women, particularly caregiving women, were publishing less and doing less research now. This pandemic has continued to highlight “women’s work” and the academic divide. And, in some ways, it is further exacerbated when only one parent is an academic and the other is an “essential” worker who does not spend their days in the home. It is an argument made in popular books, too. Sandberg focused on women “leaning in” to their careers and taking on the institutions and systems that hold women back, which we can only do by supporting one another and by speaking up and participating at the table. She writes, “We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet” (Sandberg 8). Even, or maybe especially, during an unprecedented global quarantine, we keep trying to do it all.
Schulte also argues for supporting women’s issues, although she proposes a balanced lifestyle that enables women to focus their time on their careers (if they choose), their families, and themselves. Her study of leisure time and how women play in their lives have led her to see that women are overwhelmed by trying to “have it all” — a popular phrase used to describe women who try to juggle careers, families, and their own interests.
“Because this is how it feels to live my life: scattered, fragmented, and exhausting. I am always doing more than one thing at a time and feel I never do any one particularly well. I am always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door” (Schulte 4).
Like Sandberg, Schulte believes that women need to stop holding themselves up to impossible standards in order to feel “successful.” They need to remove their masks (Maushart). Both authors argue that the only way to reach equality is for both genders to share equally in career building activities, household duties, and child care, which is difficult to do during a pandemic when these spaces and places of work and home are combined for many families. Schulte argues for a cultural shift and increased social support. Like Schulte, Sandberg also believes that the secret to “having it all” happens when men and women share responsibilities. “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes” (Sandberg 7). Sandberg and Schulte understand that, in a world where about half the population is female, the only way for equality to be achieved is through equal responsibility in all areas, whether we are in the midst of a global pandemic or not.
Our current situation seems like the perfect opportunity to bring this cultural shift to fruition-- and yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, it isn’t happening at all. In fact, the divide is widening. Donna Ferguson shares data from a UK study:
It doesn’t matter whether a woman is working from home, working outside the home or not working at all: the research reveals she is typically spending at least an extra hour-and-a-half on childcare and home schooling every day, compared to the average man in the same circumstances.
This expectation that the woman will care for the home/family has a long history and has been discussed by scholars such as Rich and Friedan since the early waves of feminism, yet even current scholars/workers/mothers like Sandberg, Schulte, Maushart, and Crittenden suggest that the problem has not changed; indeed, women have become even better at hiding behind masks. Rich explains, “Whatever the known facts, it is still assumed that the mother is ‘with the child’” (53). Even in households where mothers work outside the home, women seem to still be expected to be responsible for the domestic duties including childcare and, now, home schooling our children, too. Kitchener explains that women have been focused on home/family rather than work during quarantine as demonstrated by their decreased participation in academic article submissions. These “findings' ' seem like a “no shit” moment to many women, who, like me, are overwhelmed by our new normal of work-from-home. So many of us have lost our work space as home/family fill those pockets of time that we once reserved for our own work and interests.
Furthermore, institutions like mine have offered tenure-track faculty an opportunity to extend their tenure clock. While it may seem generous to offer to stop the tenure clock, it reduces a woman’s likelihood of reaching this career milestone and, once again, limits her earning potential by holding her back for yet another year. Kitchener explains, “When men take advantage of ‘stop the clock’ policies [...] studies show they’ll accomplish far more professionally than their female colleagues, who tend to spend that time focused primarily or solely on child care.” I wonder how many tenure-track men and how many tenure-track women will take “advantage” of this offer at my institution, and how many will use that time to research and write and how many will use that time to care for their families. A more realistic offer would include altered expectations of what can or will be accomplished during this semester (or longer). I want this year to count, even if I am not as “productive” as I may have been with the space and place to finish the work I wanted to do.
I hope something good comes from this pandemic: a cultural shift. I want a cultural shift that acknowledges the circumstances and that celebrates everyone’s role in flattening the curve by working from home while caregiving, educating our own children, and still doing our jobs the best we could as we hunkered down and stayed at home, full of worry and even disappointment at being away from our commonplaces and creating a “new normal” that might last for a long time. I want a cultural shift that respects our multiple roles and the ways that we balance all of our roles now and in the future. I want a cultural shift that supports the caregiving we all do -- in our homes, communities, and institutions.
When my partner returns home around 5 pm every day, having left at 7:30 am for his essential job, I feel guilt on these days where I have managed to create space to work by letting the kids watch too much TV or play video games, and dinner is not ready upon his return. So I close my laptop, put on my “mask,” and greet him at the door, order pizza for delivery, and focus on my “real” work for the evening.
Crittenden, Ann. The Price of Motherhood. Holt, 2001.
deCerteau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Ferguson, Donna. “‘I Feel Like a 1950s Housewife’: How Lockdown has Exposed the Gender Divide.’” The Guardian, 3 May 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/03/i-feel-like-a-1950s-housewife-how-lockdown-has-exposed-the-gender-divide?fbclid=IwAR1JjVuObtYKWQBxicrPDyBwVsRVwoDr75T4_yZsC_L-8XCbS3ONrItLlmk. Accessed 7 May 2020.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminist Mystique.1963. W.W. Norton, 1997.
Kitchener, Caroline. “Women Academics Seem to be Submitting Fewer Papers During Coronavirus. ‘Never seen anything like it,’ says one editor.” The Lily, 24 April 2020, https://www.thelily.com/women-academics-seem-to-be-submitting-fewer-papers-during-coronavirus-never-seen-anything-like-it-says-one-editor/. Accessed 7 May 2020.
Maushart, Susan. The Mask of Motherhood. New Press, 2000.
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. 1976. W.W. Norton, 1995.
Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Knopf, 2013.
Schulte, Brigid. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One has the Time. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014.