Professors, parenthood and the pandemic

Zoe Schacter-Brodie, Feature Reporter

The daily schedule of a professor tends to extend far beyond a typical 9-to-5, often obscuring the lines between work and home life—especially so for those with children. The pandemic has blurred these boundaries further and ushered in its own set of challenges for parents. Even without the compounding factor of academic work, the last year and a half have unlocked a new realm of parenting for many: coaxing children into masks, becoming de facto homeschool teachers and trying to explain and navigate the enormous disruptions in their lives.

“It’s … been a little heartbreaking to hear how COVID has become part of Josephine’s organic understanding of the world,” Professor Alissa Cordner said of her three-year-old daughter, in an email to The Wire. Josephine now asks her mother if others are vaccinated upon meeting them, and seeing people inside their house confuses her.

In addition to difficult adjustments and new obligations, many parents are negotiating post-lockdown life with unvaccinated children. Though the FDA recently authorized the Pfizer vaccine for children as young as five years old, it hasn’t yet been made available for children under twelve.

Professor Mary Raschko’s children are two and almost four, meaning they are unvaccinated, and likely will be for quite some time.

“Does this bring any …?” I began to ask. Anxiety? Stress? Hesitance to return to in-person teaching?

“Yes,” she said immediately, laughing. “Sorry, I’ll let you finish.”

Returning to in-person instruction, despite causing a bit of discomfort at first, doesn’t worry Raschko too much. She credits Whitman’s high vaccination rate and consistent masking for this comfort, as well as her own vaccination. What causes her more worry is sending her children to daycare, necessitated by her full-time work at Whitman. At daycare, the only barriers between one household’s germs and another are the tenuous masking abilities of young kids.

Professor Rob Schlegel was hesitant to return to in-person teaching because of his own unvaccinated children, and he had to make adjustments in order to feel comfortable.

“One of my classes was supposed to meet in a small room with no windows in Olin Hall,” Schlegel said via email. “For the first several weeks we met outside under one of the giant trees surrounding Ankeny. It was actually quite nice. Now that the weather has changed we meet in the much roomier Maxey Auditorium.”

Time poses another challenge: between work, more hands-on parenting than ever and the million other things that make up adult life, it’s a scarce resource for parenting professors.

Illustration by Anna Stone.

Cordner is currently on family leave with her younger daughter, ten-week-old Etta. She said that during a standard semester, “time feels like the most precious thing, and there is never enough of it.”

Raschko echoed this sentiment. She recounted her hectic evenings during semesters of online instruction, during which she held office hours directly after bedtime.

“I’m trying not to do that this year,” Raschko said. “I’d be trying to get the kids to bed, and then inevitably, it’d be a night where someone’s whining or needs one more story … it felt like sometimes I was trying to kind of steal time from them to get to work.”

Now that daily life looks slightly more normal than it did in the preceding year and a half, Raschko said that balance between work and family life feels attainable—this comes, however, at the expense of personal time.

“There’s not time to do things that are not work and parenting,” she said.

Professor Rob Schlegel saw a similar depletion of the time and energy he typically has for his creative pursuits. Schlegel and his spouse opted to keep their children home last school year amidst the “unknowns” of the pandemic, throwing them into the roles of grade school teachers alongside their full-time work as professors. Schlegel, a poet, was able to balance these commitments but had “zero energy” for his own writing.

“I was unable to imagine my way into poetry when the majority of my focus was on how to keep my children safe (and sane),” he said.

Despite the formidable commitment and engagement required by an academic career, the professors I spoke with emphasized that it is no more difficult to balance than any other full-time job; in fact, there are tons of benefits when it comes to parenting. Raschko cited the flexibility her job gives her. Cordner was grateful for her generous family leave support.

“I’m so grateful for this time to be home with [Etta] when she’s so little,” Cordner said. “I get to really track the growth and expansion of her world on a day-by-day basis.”

Raschko further explained that her scholarly work is vital to her ability to be a present, engaged parent and person.

“I have always felt that the kind of vocation I get to have as a professor, and the kind of work that I get to do as an academic, is really important to who I am as a thriving human,” Raschko said. “I feel like I need this work to be happy and that if I didn’t have it, I would actually probably struggle more to be a good parent, because I would feel like there were aspects of my personality and my intellect that were being kind of unused.”

This framing of the convergence of motherhood and professional pursuits—one enriching the other—is an important one, and it’s one that’s often absent. Conversations around concurrent motherhood and scholarship are often rendered through the lens of sacrifice: When should a woman plan to have children so as not to jeopardize her tenure? Which institutions will be most compatible with family life? Can you really be a present mother and an engaged academic?

Books with titles like Professor Mommy and Mama, Ph.D. explore these questions and document various hurdles, implying that the two identities are in conflict with each other.

“Of all the things that we advise you to do in this book,” Professor Mommy says, “this will be the hardest to follow: accept the consequences of your choices. You cannot be everything to everyone all at the same time—a super-scholar, a super-teacher, and a super-mother.”

Yet Raschko argues that these two parts of her life are not only compatible but that the professional is fundamental in fulfilling the personal.

“I definitely struggle with the fact that there’s just not enough time, but I don’t feel that being a professional and a highly engaged professional is something that is compromising my family life, because I’m just not confident that I would be a very good mom without getting to pursue the things that fulfill me,” Raschko said. “So, yeah, I feel pressed for time and sleep, but not necessarily that this one is making it more impossible to be this other thing.”

In fact, the two do not even need to be disparate parts of professors’ identities—and often, they’re not. Skills and lessons learned in parenting can inform the strategies used as a professor, and vice versa. Cordner says that the listening and communication skills she employs with her toddler have been useful in understanding “the deeper reasons for [students’] actions, requests and feelings.”

“When I communicate with our toddler, I try to understand the emotions she has, even if they don’t make sense to me,” she said. “I’m not comparing college students’ emotions to toddler tantrums! But I think the same thing is useful for my students.”

Cordner has also begun to soften the boundaries around her home life, even including a photo of her daughter Josephine in her syllabi during online instruction.

“I wanted to be respectful of students’ home life challenges, so they needed to know more about what my home life looked like,” she said. In this way, parenting enriched her role as a professor and helped her further empathize with students and their unique challenges.

Raschko said that, though luckily college students aren’t as “screamy” as toddlers, she still utilizes the patience and discipline that parenting fosters.

“I think being a parent has made me maybe a little more attentive to understanding my students as fully human with all kinds of needs pressing upon them,” she said. “I think it has made me, at work, more patient overall. Parenting small ones takes a lot of patience.”

Patience, communication and intentionality are certainly critical skills for parents right now, who are shepherding their children through a period of massive uncertainty and upheaval. Just taking care of myself and keeping dread at bay has been difficult throughout the pandemic; bearing the responsibility of a child’s wellbeing feels almost unimaginable.

Cordner said she worried about guiding a child through the world’s tumult even before the pandemic, with the climate crisis casting an inauspicious shadow over the future.

“I want our kids to grow up to positively and critically contribute to society, so we talk a lot about all the different ways to be ‘helpers,’” she said.

Raschko studies medieval English literature, focusing on an era in which plague killed a third of the population in three years. The idea of “catastrophic loss and instability” is not novel to her; she considers it “endemic to human life.”

This awareness of suffering and its inevitability made becoming a parent a difficult decision for Raschko to contemplate. Still, she says, eras before ours have also felt apocalyptic.

“This is part and parcel of being human,” she said. She focuses on sharing small joys with her children, helping them find meaning.

Schlegel would like to think that the pandemic has made him a more present father—although, he added, perhaps this belief is a tool to stave off inevitable parental guilt.

“Parenting is no joke,” he said. “Parenting during a pandemic is.”