mothers day blog image

In early March, we all started working from home. For health services researchers, this meant shifting in-person classes to on-line, moving team meetings to Zoom, and finding ways to work from our home offices, kitchen tables, and sofas.  

As department chair in a research university, I have observed wide variation in how this shift has affected colleagues here and around the country. For some, this has become a time of renewed focus on research; they have more uninterrupted time to finish manuscripts and proposals and have said, “This will be my most productive year ever.”   

For others – particularly those with young children and who are their families’ primary caregivers – the opposite is true. They were thrust into a world of multiple, simultaneous full-time jobs in a single location: teaching, research, childcare and homeschooling. The daily challenges and lasting effects of conducting academic work from home may be experienced disproportionately by single parents and by those who assume primary caregiving duties, who are in many cases, academic moms.

As an academic mom with two grown children, I have been amazed by the challenges overcome by my colleagues and friends over the past few months and I believe we can do more to support them.  

Working from Home Presents New Emotional Tensions, Need for More Employer Support

Despite the changes brought on by staying home, deadlines for grant proposals, revise-and-resubmits, lectures and grading have not changed; for many the workload has increased. Indeed, as we all crave connection, it seems there are more meetings than ever and some are scheduled at a moment’s notice. When my children were little, I remember the challenge of switching from writing mode to kid mode and how I relied on my commute as a buffer. For today’s academic Moms, there is no buffer and the switching happens rapidly, all day long.

Sharing a workspace with children creates new emotionally exhausting family tensions. For instance, a colleague told me how she used to say, “Mommy has to work” only once a day when she did daycare drop off. Now she says it multiple times a day. Beyond the emotional pain of having to repeatedly deny one’s child, the competing demands and exhaustion also fuel friction between parents. COVID-19 may be exacerbating pre-existing gender norms and tensions in dual working families, as new questions arise about who is the default parent to handle the kids, the housekeeping, the cooking and other scenarios with both parents home.
In the midst of this crisis, our colleagues still have to finish manuscripts, grade assignments, and provide meaningful feedback on dissertations, often in the middle of the night when children are asleep. It is no surprise that early evidence suggests fewer papers and grants have been submitted by women over the past few months.  

To date, universities are providing few structural supports to address this problem. While many have extended tenure clocks by one year and will not use teaching evaluations from this semester, women and others have already begun to worry about how they will be compared to those who did not take the extension. For academic caregivers, there are also more immediate concerns due to the lack of coordination between when universities, daycares and primary schools will re-open. And when childcare centers and schools do open, what will happen when there is exposure, will facilities close for 14 days? In the world of COVID-19, academics cannot rely on Grandma or other family members (if they do live nearby) without risks, and for most on academic salaries, nannies are out of reach.  

This Is an Opportunity for Us to Support One Another

What can our academic community do? First, we can recognize this is happening and the new barriers facing our colleagues. You can let families in your circle know you understand how hard this is now and that you recognize it will continue to be so during the summer and beyond. Every chance you can, acknowledge that you “see” this issue. When you participate in Zoom meetings and see a child in the background or even in the lap of a colleague, consider how you respond in your facial expression or words. 

We can do better to plan meetings in advance and reduce non-essential meetings. Above all, avoid making comments about “all the free time people have” or the ability to “quickly jump on a Zoom.” If you are in a leadership role, consider how work responsibilities in your area could be distributed with these issues in mind. On a broader level, we need leaders to advocate for structural changes to support families with children, including organized childcare, financial support for in-home providers, collaboration with community organizations, or other innovative solutions that we have yet to identify.  

Sadly, those in the midst of this storm are least likely to speak up due to fears of retaliation at tenure time and those in a position of greatest influence are least likely to be facing the issues right now. This scenario is not a new one.

As one of my colleagues noted, rather than pitting ourselves against each other in a dystopian version of “academic hunger games,” the goal should be to support one another, recognizing that we all face different barriers and we should put our collective brainpower on how to fix a flawed system.  
We have worked hard to create inclusive environments that allow all health services researchers to contribute. I am committed to making sure the current crisis is an opportunity to create solutions to keep us moving forward. Happy Mother’s Day to all and in 2020, especially to academic moms!

Christy Lemak
Author, Member

Christy Harris Lemak, Ph.D., FACHE

Professor and Department Chair - University of Alabama at Birmingham

Christy Harris Lemak, Ph.D., FACHE is Professor and Chair of the Department of Health Services Administration ... Read Bio

Blog comments are restricted to AcademyHealth members only. To add comments, please sign-in.