Student mothers describe increased stressors as COVID-19 mixes home and work


Graphic by Catherine Buchaniec

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, parents are working from home while simultaneously caring for their children. Many parents don’t know when child care will resume.

Yunkyo Kim, Assistant Campus Editor

On a regular weekday during the COVID-19 pandemic, graduate students like Heather McCambly and Nikki McDaid-Morgan are teaching classes, grading and meeting with students while providing childcare.

McCambly, a SESP Ph.D. student who is in her fourth year studying racial justice, is collecting data on the pandemic while full-time parenting her 4-year-old daughter and ensuring she is emotionally supported.

“I’m trying to figure out how to help my kid keep learning and also mostly just be OK,” McCambly said. “(My child is) definitely feeling what’s going on in the world and on this planet right now. And she needs a lot of attention.”

Life-work balance has become difficult for many amid coronavirus, as remote work pushes the office into living spaces. Parents have had to balance childcare duties with professional duties. Women already bore the brunt of domestic work in heterosexual couples — a dynamic highlighted further by the pandemic.

McCambly recently took her daughter to see a doctor because she was showing symptoms related to stress — part of which comes from the drastic transition from daycare to homeschooling due to the pandemic.

Going to the doctor’s office during the pandemic, McCambly said, didn’t feel safe. The experience compounded the stress.

“I might put being a researcher before most things in my life,” McCambly said. “And for better or for worse.”

Between McCambly and her husband, she said he performs more childcare than she does. Yet she told The Daily she still finds herself completing less and less academic work.

She’s not alone. Academic journal committees across subjects have seen the number of article submissions by female-identifying researchers plummet, with a deputy editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science noting that she has “never seen anything like it.”

Even though not all female-identifying researchers are mothers or caregivers for elderly parents, they are more burdened with completing domestic work in heterosexual relationships, with childcare being one such task.

Disciplines such as astrophysics have witnessed up to 50 percent “productivity loss,” with submissions by female researchers to academic journalists noticeably decreasing. Comparative Political Studies, a journal that publishes on a subject less disproportionately male-dominated than astrophysics, has seen a consistent number of submissions by women this year and a 50 percent increase by men.

McDaid-Morgan, another SESP Ph.D. student who has two children, said she said she felt “hyper-productive” before the coronavirus closed Northwestern’s campus.

Now, her timeline has been pushed back. McDaid-Morgan’s dissertation proposal, which she she was due to defend last month, has been delayed. Her 4-year-old is bedwetting again, partially due to stress. On top of this, the student is expected to produce the same level of academic work.

“My identity is wrapped up in being a researcher and an educator and a learning scientist,” McDaid-Morgan said. “Now that we can’t be on campus anymore, my own mental health has declined and it’s hard for me to get work done.”

In the past, McDaid-Morgan tried to separate work from home because doing work at home may lead to the children feeling neglected. Now, she said she has no choice.

Both doctoral candidates told The Daily that they are a skewed example, as their partners play an equal or larger role in parenting and other household duties. They said they know a colleague whose partner is an essential worker and has to raise three children.

At the same time, both McCambly and McDaid-Morgan’s husbands are temporarily unemployed due to the pandemic. Academia is already a precarious workforce. If they graduate on course, they may not be entering a desirable job market.

“It’s really taking a lot out of me emotionally to reconcile,” McCambly said. “I’ve done all the right things, I’m continuing to do the right thing. I love my work. And I cannot count on my university right now to kind of have my back in this moment (and) long term in terms of making sure that I can pursue the academic career I came here to pursue.”

Northwestern University Graduate Workers have been advocating for an additional year of funding since April through the hashtag #universal1yr and other organizing efforts.

The University has not acted to extend an additional year of funding to graduate students in light of the pandemic, despite receiving numerous endorsements of #universal1yr from the political science department, African American Studies department, the School of Communication and more.

During NUGW’s May 1 virtual sit-in, Alícia Hernàndez Grande, a Ph.D. candidate, said that doing graduate work and taking care of her young daughter full-time during a pandemic has taken away time from her studies.

“As a graduate student (and) parent, my work time is limited,” Hernàndez Grande said. “I am trying to do the best that I can, but without childcare, without the possibility of childcare, without knowing when childcare might be available, I am at the mercy of nap-times, I am at the mercy of my own energy levels as I try to do full-time parenting.”

On the other side of the situation, the loss of time also takes away formative opportunities for children. McDaid-Morgan, who is from the Shoshone-Bannock Nation, helps design a summer program for indigenous youths. There, her children are able to interact and be part of the community. Due to the coronavirus, the camp is not happening this summer.

Adults are dealing with similar losses. McDaid-Morgan and McCambly, who is Latinx, are from communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. McDaid-Morgan said that Native Americans in Seattle who she collaborates with for research told her that instead of the funding and personal protective gear tribes asked for, the federal government sent them body bags.

At Northwestern, McDaid-Morgan used to go to the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research to meet up with members of the community. Now, she can’t — and said she is tired of sitting in front of computers to socialize.

“We’re all missing our community,” McDaid-Morgan said. “It’s hard, and then it’s lonely.”

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Twitter: @yunkyomoonk

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