Learning the Right Lessons from COVID-19 Can Benefit Mothers after the Pandemic
April 2, 2020 | Published first in Public Discourse
by Eileen Reuter
We all know that Zoom stock is on the rise and that grocery stores are hiring frantically to keep stock on their shelves. What we may not have expected are the pandemic’s unforeseen effects on women who are trying to keep their toes in graduate school or other career paths while staying home with young children. I am one such winner.
My husband is a postdoctoral fellow doing research for a few years in the Midwest, far from both our families and from my graduate school. We have a toddler and a second baby due any day. I am working slowly on my dissertation and finished everything that required my physical presence in New York City before we moved for my husband’s job. It has now been about ten months since I was physically present with my program for any function. During this time, I have communicated with my advisor over the phone, via e-mail, and via Skype, but I have not been in touch with any of my classmates apart from my closest friends.
Enter COVID-19, and all this has changed. All of academia is moving online, much to the chagrin of many professors and students who miss face-to-face interactions, but much to my delight. Certainly, undergraduates who live on campus are at a disadvantage now, because much of their learning happens through the campus experience. But those of us in graduate school are much less likely to live on campus or to be involved in the extra activities offered on campus. We are there for a degree and for the learning experience involved in a particular program.
Academia has been slow to adapt its ways for mothers of young children or for others for whom physical presence is a challenge. It is true that, in the case of new moms, most schools now have special areas set aside for nursing or pumping, and graduate students can take a semester of maternity leave when they have a child. But, in general, the expectation is that within three to four months of having a child, a student is back to a regular schedule. Everyone is very understanding that one’s availability might be slightly reduced, but ultimately, they reason, it was your own personal choice to have a child. Thus, if you are less involved and miss opportunities, that is because you are choosing to prioritize that child over your career.
Pre-pandemic, the choice faced by the vast majority of mothers of young children was between physical presence at home and physical presence at school or work. The underlying assumption is that where we are physically present is where we place our priorities. This premise makes sense. In academia, if one wants a career as a tenure-track professor, which is usually a doctoral student’s goal, one needs experience teaching, publishing articles, and networking with others in the field. This usually involves multiple days on campus per week and trips to a few annual conferences. All of these milestones require physical presence, and they show that a student is prioritizing her career in academia.
Yet there is also a growing body of evidence showing that the physical presence of a mother to a child matters substantially, especially in the first three years of the child’s development. In her book, Being There, Erica Komisar explains the science of attachment between a mother and her child. Beginning during pregnancy, and continuing for the first three years of life, she argues, a child learns emotional regulation best when his primary caregiver is his biological mother, and when she herself is emotionally healthy. Komisar offers many alternatives for women who work, such as guidance on how to choose a care provider and allo-parenting, a model in which many relatives and friends assist the mother. But ultimately she shows that the biological facts of childbirth, breastfeeding, and the emotional growth of children will always produce a tension within young mothers with career aspirations. Komisar strongly suggests that a mother’s physical presence with her child impacts the health and well-being of the child.
When my husband and I decided to get married, at the end of the second year of my PhD, I was just entering the phase when many of my peers started to teach and present regularly at conferences. My husband and I knew we would prioritize starting a family, and we both decided to prioritize my physical presence with our children. At the same time, I would continue to work on my degree and be physically present to my program whenever it was essential.
I love spending the vast majority of my days home with our toddler. Nothing can replace the joy that I have found in being his “mama.” I can see the effects of my physical presence. When he is sick and wakes up at night, he wants me—and no one else—to rock him. I am confident that my work as an academic is enriched by my presence at home. This aspect of my life gives me, and other women in similar positions, a unique perspective on the topics about which we write.
Yet the facts are clear. Because I have chosen to maximize my physical presence at home, I have only been physically present as a graduate student when it was absolutely necessary. I have never taught a course. I have attended and presented papers at a grand total of two academic conferences in the five years of my doctoral studies. During the first conference, I was in my first trimester of pregnancy, and at the second, I had a nursing infant. Yes, I attended, but I didn’t have the energy to socialize and network after the events. I have never been frustrated about these situations, but accepted them as reality. I am putting my family life first and will continue to plod along slowly in my academic career. I know I will not be in an ideal position to get a tenure-track job, but I also do not want that kind of career while I have young children. If I keep working away, one day at a time, I am confident that opportunities will open for me.
Yet, just in the past few weeks, I have realized how much the world could shift to make opportunities more available for young mothers with career aspirations. For example, my program and university are moving all lectures and events online. I was just able to sign up to “attend,” via Zoom, the thesis presentation of master’s students in my program. Not only that, but soon after I signed up, I received an email from one of the program organizers asking if I would like to be a respondent to one of the master’s students whose thesis takes up themes that I address in my dissertation. I was honored. After ten months of absence from my program, I was suddenly going to be present and involved in an event, without leaving my bedroom office!
All of a sudden, a world of possibilities has opened to women in my position. I need to take an intensive language course in the near future, and my husband and I have just been waiting for a point where it will make sense with our family life. What if summer classes have to remain online this summer? I could attend class two hours a day without leaving home. I would only need childcare for a few hours a day, and I could nurse my baby while attending class. What if conferences that have been planned for these next few months have to go online? I could attend, listen to talks, and potentially even present without having to figure out logistics of childcare for a whole weekend, travel to the site, and be away from my family for two or three nights. Perhaps when we return to in-person classes and events, we could intentionally create opportunities for women academics, if they prioritize being at home with children, to participate at a distance.
From a feminist perspective, this virus has expanded opportunities for women with young children or for anyone who has difficulty being physically present for events that are necessary to career development. Yes, online classes have existed now for years. But the programs that are top in any field have rarely, if ever, offered online courses, online events, or online conference attendance. Online courses are notorious for being less effective than in-person classes. This is usually attributed to the difficulties of online platforms and the importance of face-to-face interactions. Certainly, there are limits to technology. I am not about to advocate that all learning continue online. Being present in person does matter.
But this pandemic is giving us the opportunity to test what can be achieved through online learning when the most experienced professors and the most invested students meet on digital platforms. I think we will be surprised to learn how effective this is and to see which students take advantage of the new opportunities that arise. Until last week, I would never have been asked to be a respondent to a master’s thesis presentation. I wasn’t there, so I simply could not respond. All of a sudden, I am “there,” so one of my professors realized I would be a good fit for the respondent. She would not have known this if we did not have a prior relationship, formed over the past four years when I have been physically present. My prior physical presence was an important prerequisite to this opportunity. But rather than just disappear from the program, I am now able to be involved.
After this pandemic is over, will those like me return to our experience of being “not there” and thus “not available”? Or will programs realize that, with a quick email or phone call, this person could be “there,” engaged as a valuable contributor to the community?
So much of feminist thought is concerned with the idea that women need affordable, high-quality childcare options so that they can pursue their career goals. But there is so little written on the ways we could use technology so that women could be with their children the vast majority of the time. Perhaps it could become the norm that graduate schools require 80 percent physical attendance, allowing for students to attend virtually 20 percent of the time. Maybe schools could start creating hybrid platforms in which it is the norm for a professor or event coordinator to turn on Zoom for every class or lecture.
While I refer mainly here to graduate students and the opportunities available through technology, I know that every field is working creatively during this pandemic to be “present” at work while physical presence is impossible. I think of a few friends, female doctors, who are breastfeeding and are mothers to young children. They are now required to conduct as many appointments as possible via the phone. Thus, they are with their children more frequently because they can make these calls at home, cutting out commute times and using nap times for work. Certainly, face-to-face contact matters in establishing a patient-doctor relationship. But as a culture we are realizing that many of the normal protocols of follow-up visits, etc. can be modified without loss in the quality of the relationship. Mothers of young children in the medical field have struggled even more than those in graduate school, because medical professionals have always needed to be physically present. What if it became the norm that doctors were physically present four days a week, but one weekday they stayed home and conducted all their follow-up appointments via phone?
I believe that, when this pandemic has passed, the world will have realized there are new ways to use technology that allow mothers to be present to their children physically and still take advantage of career opportunities that previously they had to forgo.
Eileen Reuter is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research focuses on feminist theory, single-sex education for girls, and Catholic metaphysics.
Copyright 2020 Public Discourse. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.