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As the U.S. nears one year since the initial spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools and day care centers have yet to regularly remain open. For University of Michigan Graduate Student Instructors and undergraduate students who are parents, this means trying to balance school, work and child care at home every day. 

Work-life balance difficulties

Even before the pandemic, student parents at the University have discussed the lack of institutional support. Rackham student Valerie Micol works as a GSI and researcher for the University and has a 10-year-old child. She said working from home during the pandemic has wrecked her work-life balance.

“I’m supposed to be writing a dissertation,” Micol said. “It’s supposed to be the most cognitively demanding work that I need to do … And then I’m just at home with my 10-year-old, being a fifth grade one-on-one teacher’s aide for her. I don’t want to be super dramatic, but it feels like (working from home) has just ruined a lot.” 

The shift to working at home has also heightened the gender imbalance in the workplace, as student parents who are women are more likely to be more affected by the burden of juggling both professional work and parenting.

The hardest thing about working from home with a child, Micol said, has been the fact that her attention is always divided. 

“It’s like having a loud, rowdy lab mate or co-worker who’s interrupting all the time,” Micol said. “Even when she’s relatively subdued or we have good days, it’s just still cognitively demanding, to be on all the time in two settings.” 

Ph.D. candidate Ruby Mochida is currently a GSI teaching modern Chinese culture and is also the mother of two children, ages two and five. She said she moved in with her mother in New Hampshire over the summer for help with child care. 

Being both a mom and a GSI, Mochida also said she has struggled with feeling isolated and misunderstood.

“I think it’s just a fact that unless you’re a mom, you don’t understand the situation,” Mochida said. “So I have to prove the reality to my department, and it feels like they don’t believe that it’s really that bad or something is really hard.”

Ph.D. candidate Hanah Stiverson has two school-aged children. Stiverson said she is constantly interrupted throughout the day and finds it difficult to stay focused.

Stiverson said she has found herself getting more exhausted during the day than she used to, causing her to feel behind.

“I know personally, I’ve got a lot of timeline goals and personal expectations that I set for myself,” Stiverson said. “And working in a way that has combined my home life, with my work life, with my parenting life, with trying to reach these goals for fellowships and going on the job market in a year — all that’s combined into this ball of stress that’s really hard to work through.” 

Fighting for greater protections

During their strike last fall, The Graduate Employees’ Organization included allowing student parents to use their University-allotted child care money for non-licensed care in their list of demands sent to University administration. Allowing this change was one of the concessions the University made to GEO to end the strike.

In addition to extending the policy to include an option for funding unlicensed childcare, the University increased the age limit to qualify for this aid to include children up to the age of 15 without disabilities. The previous and existing policies cover children with special needs up to the age of 19. The temporary program instituted by the University also allocated an additional $500,000 to unlicensed childcare, as requested by GEO. 

This demand followed a group of Rackham students with children publishing an opinion piece in The Michigan Daily in August 2020. The group discussed their experiences and struggles and asked the University to issue a statement of support and guide departments in mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on student parents.

Micol said though the child care funding concessions were helpful, she thinks the University needs to do more. 

“Part of the child care subsidy is that your child has to be enrolled on 75% of the weeks of the semester, which is something like maybe 12 weeks or 13 weeks,” Micol said. “But they give you like $2,000, and that’s going to cover only six weeks or (so) … I honestly think that the unlicensed care piece was just such a low hanging fruit that the University could have done without strike.” 

Though Mochida moved in with her mother for child care, she said she was unable to use any of the subsidy to pay her mother for taking care of her child.

“You couldn’t use (the child care subsidy) for a family member, and that kind of feels very classist and assuming that my mom’s labor is free,” Mochida said. 

Stiverson said she was in full support of asking the University to expand the scope of the child care subsidy. However, she said the broader issue is the lack of structural protections in place for parents in the University. 

“When it comes to the University, the level of support they give is very much on an individual basis,” Stiverson said. “But because there’s no structural support for parenting … there’s no protection for when you have somebody on a committee, or you have somebody in a department in a place of power who doesn’t understand.”

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said he empathized with the challenges of working from home while taking care of children.  

Navigating an appropriate work-life balance during a pandemic is difficult for all of us,” Fitzgerald wrote. “We are keenly aware of the challenges created by parents working from home who also have children learning from home.”

Fitzgerald highlighted several forms of childcare assistance the University currently offers. Most recently, the University introduced a “benefit through care program,” to connect parents with a network of care providers including babysitters, nannies, tutors and pet sitters. They also started a “family to family support posting board,” to help employees support each other and combat the isolation many are feeling due to COVID-19.

Urging the University to listen 

To address the issue of work-life balance with children during the pandemic, Micol said she would urge the departments and faculty to reach out to their non-traditional students with children and ask how they can help. 

“I think for non-traditional students, it’s a real struggle in academia to feel like you belong,” Micol said. “And I feel like the pandemic has made it so we’re kind of sitting silently in our anguish, and it’s like proof they don’t want us here, and that’s really hard. But just asking, even if there’s nothing that they can do, feels like, ‘I want you here and I want to figure out how I can help you.’”

Mochida said the lack of support or understanding she has received at times throughout the pandemic has been really discouraging and disheartening. 

“I know that being a mom in academia is not a common thing,” Mochida said. “But it feels sometimes like the response of academia to the situation of moms makes me not want to be in academia.” 

Stiverson agreed with Mochida and urged the University to listen to their students.  

“Personally, I think the biggest help would be just to listen to us and believe us in these more detailed ways,” Stiverson said. “I think the generosity and the desire to help is there, it’s just about listening to these more detailed conversations.” 

Learning to cope 

Micol said finding a community of other parents in academia facing the same struggles has been helpful. 

“I think being able to commiserate a little bit has been helpful, like finding community in that way,” Micol said. “But it’s also sometimes exhausting and disheartening because I feel for them too.” 

For Stiverson, doing activities like baking with her kids has helped her cope with stress. 

“I’ve just been baking with one of my kids and that’s been really fun, making homemade pasta and bread,” Stiverson said. “Carbs and the act of baking have been really nice.”

Mochida said she tries to remain optimistic that everything will eventually return to normal. 

“I have not become a person of any faith, but I have tried to assume the belief that this is going to change eventually,” Mochida said. “It’s just, it is what it is, it’s sort of day by day at this point.”

Daily Staff Reporter Paige Hodder can be reached at phodder@umich.edu. 

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