How a Workplace can Ease the Difficulties of Pandemic Parenting, or Make Them Worse
How is your work-life balance going? "The Faculty Parent" series chronicles the highs and lows of juggling parenting, teaching, research, and writing in uncertain times.
As academic-parents, we are part of the chorus of professions who have made it clear to the world that performing our core professional duties—in our case, teaching and research—has been difficult, if not impossible at times, while parenting full-time and dealing with the constantly shifting shape of COVID. Neither my wife nor I, both in tenure-track positions that we started in 2020 and 2018, respectively, are exceptions.
In spring 2020, just before the pandemic, I received fellowships from ACLS and the NEH to complete a book manuscript on Arabic and Persian fiction about the Iran-Iraq War. I felt that finishing this book was finally in reach; the time that I needed to sit, read, and write was only months away. Little did I know that the situation would be complicated very soon. A few weeks after receiving the news from ACLS, classes were canceled, we went into lockdown, our daycare closed, and my wife and I found ourselves taking turns watching our then 18-month-old in a cramped New York City apartment while the other taught over Zoom or furiously tried to write.
As we all know, over the next year, the pandemic raged, wreaking havoc on different parts of the world at different times. We watched the number of victims increase while we mostly stayed at home, which for months at a time, ended up being our parents/in-laws’ houses. At the same time, we juggled parenting, came up with elaborate parenting schedules involving grandparents, and quite unexpectedly in June 2020, we found out we were expecting.
In January 2021, we welcomed our second child into the world. Sometimes things go as planned; sometimes the universe seems to have other plans for you. She was born a semester into my leave, a semester into my wife’s tenure-track position, and 10 months into the pandemic. Since we’d just gone through having our first child, I was well-aware of the difficulties of working when you have a newborn in your life. What I wasn’t sure about was how a couple could possibly juggle the needs of a two-and-a-half-year-old and a newborn during a pandemic while also trying to write a book. The answer, at least for me, was to step back and reassess my expectations: maybe I wouldn’t write as much as I had thought I would; maybe it would take longer than I expected; and maybe that was all OK. Priorities had changed.
Having a supportive department made coming to that conclusion and knowing that it was the right one easy. Normally, non-birth parents at Rutgers are given a course reduction within 12 months of a new child’s birth. In my case, my fellowship leave would still be going on 12 months after our daughter’s birth. When I informed my department chair in Fall 2020 about the situation, he was receptive and offered suggestions on how to lighten my teaching load when I came back by teaching two sections of the same course. I took his advice, and despite now teaching two full classes, am now using that bit of extra time to finish some of the writing that I had hoped to complete during my fellowship.
By contrast, my wife’s situation was substantially more difficult. She was first told by human resources at her university (not Rutgers) that she would not be eligible for maternity leave because she had started working at the institution less than one year before giving birth. Her department didn’t help. Her chair informed her that she would need to come back to teaching six weeks after our daughter was born. How, you ask? By teaching an intensive version of the same course that she would have normally taught in 14 weeks. She refused. A second option was then offered: teach an intensive summer course in June. Our second child would be five months old by that point. Again, she said no. Finally, the department chair told her she could make up for the class she wouldn’t teach in Spring or Summer by teaching an additional, third course the following Fall semester. In the meantime, she had to supervise her students and attend all departmental meetings online.
Anyone who had a child during the pandemic knows that it has not been easy to say sane, productive, and healthy. Being a parent of a newborn is never easy. But with limited mobility, reduced access to people who can help, and varying health restrictions in place, it has been especially difficult over the past two and a half years. Still, there are ways that one’s employer, in our cases universities, can make working through these conditions less challenging. Tenure-clock extensions, which many universities put into place in 2020 and 2021, are one way. For new parents, universities would have also done well to understand the particular challenges that academic parents of newborns also faced. One hopes that this might be a lesson learned moving forward.
Amir Moosavi is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Rutgers University - Newark, where he teaches courses on modern Arabic and Persian literatures, war and culture, and world literature.
ANNOUNCEMENT: AY 2022-2023 "Caregiver Support Pilot Program for Rutgers Employees"
Growing out of the "Future of Work" committee report, Rutgers has launched a new institutional benefit with Care.com. The Caregiver Support Program at RU is a PILOT PROGRAM. As with most pilot programs, the AY22-23 trial period gives university administrators and leadership the opportunity to see if these kinds of benefits/supports will be embraced and used by faculty and staff. Simply put: If we don't use it, we risk losing it.
So, what is this new benefit program? Rutgers is offering 5 days of subsidized backup care using Care.com. You can choose to use a care.com provider OR someone from your personal network of family/friends/sitters. If using a care.com provider, you pay a co-pay for back-up care and Rutgers pitches in the rest. If you use someone in your personal network, you can file for reimbursement for the cost of care. (Note: The day rate for child or adult care is capped at $125.)
For more info, see:
To sign up for your Rutgers-sponsored Care.com account, you'll need to navigate to Rutgers.care.com and create an account with your NETID@... email address. You'll also need to have your employee ID number handy: It's on your paystub and can be found on your myRutgers portal dashboard.
We encourage you all to create your free account and use these benefits to their best advantage. Hopefully, this Pilot Program proves that there is a need and appetite for expanded care infrastructure at Rutgers!