It’s been 6 months since the UK March lockdown, and our home has been my place for work since then. The study is now invaded by textbooks and papers that used to be in my university office and smells like an old library, but I find it rather a relaxing place to work now as my two young children have returned to school and nursery.
It wasn’t this peaceful back in March and April. My husband and I struggled with the juggling act of work and childcare, and often worked at nights and weekends to catch up. Days seemed to merge into each other to this “never-ending shift” and we had little to look forward to (two cancelled holidays). It was tough physically and mentally, but we tried to stay positive, it was indeed a rare opportunity to spend so much time together as a family. Yet, sometimes we couldn’t help but wondered if life would be easier if we didn’t have children.
Then there were very much mixed feelings when my husband was put on furlough. He took over everything to do with the kids during the day, so that I could focus on my work. For my children, their daddy had become the teacher, the chef and entertainer. Unlike suggested in some studies, that women in academia tended to be the one who took on more childcare related responsibilities in the pandemic, I was fortunate and grateful to have the support from my husband. For me, the hyphen in “work-life balance” was regained to some extent. But there were also many sleepless nights as we worried about his job and our financial stability.
The summer has come and gone so quickly. With work being dominated by the preparation for the new term and implementing changes, I decided to take some annual leave to do research. I am glad that we have the technologies that enables us to communicate and interact, sometimes I feel that the pandemic has brought colleagues closer, other times I do miss the real human interaction.
With the school and nursery reopening, we finally felt some level of normality. However new challenges emerged. My husband was called back to work a lot earlier than we thought (which is great), we had to sort out childcare fairly quickly. Fortunately nursery at the university was able to accommodate our last minute request. We needed to work out the logistics with reduced opening hours in nursery and afterschool care, which involves extra commuting time for me or a day at work without a lunch break for my husband; we still yet need to sort out school holiday childcare as our usual holiday clubs are either not running or can’t quite decide whether to run or not. On the bright side, the university was flexible, and allowed me to change tutorial sessions to accommodate my childcare situation. I can do more school runs, I spend more time with my 7 years old son. I am grateful that he can spend an hour or two doing school work while I work from home. It is our special time together in the study after school, and I truly treasure it. I do feel more productive in this new but balanced work-life situation.
The last six months feel like a process of constant adjusting and readjusting, many of our “identities and conflicting priorities overlap in waves” as Boncori put it. But this reflection is not a moan about how hard things have been, rather it’s an opportunity to reflect on the dynamics of the different people working and living in our communities. I know I am very fortunate compared to others, our children copied relatively well during the difficult times; we have a garden; they also had each other; despite the uncertainties we still have jobs; we still have interactions with other people; and we are managing our jobs. My experiences underscore how hard it must have been for others: the single parents, children who have special needs, those who have no interactions with others, those who have lost their jobs or businesses……the list can go on.
There is a lot of advice in the media on the work-life balance and well-being for employees in this unprecedented time. I do think fundamentally, we need to acknowledge and value the differences in us. We may not fully understand others’ experiences during this difficult time, but by sharing our own challenges and vulnerabilities, we can open the door for discussion.
Boncori, I., 2020. The Never-ending Shift: A feminist reflection on living and organizing academic lives during the coronavirus pandemic. Gender, Work and Organization, Volume 22, pp. 677-682.