Parenting as a Research Student in the Covid-19 Pandemic!

I watch my husband distracting our 11 month-old on the floor with some squeaky egg toys. This works for a grand total of 50 seconds before my phone, across the room and on top of a sofa cushion, becomes the object of his little heart’s desire. Our son, who up until recently was a stationary organism, has discovered that motion allows him to access things that he wants, and perhaps equally importantly, things that we don’t want him to. My husband and I are both PhD students at the University of St Andrews, where I am now in my final year and my husband in his second year (having taken 8 months parental leave). We are also, like the vast majority of the UK population right now, working from home. I am very lucky that my work is exclusively computational and the main change that remote working enforces on my work life is the requirement for all meetings to be virtual. My husband is a chemist and whilst there is now no access to laboratories, is able to focus on computational modelling of his experiments and writing up a couple of papers. This is all in theory, however. The practicality of juggling work with the safety and happiness of an 11 month-old (and oneself) is not, it turns out, that simple.

Before the lockdown, our son was cared for 2-3 days a week by his grandma, and the remaining time we balanced between ourselves in whatever way fitted best our work schedules for the week. Whilst by no means perfect, it worked and was preferable to the other option of placing him in nursery 4 days a week at a cost equal to one of our monthly incomes. A PhD stipend is not that generous and despite not having outgoings in the form of a car or student debt, the cost of nursery-care on top of rent and the usual bills is not really a great option. Now we are caring for him whilst we also work. In the same house. All-day, every day. We have in the past 11 months already learnt to work unusual hours and unusual methods; work that requires silence and concentration can be done exclusively during nap or bedtimes, whilst general scanning of literature at playtimes and experiment planning or puzzling over results need not stop just because a nappy needs changing, or baby wants patting to sleep. This week I learnt that emails can be sent when brushing my teeth, because toothpaste tubes are endlessly interesting, but not whilst drinking my morning coffee in the kitchen because so too are toddler-height cupboard…filled with wine glasses. What we hadn’t learnt though was that balancing our research with a small and yet surprisingly fast toddler with his heart set on discovering all dangerous items in our house, whilst also still not allowing us to sleep through the night, would be so exhausting. We have learnt this now (but we don’t have a solution, so don’t expect that in the coming paragraph)!

I read an article recently on Nature’s website about the fears of one female academic and the impact she believes the COVID-19 pandemic will have on women in academia. She argued that women do the majority of the household and childcare work and that, for the unforeseeable future, they will be badly hit in trying to balance this and their professional lives full time. For academics, low research output can be disastrous; forget that dream postdoc, that research fellowship or that tenure position, number of research papers are often used as the measure of success and your competitors are ahead of you. I worry that the author’s fears are well-founded; if employers do not take into account that research output is an (even less than normal)  unhelpful method of measuring a candidate’s worth over the year 2020 and potentially 2021, then they could unravel a couple of decades worth of work in encouraging diversity. On a personal level, however, I worry that our household will suffer doubly on account of the childcare being pretty evenly shared. Neither of us is working at usual functionality, probably not even half functionality since it’s impossible to get any real peace (try being stuck in a house with a loud 1-year-old who can communicate only through screams. Trust me, not even old Victorian walls can dampen the noise sufficiently).

Whilst being locked in with a 1-year-old is hard work, I count myself lucky that (a) I only have one and (b) I imagine entertaining a 1-year-old I imagine is easier than a 4-year-old (c) I don’t have to compete for broadband with two teenage children. All parents out there, trying to manage the wellbeing of their housebound child(ren) and balance work, and find any item on their shopping list in the supermarket, and keep fit, and stay sane and maybe even home school, you are doing great. You are not alone. You are not the only one struggling. We share your exhaustion. Support your fellow colleagues at all stages of parenthood and in the future don’t measure their successes by whatever they achieved in 2020, having made it to the end alive is success enough.