Working from home during the pandemic: 3 Remarkable academic mothers share their stories
International Women's Day 2021
Below is the series of articles that highlight the various highs and lows that women in academia face.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, we experienced a seismic change – most of us started working from home. While some welcomed this change of lifestyle (count me in this part of the crowd), others found it extremely challenging to adjust to this new normal.
But who had the pandemic the maximum impact on? We’re aware that around the world, it is majorly the women who shoulder more responsibilities than men when it comes to parenting and household duties. In fact, a recent study indicated that during the pandemic, academic mothers spent less research hours as compared to academic fathers.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to take a peek into how academic mothers managed their work while also taking care of their kids during the pandemic? We spoke to three remarkable academic mothers who shared their bittersweet experience that I’m sure every woman, especially mothers, reading this will be able to relate to.
Mei Lin Neo
Mei Lin Neo is a Senior Research Fellow at the Tropical Marine Science Institute in Singapore. Through her work she aims to increase marine conservation awareness and generate positive societal impacts. She is also part of Mothers in Science, an international non-profit organization devoted to supporting women in STEM careers, where she hopes to build awareness and support for fellow science moms. When not working on her projects, Mei Lin writes about her favourite marine animal – the giant clam!
As a new mother, I struggled with holding onto my identity as a scientist and my new identity as a mother to my girl. I didn't start out knowing what's the best way to balance work and family life, as I love my work and it makes me happy. At the same time, I have this new baby whose life and needs depend on her mummy.
The pandemic lockdown made it absolutely impossible to distinguish my two roles – it was messy and stifling because I was trying to fit my child into my workflow. It took me a while to realise, but I now know that my child isn’t just a puzzle piece for me to put somewhere in my life – she IS my life.
As a working scientist, I was grateful for understanding colleagues who allowed me to take my daughter along with me to work meetings and conferences (and allowing me to step out to breastfeed her when needed). My colleagues also stepped in to help me look after her, when I needed to attend something more urgent. My 'tribe' of colleagues really gave me confidence that I can be a scientist and mother simultaneously.
I don’t have all the answers to my challenges being a mother in science, but motherhood has already given me new lenses and perspectives on what is important and of priority to me as a working mother.
So, here are some tips that I have used to coping with working from home with my child amid the pandemic:
- Go with the baby/toddler flow – Kids are inherently random in behaviour so why try to control when you can have spontaneous fun!
- Say ‘No’ and prioritise your time – It is important to know your limits and say no to cooking, no to extra meetings, and no to commitments.
- Carve out pockets of personal time and space – A 30-minute is also good!
- Let go of some personal expectations – Be kinder to yourself.
- Enjoy and celebrate the small successes – it may be a good book, safe shelter, and good health!
Karishma S Kaushik
Karishma Kaushik is physician-scientist and a mom of one (son, 9 years old). A Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellow, she runs a research lab that studies human-relevant infection biology at the University of Pune in India. When she is not actively working on bacteria, biofilms, and biomimetic models, she is invariably discussing them with her son!
Sometime in the middle of the pandemic I remember posting on Twitter that the silver lining of the situation was time spent with our son at home. For a working mom, who spent a large part of her day outside the house, working from home meant my son was around me for every meeting, webinar and class, and I absolutely loved that! He also got insights into my work life - we discussed science, he peeped into my calendar, and we took breaks from work and school respectively to have meals together.
While this was something I cherished, for me, the challenges of working from home were more from the 'work' than the 'home' aspect. These included navigating meetings that lasted hours (without regard for meals, house work), scheduled events creeping into evening time (no, I cannot get on a webinar at 7 pm!), and subsequently, resuming work while my son was home-schooling.
While my husband working from home was key to coping with this transition, as an academic mom, I would have liked to see more directives at institutional and central levels that offered explicit options of flexible return to work hours, accounting for childcare and dual-career situations. This, in my opinion, was a glaring oversight for academic moms, who worked through the lockdown to meet teaching and research commitments, and in addition, contributed to the larger scientific needs of the country at this time.
Isabel Torres is a science editor/writer and science communicator with a PhD in genetics from the University of Cambridge. She is a mother of 4 and co-founder of Mothers in Science, an international non-profit organisation that supports mothers in STEM and advocates for workplace equality and inclusion. She is passionate about promoting women in STEM and advocating for gender equality. Isabel founded Pretty Smart Science, a science communication platform that aims to increase the visibility of women in STEM and enthuse the public about science.
The pandemic has changed my life, my kids and myself. I’m definitely traumatised by the first lockdown, mostly because of school closures (I’m lucky schools in France only closed during the first lockdown). After a few weeks trying to work with my 4 kids (aged 4 to 12) at home I gave up on home-schooling altogether, and I felt so guilty. I was exhausted, stressed with work deadlines, anxious about COVID-19 and all the uncertainty, and suffering from what I now know was parental burnout.
Something that helped was learning that I wasn’t alone, and that basically every parent I knew was going through the same–this released me from the guilt. I have learned that as a mom, putting my children first doesn’t always mean putting myself last. Our family dynamics has changed and will never be the same again, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing–living on survival mode teaches us to prioritise and figure out what really matters.
Thank you Mei Lin, Karishma, and Isabel for sharing your experience and thoughts with Editage Insights!
What was your experience of working from home and taking care of your kids? We'd love to hear from you. Share your story in the comments section below.
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