CNN | 9/19/2020 | Listen

Grad student mom: This is something I can't fix

Updated 6:59 AM ET, Mon June 29, 2020

Editor's Note: This is the next installment in the "Generation Resilient" series. Katie Donnelly is a PhD candidate in sociology and social policy at Princeton University. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - Being a single mom in graduate school before the pandemic was no simple feat. A typical day would begin at 7 a.m., when my 3-year-old would loudly yell, "Mommmyyy!," I would scramble to get him fed, dressed and cajoled into sitting on the potty before dropping him off at daycare. I would then head to my 9 a.m. class, which I was perpetually late to. My work day was then divided between attending lectures and seminars, teaching and working on my research.

I would pick up my son around 5:30 or 6 p.m., have dinner and do our bedtime routine -- bath, pajamas, and several readings of "Little Blue Truck." By 8:30 p.m., if I was lucky (and frequently much later), I would finally have time to myself. I aspired to use this time for something noble like making progress on my dissertation prospectus or reading for fun, but it was more often than not simply used for sleep.

While this balancing act was difficult pre-pandemic, it has become all but impossible as life as we know it has come to a standstill. With most daycares closed, the large chunks of uninterrupted work time I once had have vanished. Working hours are now fragmented by screams, whines and the "PAW Patrol" theme song.

On top of that, this situation has clearly taken a toll on my son. He has developed a marked increase in self-soothing behaviors and asks me questions like, "When will the sickness go away?" and "What is dying?" And it's hardly surprising. Regression, anxiety and depression have afflicted many children as their routines and sense of normalcy have been profoundly destabilized.

I share many of my son's fears -- in addition to my own. I worry about the effects that this pandemic will have on my health and economic security, and that of my loved ones and the broader society. Meanwhile, developing a dissertation prospectus in this environment is like trying to build a sandcastle on a beach enveloped in a hurricane.

In a competitive sociology PhD program filled with overachievers, every minute I can't devote to work can feel like a disadvantage, and the pressure to play catch-up with my peers can be overwhelming. At the same time, in a culture of intensive parenting, every minute I don't spend working on developing my child's vocabulary, fine motor skills or other cognitive milestones can make me feel like a failed mother.

As a sociologist, I know that this working mother's dilemma is not unique to me, but one that has been well-documented by researchers since Arlie Hochschild published her now-classic text "The Second Shift," about how women entering the workforce in the 1980s balanced work and home demands. The key takeaway -- they were extremely stressed out, and their husbands didn't help much. And the tensions between the demands of work and motherhood are at an all-time high for many families like mine who can no longer rely on formal childcare.

To adapt to this challenging new environment and find meaning in my day-to-day life, I've had to break with my status quo. In other words, what has helped me cope with this situation is not what I have relied on in the past. I can't time manage my way out of this. I can't carefully craft schedules for my son and me to maximize efficiency and "productive" output. Believe me, I have tried.

This has been a difficult truth to accept. I am a problem-solver and am used to tackling any challenge I encounter through hyper-organization, hard work and mental stamina. But this global crisis is a problem I cannot "fix." It is one I simply have to accept, in all of its messy uncertainty.

What I can do is meet the situation where it stands -- recognize what is and isn't in my control and appreciate the silver linings. I may not be able to make as much progress on my dissertation as I would have liked. My prospectus defense will be pushed back at least a semester -- and possibly two -- depending on when my son's daycare reopens, and I can't start in-person fieldwork for my dissertation until social distancing restrictions are relaxed. But I now have more quality time with my son than I likely will ever have with him again.

The closeness I feel to him as I discover the intricacies of his personality on these slow and aimless days we spend together far outweigh the productivity loss. I've learned that his rambunctious defiance is matched by a sincere concern for others. I am impressed by his remarkable memory for the technical names of automobile parts and the surprisingly deft manner in which he employs grown-up phrases like "once again" or "theoretically." I am inspired by his intense curiosity and exuberance. I would not trade these details for anything.

I am also extremely lucky to have the support of my family. My son and I have moved in with my parents for the duration of the pandemic, as have my siblings. This has been immensely helpful for my mental health since being alone all day with a toddler can be very isolating, and it has given my sisters and me a rare opportunity to all be under the same roof again. Every night, we eat dinner together (thanks Dad!); we spend weekends exploring parks or curling up for a family movie, and babysitting help from my parents and sisters allows me to attend Zoom meetings or catch up on work.

While being cooped up with a big family can generate a fair amount of cabin fever, I am genuinely grateful to have such an intimate connection with my family and to know that however difficult this crisis is, we are dealing with it together.

As for my academic work, I have been slowly but steadily running analyses for and revising my research papers and reviewing literature for my dissertation prospectus. A colleague and I have also recently started collecting data for a study about the impact of Covid-19 quarantines on the household dynamics of families with young children.

I am grateful to be in a department that has been exceptionally supportive throughout this situation, making the unprecedented decision to suspend graduate admissions for the 2021 cycle to accommodate the needs of current students. My department's decision reflects one of the key lessons of this pandemic: In times of crisis, compassion and understanding go a long way. We need to be flexible and gentle with each other and with ourselves.

We may not be able to meet the high standards we set for ourselves pre-pandemic, but if we come together as a community -- of families, of students, of neighbors -- we can come out on the other side of this stronger, more resilient and better able to rise to the next challenge the future holds for us.


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