It's 6:00 a.m., and even though my nine-month-old daughter, Lucy, drifted back to sleep after an early morning feeding, I am wide awake. My mind, fuzzy from getting up with her multiple times during the night, is on my work to-do list. Knowing that Lucy's waking hours will limit how much I can focus on my job as an academic advisor at Georgetown University DC, I grab my laptop and catch up on emails from students trying to finalize their schedules for the Spring 2021 semester.
I knew my life would change dramatically when I became a parent, but the pandemic upended my plans as a working mom.The Pandemic's Impact
March 12, 2020 was the last day I worked physically in my office. I was 7 ½-months pregnant and was happy to get a few weeks when I could work comfortably at home. Like many, I naively thought I would return to the office in a few weeks.
By May, it was evident that my postpartum work situation would be drastically different than our plans for daycare, knowing that my husband would be returning to his in-person federal position after paternity leave. I was fortunate that my office offered me the flexibility to work from home, knowing that I was concerned about sending an infant to daycare as the pandemic surged over the summer.
As I planned my return to work in the summer, instead of pumping milk and preparing bottles for daycare, I stared at our living room to try to figure out how it could double as a home office. I positioned our rocker near the couch, so Lucy could nap while I worked. A small footstool propped up my laptop for Zoom calls, so I could hold Lucy while meeting with students. An array of books and toys were nearby for Lucy to play with while I advised students on course selection, post-graduation plans or how to cope with virtual learning.
Optimistically, I thought I was ready for my first day “back” at work in August of 2020. Wearing dress clothes for the first time in months, I had a to-do list and schedule ready. I had drafted a series of emails to colleagues and students scheduled to go out at 8:00 a.m. and dressed Lucy in an adorable outfit. The first few hours were great. Lucy was just 10 weeks old and napped for extended periods of time. But in the middle of an afternoon meeting, while sitting on my lap, Lucy had a diaper blowout, so I had to turn off the camera and change both of our outfits.Working Mom Lessons On my first day back, Lucy inadvertently taught me my first working mom lesson: I needed to adapt, laugh and let the small things roll off. Here are other lessons I've learned:
- It's not a race to be the first to respond to group emails. I used to be so competitive when it came to respond to group emails in our office. I wanted to show proof that I was working, but as the months passed by, I learned that not all messages require a quick response.
- Some tasks can wait. One day when Lucy was six months old, I needed to approve a series of requests. Lucy was in her bouncer toy. After a few minutes, I looked up from my computer, and Lucy was smiling at me. I closed my laptop, realizing this task could wait while I watched her play.
- Students love seeing babies. I advise junior and senior students in college, who have been studying remotely and in isolation. For all of us, it's been a lonely time, but most days, Lucy's smiling face during a Zoom meeting will brighten a student's day.
- The dictate function on my phone is a godsend. Once Lucy was about four months old and started to tolerate being on her stomach more, I spent more of my workday sitting on the floor with her and found it hard to keep up with emails. Once I started to use the “dictate” function on my phone, I could respond to emails and still have my hands free, especially when messages just require a short response. I could keep up with communication with faculty and students.
- Acknowledge that work–life balance is not realistic during a pandemic. I am exhausted. Like so many other parents, I work after my kid goes to bed and often before she wakes up. I cannot remember when I've slept more than 4 hours in a row. People often ask how I manage to balance everything, but balance is not a realistic goal at this point. I have to get things done at work and at home. But it's hard to feel like things are balanced when you bring your laptop into bed or try to dictate emails while on the floor playing. I try to find small moments to breathe.
- Celebrate the victories. There are days when I feel like I'm failing both as a mom and in my job. Emails don't get answered, and Lucy doesn't always get as much attention as she certainly deserves. But getting through each day during a global pandemic is a victory in itself. Maybe I had one positive interaction with a student, or I was able to get Lucy to try a new food. Those things may seem insignificant in the larger scheme of things, but these smaller things are achievements.
Despite the various challenges associated with this year, I'm keenly aware that working from home during Lucy's first year was a privilege I didn't imagine having. I get over 40 extra hours a week with her than I imagined. I get one shot at seeing Lucy as a baby and I'm trying to soak it up as much as I can. I'm granted some flexibility with the hours I work, and a lot of my work can be done asynchronously.
When I was approached to teach a history seminar this semester (something I do annually but had trepidations about doing as a new mom), my husband encouraged me to say “yes” to this opportunity. When I teach on Monday afternoons, he comes home to watch Lucy while I teach. After I finished my most recent class, I told him that it was one of the happiest professional days I had had in a long time because I was so engaged with my students.
I am grateful for how adaptable Lucy is. I'm sure she would prefer to get 100% of my time and attention, but I have to attend Zoom meetings and write emails. I can't explain to her why I have to multitask. So, she has learned how to play and occupy herself for short stretches of time. I hope that this is going to teach her independence and how to create her own fun.
One day, Lucy will ask about what life was like during the pandemic. I will tell her that I learned so much from the challenging experience and also relished the time spent with her. She has taught me so much about resiliency and how to laugh at the smallest things, even when it felt like the world was about to collapse. She's my greatest joy, and her presence has given me perspective on how to work in this unpredictable remote-work environment. For that reason and others, I am so grateful.
Dr. Vanessa Corcoran is an academic counselor and medieval historian at Georgetown University. Previous publications have appeared in America Magazine, Contingent Magazine, Today's American Catholic, Inside Higher Education, and Washington Family Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @VRCinDC.