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Davidson College, where I teach, provided its faculty members with exemplary support throughout the pandemic’s first year. We taught online until August 2021. When we did move back to in-person teaching, the college made herculean efforts to equip us with the skills and tools necessary for a smooth transition. Junior faculty members were given the option of delaying their tenure clocks, and contingent faculty members were given contract extensions so that they would not have to face a nearly-dead job market.
Despite the inevitable quibbles in faculty meetings, the college generally made decisions with the kind of care one hopes for. Even the end of the mask mandate has been, thankfully, a nonissue. When I walk into my tightly packed 30-student class and offer high-filtration masks to the one or two students who have forgotten to wear one, all I get in response is a quick and sincere apology. I give them mental hugs for their preternatural respect for my role as a parent of two unvaccinated children.
And yet I am drowning in ways that only other parents of unvaccinated or immunocompromised kids can understand. At the start of the pandemic, my daughter was 1½ years old; a few months into it, I was pregnant with my second. When day-care centers started to reopen, I contemplated sending my child back, but the danger of contracting Covid-19 while pregnant plus the recurrent outbreaks in local day-cares made that seem like a terribly risky choice. Instead, my partner and I traded child care and work time. We are both academics, so this arrangement involved handing off our child to each other as one of us rushed to teach, often in pajama bottoms or spattered with suspicious substances.
That system made research all but impossible — and for a while, everyone understood. Neither colleagues nor administrators expected anything else. Faculty members were encouraged to describe our particular circumstances in our annual reports, and, to a large extent, this did not feel like a futile exercise. We felt heard. Many parents had to make cost-benefit calculations: keeping their children safe at home and risking social isolation, or sending the children to school and risking infection. For many others, such calculations never came into play: The decision to send their children to school was a function of necessity, not preference. But as we all navigated the pandemic’s uncertain terrain, we worried together.
Once vaccines were available to kids 5 and above, however, our worlds diverged.
Worse, worker turnover meant that there would probably be a new person in the newborn room every few weeks. At the height of Delta, putting a newborn in extremely close proximity to strangers — let alone potentially unvaccinated strangers — was a terrifying prospect. But by making the choice to not enroll our newborn in day care at the peak of the Delta surge, we took on another risk: We lost her place in the program. Another one would not be available for at least 15 months. Finding a (vaccinated) nanny in my area was not much easier, and decidedly costlier than ever before. By a stroke of good luck I did at last find a part-time nanny, whose kindness and professionalism I credit with allowing me the mental space needed to complete my manuscript.
Come January 2022 and the end of my parental leave, my only remaining option was to bring my elderly mother from overseas to take care of my younger daughter, while the 3-year-old continued in preschool. My mother was both an immeasurable help and, through no fault of her own, an additional stressor: She was immunocompromised, without U.S. health insurance, and vaccinated only with Sinovac, which proved weak in protecting against both infection and severe disease. (By then, we had hit the Omicron surge.) Protecting her meant keeping my 3-year-old at home until my mother had received mRNA vaccines.
The futility of planning is deflating.
Then, just as my older daughter returned to preschool, it was battered by cases of cold, flu, and, yes, Covid. My daughter was sick for over a week, twice. Before the pandemic, I had a list of babysitters who could come at the last minute to care for my sick child. Now that option has largely disappeared. Since I went back to teaching in person this January, I have had to redo my aspirational “weekly writing schedule” every single week. Like many other parents of children under 5, I dutifully follow epidemiologists on Twitter, wondering if another surge will mean even more days of parenting instead of writing. The futility of planning is deflating.
Parenting alongside the demands of tenure has never been easy, and I am well aware of the privilege associated with my position: I have a coveted tenure-track job at a place I love. My partner, too, is employed at the college, albeit more precariously. And that is precisely what alarms me. If we are drowning under the weight of the return to normal, what about parents of young children who are also contingent professors, single parents, or faculty of color?
I’ve heard plenty of dire stories. First-generation faculty members, of whom I am one, often lack the financial means to pay exorbitant child-care costs (and, not infrequently, support other family members, too). For contingent faculty members, a year or two of diminished productivity renders the dream of a permanent position even more fantastical. We know that women and faculty of color disproportionately lose research time to service work; what happens when they lose even more time to child care? And what of the trifecta that colleges claim to want to support — first-generation Black or Indigenous women with young children — who are also, because of some advances in equity, a slightly larger proportion of junior faculty members than in previous cohorts? This is the picture they face: Research requirements are back to normal, while teaching classrooms of sometimes-sick and always-stressed students takes more time than ever. And there are still just 24 hours in each day.
Back in 2020, researchers in my own field, political science, anticipated that the pandemic’s effect on scholars would vary by gender. Several journals quickly published results showing a gap between men’s and women’s publishing records during the pandemic’s first year and a half (need I say which group published more?). I wonder what else we would learn by examining research progress along other lines: by type of employment, by racial and economic background, and by status as a parent of unvaccinated or immunocompromised children.
I suspect tracking those differences might help us predict scholars’ professional trajectories and colleges’ progress toward an equitable and inclusive faculty. This hypothesis, incidentally, is one that I have been meaning to examine for quite some time. But as it rolls over, from one weekly writing schedule to the next, untouched, it becomes a sad proof of itself.