When a call for papers came for a collection about mothers and COVID-19, I knew I had to contribute discussion and research as well as many personal stories that had already been shared with me. The inequity and unattainable demands mothers and caretakers faced during the pandemic were recurring themes, and the story I wrote is published in full here at the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement and will be shared at "University of Venus" at Inside Higher Ed in multiple posts, the first of which is shared today.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, people’s lives suddenly changed, and many faced severely unjust experiences. This article focuses on one such group -- mothers who work in higher education. It draws on research and informal discussions with women across Asia, Europe, Australia and the United States. It is a story about fictional characters, Li and Laura, but it is informed by international research about mothers in academia with children learning at home during these unprecedented times.
For Li, living in Asia, she felt the stress of the world when the virus officially was deemed a pandemic. It was like she and her home country of China were being blamed for the spread. Yet she still had to work to do -- hundreds of students to teach, her own children to help through the stressful time and her ailing mother to care for, all in full lockdown. Her mind raced: What can I do? How do I make sure my family is OK?
Across the world in the United States, Laura heard the news of “some kind of virus” threatening the world, but it didn’t seem real until her good friend suddenly became really sick. Her fear skyrocketed. She tried to pretend everything was OK but couldn’t stop thinking: What will Dana think? She’s only 4 and won’t understand why she was just sent home for the year. Then Laura’s university closed its doors and required a quick overhaul of all her courses. The black hole that Laura had been trying to avoid since her divorce started to envelop her again.
Li and Laura found one another online. They hadn’t expected to become friends, weren’t looking to, but ultimately it was their friendship that drew them out of depression, anxiety and fear to see the potential for their lives and for the world as a whole.
“Mama?” said Yoon-Ha softly as she looked up from her homework. The girl had just turned 7 years old and sat patiently every day at the new desk, the beautiful new one her ailing grandmother had recently ordered. Li glanced at her daughter, lifting her eyes from her computer and the books surrounding her. Deep inside, Li was proud of Yoon-Ha -- of seeing her confidently practice her work, of seeing her commit to finish every page assigned, of seeing her consideration for others. But on the surface, Li had to maintain a different demeanor. She felt pressure to mimic how she grew up, always deferential to her elders and always trying to work better and harder.
Li’s heart longed to respond to Yoon-Ha’s call with gentle words and a soft gaze. Maybe something like she’d been reading in the mothering group she’d recently found online. Something like, Hi, Yoon-Ha, what do you need, my dear? I love you and want to help you. Right now, Mama has work, but I’ll be able to talk more soon, OK?
She fought with herself as other words started to build in her mind: go back to your work. Stop bothering me. Can’t you see I’m busy? But instead, she somehow found a middle ground with a direct and nonemotional response: “I’m about to start my Zoom class, Yoon-Ha. Why don’t you save your questions until I’m done?”
This was the new normal in many parts of Asia, which was the case in her homeland of China, as well as where she lived now with her family in Korea. Since the end of February, many places had been on lockdown because of the virus. It came suddenly, just like the warnings from her ancestors who foresaw of such times. But really, a virus? How could something so small wreak such havoc?! This wasn’t a real question Li had, though. She knew the reality of health crises. It was her training, after all, as a public health specialist. Li had internalized a message about her work. She would often think, Off to save the world! But then question herself -- why have I put so much pressure on myself, right? Instead, Li felt like a small piece of a puzzle that was missing the box top, working toward something that she couldn’t quite figure out but which she was pushed forward to complete. She had spent years in university and graduate school studying disease and health, examining challenges facing rural and urban communities, as well as working to devise solutions that could be applied across all communities. Growing up in a collectivist culture instilled in her the idea that everyone works together for a common goal, and ending disease always seemed like the most obvious direction. She would think, everyone gets sick at some point in their life, right? So why not work to help everyone feel better? It was a huge goal -- fixing everyone, healing communities and bringing wellness to a whole country or even region.
Thousands of miles away, in the United States, Laura sat staring at the TV. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing and wondered, can this really be happening? It doesn’t make any sense. Maybe it’s like SARS, which was mostly an Asian issue, right? Laura could feel her throat start to tighten, a sure sign that she was dealing with fear. Her therapist had told to look for these kinds of somatic responses in her body, especially after major changes, like the end of her marriage. She had been young when she got married. She fell in love with the idea of having a soul mate, someone to finish her sentences and spend time with whenever she felt lonely. Years of American pop culture created the image of the young, handsome white man completing the broken heart of the equally beautiful and almost always white woman. The Jerry Maguire complex for sure. Marriages after that blockbuster can be traced back to vows with “You complete me,” and Laura’s was no exception. As she thought back to that beatific day many years ago -- the flowy, poofy dress, the flower girls, the cherubic music -- all she could think was, how could I have been so stupid?
Laura had a streak of beating herself up. She would think back to a decision she made 30 years before as a young child and berate herself for days about how she could have chosen one path over another. She would question why she had chosen seemingly simple things, like the color of a teapot, the design for a shower curtain, while more important decisions loomed large. Her degree, the city she was living in, when to have children and, lastly, her choice of partner all made her cringe. All made her feel like she had somehow opened the wrong book and gone down a path meant for someone else.
Why did I marry him? she would ask herself again and again. Her therapist suggested self-help books (which made her feel like she wasn’t trying hard enough), meditation (which made her feel spastic, as she couldn’t sit still), and yoga (which made her feel old). The last time Laura talked with her therapist -- Was it really already a month ago? -- she suggested finding community groups to meet with and talk through issues of grief. Yet the idea of showing up at some random space, or worse yet at a church community room, made her feel too vulnerable and exposed. Worse than having others see her weakness would be to show such a feeling in a place of worship. So, she kept up the brave face to others, appearing as if everything was normal -- I’m fine, you know. It’s just life, right? What about you? She’d respond to anyone who asked. She didn’t let anyone know how she struggled; she didn’t even admit much of her struggles to herself and definitely not to her young daughter, who idolized her every move.
Part 2 of this series will publish next week.
Anna CohenMiller, Ph.D., is an arts-based educational methodologist who focuses on equity and inclusion in higher education in Kazakhstan and internationally. She is an assistant professor (Graduate School of Education, Nazarbayev University), co-founding director of The Consortium of Gender Scholars (Kazakhstan) and founder of The Motherscholar Project. Select current work includes a forthcoming book, Questions in Qualitative Research in Multicultural Contexts (Routledge), a global photovoice study of motherscholars during the pandemic and a comparative international study (U.K., Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Morocco, India) to co-construct gender-equitable futures in higher education.