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The following is the third part in a series of posts focused on mothers working in higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first part in the series can be found here and the second part can be found here. (Originally published at the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative.)

3. Li

With everyone finally asleep, Li lay there thinking. Great, there’s quiet, but now I can’t focus. I can’t think and yet I can’t work or sleep. Didn’t those American children’s stories say something about counting sheep? Why sheep? After over an hour of trying to sleep, her back started to hurt from trying to lie still in the bed. Li wasn’t great at listening to her internal voice. Hearing voices was accepted in her family; it was accepted that spirits and messages would emerge at various times. The voice often tried to reach her, to tell her things: “Remember, you’re allowed to take care of yourself. You’re a smart, courageous, brave woman, like your grandparents before you.” She even somehow managed to ignore the voice even with direct messages: Time to take a break. You haven’t eaten all day. Time to get up. You know that feeling in your lower stomach? That’s your body saying you need to go to the bathroom. But Li tried to push those messages away to focus more on her work and her family, which made it even more strange this night when she did listen.

The little voice suggested she find somewhere to go where she wouldn’t feel so alone. It was 1:00 a.m. now. Li knew she couldn’t leave the apartment just in case her daughter or mother suddenly needed her. But she also knew deeply that she needed to find someone to talk to as well as commiserate and connect with. Her friends in town all seemed to have it together, but it was 1:00 a.m., so she didn’t feel as if she could call them, even if she had wanted to. She thought about her colleagues in her department: I wonder what they’re doing now? Probably writing yet another top-tier journal article or getting their graduate students to do it for them. Li had been fighting some negative feelings about her position in her university for a few years now. She had graduated from the top university in Korea, but it took a good four years to land a secure, full-time job. During that time, she worked as a lecturer at various universities while her classmates -- her male classmates -- all got hired for better positions than hers, even some earning the extremely rare, tenure-track university ones.

Ugh. Stop focusing on that. Just do your work.

So, Li started thinking who else she could reach out to. She did have some friends in other parts of the world that theoretically she could have texted or even called at this time of night, but what would she say? Hey, it’s 1:00 a.m. here, and I’m a mess. How are you? (Thinking back years later, Li did realize, that that is exactly what she could say to a friend. That was exactly what she later learned to do to reach out when she was feeling lonely.) So, she went to find a different solution. Li’s fingers took over, and they started typing in the search bar. Panic attacks, no, that’s not it. Attention deficit disorder, no that doesn’t seem right either. Cervical cancer, hmm. I have been having some discomfort lately … No, that’s not what’s going on.

Amid the number of medical conditions popping up in her browser, she also happened upon the mothering group she had stumbled upon in the past. It seemed that the search function not only expanded into future potential health problems but also remembered a history that had brought relief.

3. Laura

Laura hung up the phone, trying not to throw it across the room. Her soon-to-be ex-husband was calling with just one more request. He calls them requests, but they’re demands, and I’m so sick of it! She swallowed hard, tensing her body, took a deep breath and went to check on Dana sitting on the floor in the other room. Now that the preschools had all closed, the only option for a snippet of time to do her own work was enrolling her daughter in online classes. Generally, they were lacking in some manner or another, either ill conceived (Really, you want the kids to sit silently for an hour?) or missing something on the technology side (We can’t hear you with all the video glitches, which makes it hard to learn the song you’re trying to teach). But Laura tried to think about how lucky she was compared to others. She at least had a job, even if it was a non-tenure-track position. Her daughter was healthy, and she now had the whole house to herself. Was that a good thing? I guess that means I can rearrange the bedroom like I’ve wanted to for years. It’s the little wins, right?

She tried to focus on the positives as she walked over and snuggled next to her daughter. Dana was squinting her eyes and leaning close to the iPad, trying to understand what her art teacher wanted her to do next.

Opening her laptop, Laura started to review her five classes. All of them had to be adjusted for teaching online, two of which she’d never taught before. Again, she tried to focus on the positive. I have a job. She wanted to advocate and talk to leaders, to administrators or to anyone who would listen. Teaching full-time and having a child at home learning are too much. Isn’t there something the university can do? She was grateful for the job (she told herself this again and again). And she wanted things to change. Even when she wasn’t teaching online, the fact she had been in a non-tenure-track job teaching the classes nobody else wanted was frustrating, to say the least. She saw her white colleagues promoted; she saw men she had taught hired into positions she wanted. And there she remained -- Laura as the Latina scholar, the Indigenous scholar and now, the single-mother scholar (ugh, she thought, “single mother” sounds like bad words).

Her colleagues didn’t mention their kids at all. As a student in a different department, Laura never knew who had kids. She assumed everyone had chosen to be childless or all the kids were grown. When she was hired as a faculty member in an education field, she assumed people would discuss their families. I bet faculty just don’t talk to their students about their families. It was a surprise then when it took almost a year for her to learn who in the department had children. Many of them had children Dana’s age, even, but families weren’t mentioned, and family members were never invited to come to events. It was like a taboo to have a family. Laura thought more about this. Maybe it’s not a taboo for everyone, as the men in the department seem to be very proud of showing pictures of their kids when asked. Laura soon saw the taboo about having a family existed for women. Being a mother was taboo. She knew she was supposed to be a mother, culturally. Being childless doesn’t look good. Someone might think I’m incapable of having kids. “Barren,” the term family would throw around to ensure newlyweds would try to have kids quickly.

Scrolling to her inbox, Laura saw the tiny little red light indicating her unread messages. She felt a chill come over her. I don’t even know where to start. How could there be so many messages sent in the last hour? Laura’s vision started to blur. She didn’t know up from down. Then she was jerked back to the present moment by her daughter’s voice and crayons falling to the ground.

OK, get it together, Laura. Moving from the messages hounding her, she opened her social media account, going to that one space that brought her relief many months ago, the mothering group.

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