The unintended consequence of the pandemic: when students expect you to take on a pseudo-parenting role

By Mercedes Valadez (Ph.D.). Mercedes is a tenure track faculty member in the Division of Criminal Justice at California State University, Sacramento. Her research focuses on race, ethnicity, inequality and the criminal justice system. She is the mother of a toddler (born 2019). Mercedes is a member of the California Faculty Association Parental Rights Committee which focuses on highlighting issues and inequalities that pregnant faculty and mothers face. The Committee focuses on making policy recommendations to address necessary changes to support mothers in academia.

Balancing teaching, research, committees, community work and parenthood was a challenge before the pandemic. Post-pandemic it has been excruciating at times. Yes, working and parenting during a pandemic has been an emotional rollercoaster. But, beyond worrying about our own health and that of our family, at times, we were expected to serve as a source of emotional support for our students. This isn’t something that we are necessarily trained to do. But, being away from family will sometimes encourage students to be overly dependent on their instructors.

On our last face to face meeting, I took a poll and asked students whether they would prefer to take a synchronous or asynchronous online version of our course. Every single student chose asynchronous. After a couple weeks into the transition, I organized a zoom meeting with students. The purpose of the meeting was to address any questions or concerns related to the switch to an online platform. The topics that students wanted to discuss were not related to the assignments or remaining exam. Students didn’t want to discuss assignments or grades, they just wanted to talk to someone. They shared how lonely, depressed, and worried they were. They talked about not having anything to look forward during this time.

Before ending our zoom meeting, I discussed the support and resources they had available to them through the university despite the closure. But, I also asked everyone to share one tip that has been helping them through the pandemic. Some students shared that playing with their pets helped, others said baking.  But, the one tip that stood out was a student who shared that she wrote something on her calendar that she planned to do the next day so that she would have something to look forward to the following day. When they asked me what helped me get through the pandemic, I asked them to wait a minute. I walked over to the living room where my husband was trying to entertain our 13 month old and brought her over to say hello to my class. I told them that even though it has been really difficult working from home, I’ve enjoyed spending so much quality time with my daughter.

Many of us are not trained in mental health or counseling, yet we were expected to serve in an emotional supportive role to our students. Balancing the needs and worries of another 176 individuals is not something that I was trained to do. Nor is it humanly possible to address all of those individual needs and worries as they related to the pandemic. While not all students depend on their faculty for emotional support, some did during the Spring 2020 semester. This past semester I heard more from students about their food insecurities, depression, family troubles, financial worries, and a host other issues compared to all other years combined. I had to quickly become well versed in all of the resources available to students both on and off campus

Like most faculty, I care about students and want them to succeed both in and out of my classroom. Several colleagues and I discussed that we found ourselves in a pseudo parenting role. By that, I mean that it felt like we had to do a lot of virtual hand holding. I would send out weekly announcements and reminders about due date for assignments. I would also send out a “checking in” message to let them know that I wanted check in with them and see how they were doing with the course. At the end of the semester, I received a few messages from students expressing their gratitude that someone checked in on them. For example,

Thank you for an awesome class.  I so much appreciated all the study tools you provided throughout the semester and your availability and reaching out to make sure I was doing ok” (Student A).

“I really enjoyed taking your class this semester and I really appreciated all the accommodations you made when everything transitioned online.  I wasn’t expecting any changes to be made to this class since it was already online and it was more accommodating than most of my in person classes that actually had to shift to online teaching. The changes you made helped me a lot through the semester. I just wanted to say thank you and I hope you have a great summer” (Student B).

Thank you professor for an amazing semester. I enjoyed your class and learned a lot. I wanted to thank you for being so supportive, flexible, and kind through this crazy semester. Have a wonderful summer and I hope to have another class with you again soon.” (Student C).

No one warns you that students may look to you as a source of comfort or help when you are going through your Ph.D. It isn’t something that is openly discussed. The pandemic created a new challenge for faculty. That is, the additional expectation by students that faculty would take on a pseudo-parenting role. I use a mentor or manager style. But, I understand that this past semester was unique and students needed much more guidance and support. It is worth highlighting that as faculty we need more training and support to deal with student related crises.

However, we need to remember that our time and energy is not limitless. Our parenting responsibilities are with our children. We should be careful not to exhaust ourselves by taking on pseudo-parental roles and responsibilities that are not ours to take on.

The emotional aspects of parenting in a pandemic (whilst working from home)

By Gesche Huebner

Gesche Huebner (PhD) works part-time as a Postdoc at the Energy Institute and as a Lecturer at the Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering, both University College London. Her research focuses on energy consumption in buildings and on the relationship between buildings and health. Gesche has two young daughters (born in 2015 and 2018). She is interested generally in how we can increase diversity in academia and create more inclusive environments. She is also keen on promoting (and conducting) more rigorous, transparent, and reproducible science.

What does it feel like to parent and to work in a pandemic as opposed to how do you arrange it*? I am at the easy spectrum of juggling childcare and working from home: I have a partner who shares childcare (of a two- and a four-year old) and chores; we are still paid as normal; none of us has been sick; we live in a house with a small garden, my work place (University College London) is supportive. Yet, even at this ‘easy’ end, it can be difficult and emotionally complex. Some of the emotions are related just to parenting, other to working from home whilst bringing up children.

Guilt. It is mainly feeling guilty for snapping at the children more often; for using the “Because I said so”-way of ending conversations more often, for letting the older one watch much more TV, for trying to get bedtimes done more quickly on some days, for generally being more impatient and more irritable. I know I should not – it is not the children’s fault but it is me feeling stressed because there is always the thought of work in the background and obviously the general concern about the virus.

Sadness. It is heartbreaking to see how the older one has internalized staying away from other people; how she makes space when encountering others, how she is concerned if other people pass her closely. And it’s sad how often I have to say ‘no’ to otherwise perfectly reasonable suggestions – “Can we go to the park again?” “Can I come to the post office with you?” The children don’t even ask about playgrounds and friends anymore. But it is also sad to see how happy the older one is when she spots a friend and then I have to keep them apart whilst all they want to do is play together and hug each other.

Worry. I am concerned about any negative effects to longer-term emotional and social development of the children if all this continues much longer. They are basically told all the time to stay away from people instead of being open to others, makings friends, playing together. I don’t let them out of my sight in parks and constantly call them back if they venture too far instead of letting them be free and independent. There is also this big worry about falling behind in work; the worry that I won’t be able to compete. It might well be that those academics without caring responsibilities will increase their productivity; the one of those with caring responsibility decrease. And from what floats around on Twitter, it might be even worse for women. Yet, very likely we will be judged by the same standards.

Frustration. The frustration is partly directed at others who I feel don’t really want to understand what it is like to parent and work from home for weeks. There seem to be superficial platitudes – “do what you can” – but I think we need to have a serious conversation about what it really means, what can be expected, how we can recognize the specific circumstances, and how we can at least redistribute the more tangible aspects of work (e.g. around supervision and marking). There are also superfluous comments – “mute your microphones so that we don’t hear your dogs or children”. The frustration is also about the feeling of being behind. I see absolutely amazing work by others that goes beyond the day job. I admire these efforts and wish I could do more – but I am just about scraping by, just about staying on top of things; there is no space to do anything additional; neither in the work context nor in the ‘decorate your house, reinvent your sex life, bake your own bread, learn to knit’-sphere.

Embarrassment. The other day I skyped with a senior colleague – microphone not muted – and the older child shouted “Mama, can you wipe my bottom?”. Or should that be ‘amusement’?

Feeling more defined by your children. I am sure some language has a word for that. I used to try to separate work and family. They are physically separated (London versus Cambridge); I tried not to mention my children too much at work. I was slightly concerned about boring my colleagues or ‘being the one with the kids’ but mainly I just liked this feeling of a separation, it is nice to feel like a ‘me without children’. Now I feel children creep up in everything. “No, I can’t make that meeting slot, I have to look after the children.” “I really have to go now, time to take over the children.” Meetings being interrupted by children shouting or just being curious. Also me bringing children up more often – ask me about my weekend, what can I say that does not involve children? Discussing a survey draft for a Covid survey – I speak about the need to collect certain data on children. But also this constant thinking about meals, about activities, about new outdoor spaces, about arranging online meetings with other children. There is never the ‘just me’ time.

Joy. This is a big one. I absolutely love spending so much more time with my children. They are fun, kind, and creative. They make me laugh a lot. It is so nice that the two sisters get much more time together. It is beautiful to hear how much more German and Italian they are now speaking when not being in an English day care setting. No more rushed mornings, dashing to the train, leaving crying children behind. I get so much more sunshine, fresh air, and cuddles. Don’t get me wrong, I would much prefer if this pandemic had not happened. But I am grateful for the gift of more time with my children.

Exhaustion. Is that an emotion? Don’t know. I am off to bed.


*How we arrange it: We work in two hour-chunks during the daytime, Monday-Saturday. Evenings as needed (haha). Whoever has the children should not be on the phone or computer though every so often we have overlapping meetings and one of us has to be with the children and attend work meetings. Trying to make it fun for the children and have as much family time together as possible; e.g. we eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. Personal exercise either happens early in the morning, does not happen, or happens during one’s working hours – which then means more evening work. Chores either happen whilst having the kids, don’t happen, or happen in the evening.

How can our institutions cope with our leave?

We have blogged before about how employers can best support academic mamas. Recently, it occurred to me that there is another perspective – how can our research groups manage in our absence?

For both periods of maternity leave that I took, I was aware that there was disruption to those that I left behind. A couple of people were taking on more work in my absence. Or, that work I did was not being completed while I was away, and this had an impact on other people. This was particularly true where that work was related to specific funded research projects. For example, in a project with a number of lead scientists, we had all assumed that my input would be absorbed by others. Most of it was, but not evenly across everyone! And some parts of my leadership in that project were never covered (perhaps they were a bit too intangible to recognize), and researchers reported that they really felt the gap.

I’ve been thinking for a while that this was a topic of a blog post for here. But I was struggling to think about what it was really about. Then, recently, I was visiting an institute who had a number of colleagues away on parental leave, and they were finding that hard. They were struggling to cover workloads, and to cope with key people gone. It led me to wonder: How can we mitigate this disruption?

What can we do as mamas about to take leave?

I am cautious about suggesting that we, as mothers taking leave, should have to manage the institute such that they can cope with our absence. Rather, my intention is to highlight that there are ways we can all reduce the impact of someone taking parental leave. Nevertheless, there are a couple of quite low-effort things we might consider doing.

Diversify supervision – if you supervise PhD students, what happens to them while you are on leave? I had an agreement with mine that we would still meet, and most came to my house for a catch up while I was away. But I wasn’t able to give the same amount of regular input, comments to drafts etc. Instead, they had their second supervisor for that. The only problem was that I work very closely with 1 other faculty member on most of my PhD supervision. While I was away, he was very busy. Perhaps I should have had more people I worked with on PhD supervision. Or we could have formalized alternative people during that time period – i.e. what their roles were, and how it would work with hand over.

Let go – accept that whoever is taking on your roles (see also below on getting cover) is going to do them differently, and maybe take them in a different direction. It is so hard for that person to get on and do the job if they are worrying about whether or not this is what you would do. It also means you are likely to get more interruptions of your maternity leave. So empower them to do it their way.

What can our employers and research groups do?

GET COVER. For everything – if you employ us to do a job, hopefully its because that job needs to be done. If you don’t employ someone else to cover it, you are just ensuring that someone else picks up the slack, is not paid for it, and feels overworked. And it happens all the time! Teaching is the easiest to fill, but are there also ways that you can fill contributions to research projects, leadership roles, etc?

One of the best things we did when I went on my second maternity leave was to create enhanced contracts for 2 researchers. Their new roles were to design and run integration opportunities (reading groups, project retreats, etc.). It wasn’t a direct replacement for my role, but certainly helped mitigate some of my absence.

The one exception to this rule might be for fixed term, project funded researchers – i.e. most PhDs and post docs. If you get cover for them, are you preventing them from extending their contract (and therefore finishing their projects) when they return (see also the point below to funders).? If so, it would be more appropriate to have a conversation about how the project might restructure to cope with their absence. Failing to have this conversation means we struggle without their results, or modelling abilities, or whatever, and the whole team feels frustrated. But if we can openly consider how we might change working processes, or when inputs are needed, we can keep the whole team happier.

How can research funders help?

Provide options for extentions and cover – Post docs and PhDs take parental leave too. Often, deadlines can’t be shifted and projects can’t be extended. So researchers get less time to finish their research, or have no job to come back to. Best practice would be extra funding available to employ maternity cover, and easy extensions to ensure the mama can come back to finish their assigned number of working months. As an example, the German Research Council (DFG) provides both these things… it can be done.


These are all thoughts are based on my experiences, and in conversation with colleagues. Please feel free to add more in the comments.

Why it is good to be a an academic mom

About the author: Sarah Velten is an environmental scientist and recently finished her PhD in social and political sciences on collaboration for sustainable agriculture. She’s got a 4-year old son and her second child is due in a few weeks.

Being an academic mom certainly comes with many challenges and difficulties and many things can and should be done to improve the situation of moms in academia. Previous posts in this blogs have already addressed quite a few of these issues. However, there are also some benefits in being an academic mom. Thus, for a change, I would like to turn the headlights on these positive aspects. I divide these aspects into two topics: The advantages of working in academia as a mom as compared to other kinds of occupations and professions and the advantages of being a mom for your work in academia.

The positive side of being an academic while being a mom

In academia, work can very often be organized more flexibly than in other areas. Although there certainly are exceptions, I have experienced work as an academic to be less bound to specific times and places than in other sectors. Thus, here it is much more common and much less problematic to (partially) work at home and outside usual office hours, which makes it much easier to align work and child care requirements.

While it is unthinkable to bring your baby to a major business meeting or conference when you are, let’s say, working for a big corporation, things are much more relaxed in case of academic events. I myself have taken my family to events such as conferences or stakeholder workshops and have seen many instances of mothers taking care of their children while attending such events. This even included mothers engaging in breastfeeding and expressing breast milk while participating in discussion rounds (again, try to imagine this happening at a board meeting of a bank, for example). Also this attitude that is more accepting of the requirements of motherhood makes it much easier for women to get back to work and progress in their career while also having children.

As a scientist working in the area of sustainability sciences, my work is intrinsically concerned with ways to enable a better future. However, I think much if not most of the work in academia in general is aimed at contributing to a better future (even if there might be controversy about the ways to get there). What nicer job is there than one where you can tell your children – the next generation – that you work to help secure a better future for them?

The positive side of being a mom while being an academic

Linked to this aspect of work for a better future is also the first positive aspect of being a mom while being an academic: As a mother, you have much more reason and therefore probably also a heightened motivation to do your work and to do it well. You probably cared for the concerns of future generations even before having children. Yet, by having children yourself, this concern transforms from moral imperative into personal interest and from a rather abstract idea into a concrete case.

In a more practical manner, being a mom makes you work more efficiently. This is owed to the situation that, despite the greater flexibility to organize your work in academia, you end up having fewer hours per day to invest in your work. Doing extra hours is not as easy as without children because you just have to be there for them for a hardly negotiable amount of time each day. Although this may sound restricting in the first moment, this situation also has a positive effect: On the one hand, this has led at least me to work in a more disciplined way as there simply hasn’t been time to keep procrastinating. Related to this is also that I’ve become better at setting priorities and at distinguishing worthwhile work and efforts from rather superfluous ones. In other words, I’ve become better in doing the 80% of work that can be done in 20% of the time and in leaving aside the 20% of work that eat up 80% of your time. On the other hand, being forced to lay down work and to engage in activities that have to do nothing with your work provides your brain with the time and distraction it actually needs to digest all the things it has learned about, to put them together in novel ways, and thus to come up with nice ideas. In earlier days, I had a hard time to grant myself this space for creativity and would often force myself to stay at the desk until I would find a solution (and often this didn’t work and the ideas would only come to me when I had finally given up). Nowadays, this space for creativity is necessarily part of my daily routine and hence, it has occurred not infrequently that I had the best ideas for my work-related problems when I was spending and enjoying time with my son.

My last point here is an issue that is true for many working moms in general but thus also for academic moms: Given appropriate circumstances, being a working/academic mom makes you more balanced and makes you appreciate more both your work and your role as a mom. As a friend of mine put it once: “When I’m at work, I enjoy doing adult things and recover from being a mom; when I’m with my kids, I enjoy spending time with them and recover from work. “

This is of course no complete list of positive aspects of being an academic mom but just the things that come up to my mind when I think about reasons to be happy to be an academic mom. Maybe you can think of more reasons?

Written by Sarah Velten

Mama is an Academic at the Leverage Points Conference 2019

In February Leuphana University hosted its inaugural Leverage Points Conference, an international conference on sustainability research and transformation.

The organisers really ensured a family friendly conference, having e.g. daily child care on the premises. Apart from this we as Mama is an Academic also wanted to contribute to the conference.

So we organised a get together lunch for mothers with or without their children. We networked, swapped ideas and discussed work and life as academic mothers. Around 15 mothers joined our lunch all while the accompanying children enjoyed being with their mothers and discovered what the play boxes had to offer.

Thank you all for coming and to all the new mothers we’ve met: welcome to our community!

Would you like to share your own conference experiences (Leuphana and others) with us? Feel free to leave a comment below or send us an e-mail. We’re looking forward hearing from you!

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