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I emerged from my (newly-rearranged) home office on Day 25 of quarantine at 10 p.m. It was a Friday. I had been working since 8 a.m that morning, taking advantage of – at last – a day where I could successfully focus on writing. I found my husband in the kitchen, dishwasher running, hand-drying pots and pans. We looked at each other, I blinked. The dull headache that had started behind my eyeballs a couple hours earlier was growing more noticeable. His expression was one of simultaneous exhaustion and relief. In the background, our four-year-old bounced tirelessly on the couch to the tune of yet another episode of Peppa Pig. I looked at our little acrobat. He met my gaze, still bouncing, and gave me a big, I’m-not-tired-yet! smile. I looked back at my husband, who shrugged wearily and put on the teapot. I shuffled towards my husband for a hug and asked, “So…how was your day?”

He looked at me. 

Whoa. I recognized that look.

It was the same one I had given him, every night when he came home from work — at midnight– a few years ago. We had just had the acrobat. I was in my third year of grad school. We couldn’t find affordable daycare for the first 9 months, so I went into lab before sunrise until afternoon to get my research done. Then we swapped: I was home alone with the newborn for the rest of the day while my husband worked the second shift at an auto manufacturing warehouse. Every night when he came through the door I would give him that same layered look of exhaustion, irritation, and relief.

“Endless. My day was endless, and this is hard.”

I nodded my head in solidarity. With the very last bit of energy I could muster, I scooped up the acrobat and took him to my office. We played a computer game then sat together in my comfy chair, chatting and watching cartoons until he finally fell asleep in my lap. Before he went to sleep he said, “Mommy, I missed you today.” Ugh. I shouldn’t have worked so late. Next time. I had been working on a paper. I finally had a good groove going that day, and I had been afraid that if I stopped writing, I would break the spell.

Later, when my husband and I finally managed to have a check-in meeting, I asked him again how he felt things were going on his end. “Stressful,” he replied simply. We are an egalitarian household. My husband cleans, does laundry, and shares parenting responsibilities on a regular basis. Since I’m now in another room of the house all day, he bears the full brunt of the constant snack requests, interruptions, and little-kid energy that a four-year-old has to offer. This week he made an exasperated proclamation, “How am I supposed to get the laundry folded while I am being used as jungle-gym?!” I laughed on behalf of generations of housewives.

Parenting and postdoc-ing through this pandemic has been a rollercoaster. I always try to be prepared, so I started prepping for the pandemic in early February. With my knowledge of microbiology and the lack of a robust national response or serious concern, a realistic assessment of the situation in Seattle at the time told me that we were headed for a major disruption. So I started shopping, slowly gathering non-perishables and freezer stocks and doing long-term meal planning. We started to be more vigilant about where we went, what we touched, and what came into the house. I encouraged our friends and family to do the same. My colleagues with young children had already begun to plan for having to work from home with kids. I made more than one trip to the craft store for project supplies, anticipating the need to occupy our acrobat for days on end. Several had discussed keeping their children home voluntarily, due to all the uncertainty about how SARS-CoV-2 impacts children and their ability to transmit to adults. By early March, any residual doubt about having overreacted evaporated seemingly overnight as our first few known cases in the state were announced. 48 hours later, all schools were closed.

My department (and the university) encouraged trainees to work remotely, which was great. But with no other options for childcare, my husband was going to need to be stay-at-home dad for a while. Without pay. I took out a calculator. How are we going to afford this? He filed for unemployment benefits that same day. We haven’t received anything yet. It’s been almost a month.

We are, thankfully, barely staying afloat on one income, largely because our childcare cost has been reduced. Reduced, but not eliminated; we still have to pay a portion of our weekly childcare fees even though the center is closed, in order to keep our spot. But that will change if we don’t start getting unemployment payments soon. Even though my husband successfully filed a claim, it has been processing for a month, and we have no idea what the delay is or how long it will last. We start every day by trying to get through to the Michigan Unemployment Agency on the phone lines or the online chat. It’s a ritual now. Every morning we put on a movie for the acrobat and start calling a few minutes before the phone lines open at 8 a.m., calling repeatedly in the hope of getting through to a person who can give us some solid information. Sometimes we make it to the automated response, telling us that there are an ‘unprecedented’ (I’m retiring this word in 2021) number of calls and to try again later; other times, it simply hangs up. Today, we spent three hours calling 250 times before we gave up for the day. Even then, I left the online chat help tab open for six hours, constantly switching back and forth between it and work to see if anyone had responded. The repeated cycle of failed calls and unresponsive help lines is infuriating. For weeks, there has been a slew of articles and Twitter threads from people struggling with the same delays and inability to get help. After a few weeks of this, it feels like no one cares about us.

Breathe. It’s not just us. We’ll try again tomorrow.

I have found that in order to get anything done, I have to give myself time to process my anxiety about finances and being able to find pull-ups and bread on my next grocery run. Weekly virtual counseling sessions have been a lifeline. The first week was rough. I was consumed with worry about whether we would have enough groceries, whether we had been exposed somewhere, and the health of my parents and relatives. And, of course, how we were going to pay bills. I stayed in my office for long hours, trying to ignore the dread and uncertainty, but ended each day with a migraine and little to no progress.

Three weeks in, I seem to have finally found a way to find focus on the tasks needed to continue research. A big part of that has been realizing that even though we are physically isolated, our struggle is shared. I have found support among labmates, colleagues, and neighbors, all of whom have their own unique, challenging situations. Being on zoom calls where my kid isn’t the only one having a meltdown has provided some comfort and validation. I’ve also learned to take breaks, which has become even more important now that the lines between work and home life are blurred. Being extra-attentive to my stress level has helped me recognize when I need a change of scenery or pace. I am hopeful that in the coming days we will be able to get some financial relief. I’m also grateful to have a supportive and encouraging partner who talks me through the days when I feel guilty for not being able to switch seamlessly from work-mode to mommy-mode.

Nothing about the last six weeks has been normal, and I’m sure there are more adjustments and transitions ahead to be made. In the meantime, I’m going to be gentler on myself and trust that we will make it through. One episode of Peppa Pig at a time.

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Dr. Kozik is a post-doc in the Huang Microbiome Lab at the University of Michigan, where she studies the role of the microbiome in asthma and COPD. She is a first-generation Ph.D. and mom to a preschooler. She is also passionate about advocating for equity in academia. Catch her on Twitter.

 

Edited by RMD.