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Physics in the pandemic: ‘A lack of childcare hugely reduces productivity’

05 May 2020 Margaret Harris

Rose Waugh is a final-year PhD student at the University of St Andrews, UK, where she studies stellar magnetic fields for low-mass stars. If you want to compare notes about parenting as a PhD student or early-career researcher, you can contact her at rw47@st-andrews.ac.uk or on Instagram (@astrophysics_rose).

This post is part of a series on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the personal and professional lives of physicists around the world. If you’d like to share your own perspective, please contact us at pwld@ioppublishing.org.

Rose Waugh holds her baby son while standing in front of a blossoming tree
Human whirlwind: Rose Waugh and her 11-month-old son. (Courtesy: Rose Waugh)

In many ways, I’m fortunate. Most of my work is computational, and I have no teaching duties this semester, so I don’t have to access a lab or navigate the new online learning software for undergraduate students.

Instead, my problem comes from trying to complete any work at all while caring for an 11-month-old baby. A baby who is progressing quickly into toddlerhood and is into everything. Gone are the days when I could read a paper or run some code as he played (relatively) quietly with his toys. In their place are the days of “Oh God don’t touch that”, “Please come away from the socket”, “Don’t trap your fingers in that cupboard”, and “Excuse me, where are you going?” as he heads out the door. He also doesn’t sleep through the night – a torture that is, I imagine, painful for people of all professions, but one that has worn very thin indeed for someone who requires full brain function to read up on the mathematics behind stellar magnetic field generation, or analyse data on the mechanical equilibria locations within a potential field of a Sun-like star.

The combination of sleepless nights and running after an 11-month-old human whirlwind is exhausting in ways that seem obvious now, but I didn’t fully appreciate them before. Before lockdown, my husband (who is also a PhD student) and I had childcare two days a week, courtesy of his mother. PhD students are not well paid, and a month of private childcare at four days a week would eat up my entire monthly income. So instead, granny came for two days a week, which gave my husband and I two high-intensity workdays plus three in which we crammed in work around parenting. It worked surprisingly well, thanks to our supportive supervisors, who have been great throughout our parenting journey. Many PhD students won’t have that kind of support, and while I am under no illusions that this lack of support is exclusive to academia, it is nevertheless true that parents in other careers benefit from clearer and more universal protections.

A disrupted equilibrium

Two weeks before the UK’s official lockdown on 23 March, having closely followed news of the virus’ spread since mid-January, we had to suggest that my mother-in-law stop coming. This was hard – not just because we would be left without any childcare, but also because we would miss her. She isn’t particularly at risk, but she lives with someone who is older and another who is vulnerable, so we simply couldn’t ask her to continue.

Then the emails from the university started. Students were asked to leave and go home for the remainder of the semester – in fact, for the foreseeable future. St Andrews is a small town with a large elderly population. Even at the best of times, the healthcare system here can’t support everyone, and the spread of COVID-19 would be completely disastrous. Fortunately, my own parents are not classed as “at risk”, so – hoping to ease the pressure –we moved back to my family home. This brings several advantages: a variety of company, people to lend a hand with babysitting, delicious homecooked meals like the ones I remember from my childhood, the knowledge that if we do become ill, someone will care for “the wee lad”, and the fact that I’ve not looked at a washing machine in weeks (for which I feel very grateful, and also very guilty).

We’re now entering Week 6 of lockdown, and we’ve settled into a new routine. Despite the disruption my son causes, I have grown used to having him near me, and I worry how both of us will cope with the separation anxiety when this all changes. At the same time, I worry that things won’t change – that this is the “new normal”, and that it will be an incredibly long time before he returns to spending time with granny or playgroups. I worry I’m not doing enough work (because I’m not), yet I also worry that I’m not appreciating the time I have for watching my son grow up.

Stumbling blocks

As for my research, the body that funds my PhD recently informed the university that I and the other students it funds will be paid for an extra six months, to allow for the disruption the COVID-19 pandemic is having on our research. I’m still waiting for confirmation, but the prospect of getting some time back is encouraging. However, I think it’s important for academics to appreciate that being shut out of labs and other research facilities isn’t the only stumbling block. Isolation and loneliness are killers to motivation. Something as simple as not being able to find 50% of your shopping list in the supermarket can wear you down. A lack of childcare hugely reduces productivity and research output. Even those of us who can work entirely remotely can’t be expected to continue as normal, even if on the surface it seems like it ought to be possible.

To parents out there: I see you. You are doing great. Survival is the main task; everything else is a bonus

Some days, when I get a quiet moment to engage brain cells for a purpose other than changing a nappy, singing nursery rhymes or navigating around a floor covered in plastic blocks, I wonder what this experience would have been like pre-child. I always enjoyed working from home; with fewer distractions, no commute time and minimal social contact, I was generally more productive. I sometimes miss the days when I could sit and work, uninterrupted, for four hours at a time and rack up a meaningful 10-hour day. Now I manage five hours on a great day, while on a good day I can do three and a half. Some days I manage a whopping 30 minutes. Of course, I love being a mother, but I think it’s natural in times of crisis and general madness to wonder about other potential timelines.

The main task

So, to parents out there: I see you. You are doing great. Survival is the main task; everything else is a bonus. To the PhD students out there, balancing research and parenting: I feel you. You are doing great. Survival is the main task; everything else is a bonus – and yes, that includes your research. Perhaps this is easier for me to say, since my partner is also working from home, I have a supportive manager and only one child, and I have extra hands to help when needed (I’m typing this from the garden to the sound of birdsong, the rustle of leaves, and my crying son being lulled to sleep by my mother). But being a PhD student and having kids is hard at the best of times, because the system isn’t yet set up for it.

Slowly, academia is becoming more inclusive, enabling people to have a career without putting their family life on hold. In the meantime, I’ve found that this difficult balancing act has helped put things into perspective. I’m a recovered perfectionist, someone who no longer wastes time on unnecessary details and has learnt to appreciate life as well as work. Now, with the pandemic, I’ve been trying to accept that whilst research is very important to me, so is my son and I’ll never get this time back to watch him grow up. So I’m trying to enjoy it as best I can – sleepless nights, joyful giggles, dirty nappies, developmental milestones, temper tantrums and all. I hope others can do the same.

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