The following is the second 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. (Originally published at the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative).
Li squinted as she tried to focus her eyes on the screen. She had spent the last 10 hours answering her students’ questions, but she saw more emails and now texts asking for help. They needed her; they were scared about their grades and about the virus. So, Li tried her best; she answered every question as thoroughly as possible, all while trying to learn the latest requirements from her university. Her internal monologue was extensive: I have to record all my lectures now, OK, so that means I need to find a better video camera and somehow set up our living room to look like an office. How am I going to do that? How can I make sure that my daughter or mother don’t walk through in the middle? Fortunately, Li had recently taken a course for online teaching; it was one of the latest university “recommendations.” For Li, this meant she was required to learn more and do more for her work. And she did. In this case, it did seem to pay off, as she was at least a bit ahead of the curve in suddenly being thrust into online teaching. But her students, many of them struggled. The undergraduates didn’t all have personal computers and didn’t have the space at home to have a private class without others disturbing them.
Looking at the intricately carved wooden clock she had bought on her trip last year to Kazakhstan, she noticed it was close to 11:00 p.m. and jerked upright. Why was it so quiet? she asked herself. Where was Yoon-Ha? Where was her mother? Where did they go? It’s not like we live in a huge house. We live in a high rise squeezed together with everyone else! They haven’t eaten. They must be desperate!
“Yoon-Ha! Are you OK!” Li called out anxiously, not knowing what the response was going to be.
From the far side of the apartment, Li heard a mumbled, soft voice. “Hi, Mama. We’re over here.” Followed by a softer response: “Please don’t be upset.” Li squeezed from behind her makeshift desk in the living room to the bedroom to find her daughter and mother snuggled together on the floor. Yoon-Ha was brushing her grandmother’s hair as they sat beside the bed underneath a bedsheet atop chairs. They created a fort! Where did Yoon-Ha learn that? Then Li saw the food laid out; from the look of it, all their plates and silverware were lined up like a buffet on the floor.
Li felt a frog in her throat. Tears welled up in her eyes as she thought about all the work it would take to put away the food (that which wasn’t destroyed already) and wash all the dishes. She was at her wit’s end and just wanted to run away, or scream, or both. But she couldn’t. Li had a 7-year-old and a mother who was sick. She had to take care of them first. So, she did.
On most days, Laura could keep her fear at bay. This virus was really starting to freak her out, though. It was supposed to be contained in China, but then she heard how it was spreading throughout Asia and how a traveler in Europe was found to have gotten sick. She heard about some people in the United States also coming down with a bad cold, a flu or maybe the virus. And just yesterday, one of her good friends had to be hospitalized. So, today was not one of the days that her fear felt manageable. Laura felt alone — her was husband gone, and her therapy session was out of reach. She didn’t even have any colleagues to bump into and chat with to ease some tension.
Has it really been three weeks of teaching online? Laura wondered. Her university had suddenly called all students back from internships and study abroad trips in the middle of March. At the time, she thought they were being overly cautious. Why bring people back from Italy when the virus thing is mostly in Asia? But then things changed worldwide, and it turned out the university had made a good decision.
For the past three weeks, Laura had been redesigning her courses. First, she used the university’s online platform. It was clunky, but it worked. Then it was suggested to try something more creative to engage students. They kept on suggesting more things to include — more apps, more online programs, more platforms. It was suggested to create polls, surveys, to include presentations and collaborative opportunities, and to make sure to have synchronous times to see your students but also to make sure to have asynchronous where students can catch up. Really? she wondered. There is just too much to learn. And these students need the basics of higher education, not bells and whistles. Laura felt overwhelmed and remembered her therapist’s suggestion to close her eyes and to breathe in peace and serenity and breathe out stress and fear. OK, breathe in peace and serenity and breathe out this f***ing nonsense ridiculous stress and fear! It wasn’t exactly the peaceful meditation her therapist intended, but it did bring some relief.
While she was in the breathing-out stage, frowning with eyes pierced shut, she jumped as something touched her shoulder. “What!” It was her daughter, Dana. At only 4 years old, Dana was bubbly, with the wide-eyed wonder of childhood. Her curly dark hair cascaded around her oval face. Laura would look into her daughter’s eyes and see stories of her great-grandparents — the altars, the incense and the intricately woven cultural tapestry of their lives. Like many of her students, Laura, too, was a first-generation graduate. Maybe this is why I push myself so hard, she thought.
Dana was leaning on her mother’s shoulders now, “What are you doing, Mama?” Reaching behind her, Laura quickly and gingerly pulled her daughter around her back into her lap. “Ah mami! Por que estás despierta ahora, cariña? Why are you awake now, my dear?” When talking to her daughter, Laura tried to forget everything else and just focus there. She had read about that once on one of those mothering groups — “Try to be present with your child. This is their now, and there is no future or past for them.” So, she tried. Laura listened as Dana started to talk about her pesadilla, the bad dream where some bad creature came and made her never see her friends again. Unfortunately, the dream wasn’t too far from the truth. That virus she had seen spreading from day to day led to Dana’s preschool closing indefinitely, which meant her daughter hadn’t seen her friends for quite a while.