“Some Practical Tips on Managing Academic Work/Caregiving Balance During COVID-19”

The majority of institutions of higher education have been slow to acknowledge the looming work-caregiver balance that so many of their faculty and staff saw coming with the start of a K-12 school year during a global pandemic. With virtual work and partial or all virtual schooling, caregivers are managing multiple jobs simultaneously in the same location. Others saw their support systems collapse with childcare closings and the curtailing of other services that help caregivers with aging relatives or those with special needs.

As a special needs parent for the past five years, my partner and I have acquired certain survival skills that are now helping us manage this new COVID-19 reality of work and school. This essay provides some tips, based on these experiences. It is not meant to be exhaustive. Hopefully some of the brief take-aways below will help to recenter you or you see your own situation through a new lens to develop new strategies when other fail. A-skew thinking reveals new, unforeseen truths and tactics. What is really needed is a recentering of the value and labor of caregiving in our society and the creation of a holistic infrastructure that supports caregivers. We will all become caregivers at some point in our lives. This is a social and institutional justice issue.

Prioritize self-care.

If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else. First, improve your self-awareness and self-knowledge. Be mindful of your emotions and reactions to the current situation and how you cope. Take a moment and think back on the day. What situations caused you the most stress? When did you feel your best? When did you feel that you couldn’t make it another minute. Pay close attention to these reactions and collect them as you would data. Observe your daily patterns in this new reality we find ourselves in and how they change over time depending on the many uncertainties, changing realities, and unexpected events. You might journal about these or contemplate your findings on a daily walk or during some alone time even if just for 15 minutes. These are the foundations of self-care as you learn about yourself, when you need a break or can marshal on through. In coming up with the schedule mentioned below, intentionally build in time for self-care no matter how small or short a time-span. You will burnout or have already. Be kind to yourself. Now is not the time to push, or only in those few areas where you absolutely must.

Second, we are all so sedentary now. Sitting for hours on Zoom challenges the circulation of the fittest. Figure out when you will take time to move and exercise. This might be 10 minute Youtube yoga at key points or a longer bike ride on the weekends. Take walking meetings on your phone. For most academics research is self-care. Treat your mind to this exercise. Remember that self-care is how you define it. Figure out what this means for you and commit to it for your own mental health and well-being. Don’t leave this to the bottom of the list. Don’t learn hard way. This is why it appears first here.

Internet Connectivity, Internet Connectivity, Internet Connectivity.

Figure out how to get the fastest internet connection possible and also have multiple possible internet options that might include: home Wifi, hotspot, cell phone #1, cell phone #2. For those of you who live in Internet challenged locations like us, one of these series of connections will hopefully be stable enough each day to allow for school and work connections.

Focus only on the work and caregiving that absolutely must get done.

Figure out what is most important to you and what others are depending on you to do. Figure out what you and the others who live with you realistically really need to accomplish by January 1. Itemize what these areas are. Consider how you will accomplish them thinking realistically of yourself and the others in your household. Now see what you all can still cut from that list. Keep 1–2 commitments that are most important to your self-perception, to help keep you motivated, on-track, and focused. And relinquish others without guilt. They will keep for another day, or they are no longer really relevant in a COVID-19 world. Write these down and take this to your chair/supervisor/mentor. Have conversations about timeline, teaching, research, service commitments. Talk about maintaining high quality online teaching, but designing courses that do not consume you. Work towards a realistic and balanced work and time commitment plan and clarify expectations, particularly if you are on the tenure-track. Document all of the different and often new kinds of academic COVID-19 labor that you are doing for your annual review. Do the same with your home obligations, breaking them down into what must get done, when will it best be done and how long will it take. If it takes too much energy to schedule social engagements — virtual or social distanced, then don’t. If this creates energy for you, then make the time and make it work. Your real friends will understand and wait or if it is a short engagement. This time is all-consuming and just own that.

Clarify job descriptions and assign the best person to each job.

Here are some examples of home positions that have emerged during COVID-19 and others that are tried and true. You have no doubt already have identified others. If you have close, low-risk relatives or friends who you can “pod” or “bubble” with, bring them on to your COVID-19 team.

· Scheduler — The person who best creates and negotiates the collective schedule. This person is dedicated to a schedule that works, not a magnum opus.

· Home shopper — The person who boldly ventures forth into the COVID-19-world safely and has a sanitizing regimen for anything and everything they bring home. A related role is the one responsible for children’s medical appointments.

· Household project manager — The person who doesn’t mind and maybe even enjoys talking on the phone to make appointments, problem solve with teachers, schedule repairs, Facetime with relatives, etc. This home role might be different from the virtual homework manager or the writing or math tutor.

· Virtual school technology trouble-shooter — This is the person in the family who can best think on their feet and get the Internet working and the child(ren) on the right page in Google classroom right as they need to be there. A different person might supervise the young ones while they are virtual schooling.

· De-escalator — This is the person who best remains calm in stressful situations and who can problem solve instead of panic. If this is about the kids, it is better if the other stressed out parent goes on a walk. Our favorite phrase during a meltdown (of parent or child) is “take the baby!” and our baby will be a teenager soon. But it still works.

· Cook — The person who reliably plans and prepares edible meals, and occasionally is spelled by the other person on days they need to work late. Or there is mercifully curb-side pick-up or delivery. Other titles might include breakfast or lunch cook to ensure that children get fed or also that the pets eat as well. You would be amazed at what you can forget to do at times like these if no one is assigned to them.

· Morning routing person/evening routine person — This is best given to the morning person or night owl respectively, as one of the other is best adapted to an energetic child who just keeps on ticking when your energy levels are low.

Create an iterative schedule.

Once you have “The Schedule”, review/tweak it every two to four weeks or the minute it starts to not work for you, but control you. Each person might have a schedule. The child(ren) could earn stars for good behavior, while the adults might earn self-care time. When carrying out the schedule starts to cause strife, revaluate what is most important and what might best be left behind.

Don’t forget to talk with each other.

Finally, the most important thing you can remember is to take the time each day just to sit down and check-in with each other. Make sure of each other. Intentionally focus wholly on the other adult or child next to you and absorb their words completely. Consider them. Ask questions to elicit further information that might help them process their day and their own successes, challenges, and stressors. There are no expectations with these talks. They should be free flowing and go where the person needs to go that day. Give each other opportunities for this check-in in different groupings if you have multiple family members so that there is one-on-one checking in and also group check-in as it presents itself. Perhaps at dinner, over tea, or at a bedtime reading, or a breakfast what are you looking forward to today.

Many of you are in much more difficult and less privileged situations than we find ourselves. Families come in many shapes, sizes, and definitions. One size never fits all. Please always reach out and ask for help in your community, for there are many others who would like to pay it forward even virtually. Also forgive yourselves when you fail, as we have failed many times. Just commit to talking through the failure and learning from each one. Finally, may the road rise to meet you and may the wind be always at your back.

Sonja Fritzsche, Michigan State University

Professor of German Studies, Associate Dean of Academic Personnel and Administration at Michigan State University. @sfritzsc, sonjafritzsche.com