5C faculty juggle work-life balance and pandemic parenting

A man, with a child in his lap, grades papers.
Professor Feng Xiao grades work with son Yi Xiao, age three. (Courtesy: Professor Feng Xiao)

As the 5Cs embark on an unprecedented virtual semester, long gone is the separation between work life and home life — for both students and faculty. 

As professors are spending increasing amounts of time at home, those two lives have become one, creating new challenges and stresses for faculty members and their families. 

“Life-work balance is always an issue, especially for junior faculty and young professors. Everyone has to deal with it,” said Feng Xiao, assistant professor of the Department of Asian Languages and Literature at Pomona College. 

Working from home has added an entirely new dimension. Since March, both he and his wife have been remote teaching at home with their son, who is nearly 4 years old. 

“My wife is also teaching in my department, so we actually prearranged class times. This was on purpose, so at least one of us will be available with our son,” said Xiao.

Xiao doesn’t teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which allows him more time to play with his son. Still, there are times when Xiao’s son does sneak away to participate in their classes. 

“There was an accident today when my wife was teaching and I was cooking. He went to my wife’s room and said, ‘Mommy, I want to poo-poo!’ — so everyone on the call got to hear that,” Xiao said.

Justine Bae Bias, Communication and Engagement Manager of the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona, has similarly experienced this with both her first-grader and fourth-grader learning online at home.

“Sometimes I have to tell my kids to put their pants on. Because, you know, sometimes they’ll be running around the house in their underwear or something. Like, no, you might be done, but I am still Zooming,” Bias said.

Many 5C faculty are finding that time to quietly work from home is rare; the phenomena is only compounded by school closures in the state, keeping children at home to learn remotely. resulting in remote learning for children as their parents teach class. For some faculty’s families, outdoor play isn’t even an option due to poor air quality.

“One challenge has been the social interaction,” Bias said. “A lot of people really value a holistic education, [including] not just academic but social opportunities too. My kids are not interacting with their friends in a normal way.”

Sumita Pahwa, an associate professor of politics at Scripps College, has two children, ages five and ten, who are experiencing similar difficulties with online learning and a lack of social interaction. 

“When they’re just around their parents and siblings at home, then they rely on you for pretty much everything,” Pahwa said. “Emotional stuff, reassurance not feeding and the typical stuff you would do with your kids anyway, but playing. Like, ‘Hey, I want to play now,’ or, ‘Read this to me.’ That part is something they would have gotten in school.”

A man reads a book to his son who is sitting on his lap.
Feng Xiao, assistant professor of Asian Languages and Literature at Pomona College, and his son Yi Xiao, read dinosaur books together. (Courtesy: Professor Feng Xiao)

As of early September, more than half a million children in the United States had contracted COVID-19. Given that in-person interactions could risk transmission, some parents are grappling with how to handle socially-distanced playdates or hangouts for their children. 

Despite the uncertainties and health risks present, many faculty said they were resilient and optimistic in combating this new and unfamiliar way of parenting. Some say they are using daily routines to help create some sort of normalcy in their home lives. 

“We go on walks when the weather’s nice and it’s not super polluted. So usually on weekends we go on walks or hikes. We try to go for one every day just around town, to get out and get some fresh air,” said Pahwa. 

Besides getting much needed fresh air, some families are using this newfound time to play with their children.

“With our son, we do a very routine hide-and-seek. So, he wants to do this in a specific room, and he always wants to save my life. Almost every day, we do this together,” Xiao said. These days are also routinely filled with reading dinosaur books, singing dinosaur songs and going outside to find a praying mantis or a grasshopper with his son.

Multiple dinosaur books sit on a green carpet.
As classes have shifted online, some faculty members face new challenges of juggling work and childcare. (Courtesy: Professor Feng Xiao)

In response to the newfound stress that faculty members may feel, colleges have also created college-sponsored outreach programs designed to aid affected families. 

Pomona-Pitzer and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps student-athletes have joined together to create  “5C Kids Zone,” an online after-school program for the children of 5C faculty members. The program starts on Sept. 23 and aims to help with child care and social interaction while allowing parents to continue working.

Some of the activities involve Kids Yoga, Super Hero Club and Star Wars. Bias signed up her kids for the program, and said she looks forward to seeing how it plays out in the next couple of weeks. 

Xiao feels that informal, inter-faculty communication has aided his experience with working from home. 

“Sometimes we communicate with each other on a personal basis; for example, if we’re in the same committee, we talk to each other about our kids,” Xiao said.

Work-life balance is something “everyone has to deal with,” regardless of circumstance, Xiao said — online learning is just an added facet of being a parent-professor in 2020.

“This is a very unusual situation,” Pahwa said. “It’s a once-in-a-century situation.”

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