All focus goes out the window
Working from home with kids? You can't
Brani Ćurčić-Blake has more than once seen her colleagues’ children appear on screen during online meetings. Her own children are no exception. ‘Everyone accepts it. A lot of my coworkers have kids. But don’t expect anyone to be able to work hard.’
Jelte Olthof is trying to just accept the situation. He usually works four days at the office, in a classroom as lecturer of American studies, or at the honours college, but now he’s holed up in a corner of his bedroom, with a baby, a toddler, and a six-year-old in the house. ‘They don’t care when I have to be working, obviously.’
It’s fun to have a full house, he admits, ‘but I don’t get a lot of work done’. He is aware of everything going on in the house. Even during our interview, he has to talk quietly: ‘Our youngest has just gone to bed.’ He also doesn’t yet know where in the house he’ll be able to teach his class at 7 o’clock. ‘That’s rush hour at our place.’ He can’t go upstairs, because his youngest is sleeping there, and the oldest kid is still downstairs.
‘Normally, I’m a really focused worker’, says associate professor of social psychology Katherine Stroebe. ‘I’ve worked under all kinds of difficult circumstances.’ She’s having a much harder time of it now, though. ‘There’s just so much going on in the house. When I hear them going outside, I can’t help but wonder if they’re wearing sunscreen. They got sunburned two days in a row.’
Are the children wearing sunscreen?
Especially the first month was hard, says Stroebe, whose husband also works at the UG, as a professor. ‘It was just a mess. We would make a schedule in the evening, switching from our respective meetings to taking care of the kids. It was chaos. You can’t work for several hours on end like that.’
Stroebe definitely wasn’t able to focus on writing papers. She simply couldn’t concentrate. ‘You need to be able to in this line of work. Especially scientific stuff takes a lot of focus.’
A colleague advised her to switch with her husband at set times, which helped a little. But the biggest difference has been the babysitter they hired two weeks ago. She takes care of the children for half a day, four days a week. ‘More than that would be a bit too expensive.’ The babysitter doesn’t go anywhere else, so it’s relatively safe, says Stroebe. She feels this is a better solution than sending her kids to school.
Because Stroebe and her husband are educators, they’re officially ‘essential workers’, which means their children are allowed to go to school. ‘But I’m hesitant about that. Other children need it more than we do, and it would also detract from the education for kids that are being taught online. We’ll just have to accept that we’re not as productive.’
‘I think I’m about half as productive as I normally am’, Olthof estimates. Even then, he is still working hard. Difficult as it is, he has to change all his lessons. He doesn’t like it. ‘I didn’t become an educator to sit behind a computer and tell people what to do.’
He does think his faculty and the university understand that people are less productive, but he’s not clear on whether that means they actually expect less of people with small children.
Olthof is more worried about others. ‘What about single parents who don’t share custody with their ex? You certainly can’t expect people like that to still be able to work.’
Research on hold
Brani Ćurčić-Blake is associate professor at the UMCG, while her husband Graeme Blake works at FSE. Most of his job this block involves teaching, she says. ‘He didn’t get a lot of sleep the first two weeks. Right now, he’s grading exams.’ She quickly checks on him. ‘Nope, his door’s closed, I’d better not disturb him.’
You can’t expect single parents to work
Her own neurological research has been put on hold. ‘My participants are people who are at-risk, so it was put on hold immediately.’ She’s now focusing on data analysis and supervising students and PhD candidates.
Her office is makeshift. ‘We reorganised things a bit. I’m working out of a messy, small room.’ At least they managed a separate room for everyone.
Nicky van Foreest doesn’t have that luxury. He has six children and has to keep moving from room to room. ‘When the twins are downstairs, I can work in their room. When they come back, I go looking for a different spot.’ In the meantime, his wife homeschools the twins, who are twelve.
Fortunately, the Van Foreest family are no strangers to homeschooling; they started with their oldest, Dutch chess champion Jorden. He has since finished school. The twins originally went to a regular high school, so they are still getting used to the situation. ‘They think that because they don’t have to go to school, they’re on vacation. Plus, they’re teenagers, with all that that entails.’
But even their school is slowly getting back into the swing of things. ‘They have to video call with their teacher a lot.’ Whenever that happens, the associate professor of economics has to find another room to work in. ‘No, it’s not an ideal situation’, says Van Foreest. He’d rather be in his office in the Duisenberg building. ‘Why can’t they let us work there? It’d be so easy to keep our distance from each other.’
Even if the university does open up again, Ćurčić-Blake, Stroebe, and Olthof still wouldn’t be able to go back to work. Who would take care of their children? Until the schools open up again, we’ll just have to accept that we’ll be less productive, all three say.
You should keep working at night in on the weekends
Stroebe’s manager has made it clear that expectations have been lowered for the time being, she says. But the scientific deadlines aren’t changing. ‘There’s some pressure there. In my particular field of science, people think you should keep working at night and on the weekends.’
Olthof isn’t worried about that kind of pressure. He’s much more concerned that online teaching will become the new normal. ‘I really enjoy the interaction and mutual inspiration in my job, so I’m scared.’
Ćurčić-Blake will be fine, at least for a while. She’s even found a way to enjoy this time. ‘Normally, I’d feel guilty for not being home to take care of my kids. That feeling is gone entirely.’
She is worried about her parents’ health, since they are abroad, and about what the future holds for her children. ‘They should be able to go to school, to play, to exercise.’
Stroebe is also overcome by worries. ‘This is such a unique time. In any other situation we’d at least know how to handle it because we’ve seen it before. But we’ve got no idea right now. I can’t predict whether I’ll be able to travel abroad in October, or when I can safely hug my parents again.’