A team of researches and a graduate student from the University of Lethbridge recently expressed their frustrations with having to take on the roles of both full-time parents and academics amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in a detailed article published in EMBO Reports.
Luc Roberts is a Ph.D. student in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, who has a two-year-old toddler. When the pandemic hit, his wife had to continue her job as a front-line medical worker — leaving him to become the primary caregiver of his son.
Struggling to work on his thesis given his new responsibilities, he became perplexed by suggestions that “he should be even more productive at home with so much free time to devote to writing and publishing.”
“Let’s be honest, unless my thesis is going to be about the sounds farmyard animals make — co-authored by my son of course — it is not getting written,” Roberts said in the article.
“It feels as though I have to choose between my child and a scientific career, and as much as I love science, I am always going to pick my family.”
University of Lethbridge researchers in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, Drs. H.J. Wieden and Ute Kothe, co-authored the article with Roberts.
The pair are married and also have three children of their own, ages seven, 11, and 22. Two of their children are currently at home with them in Germany. Their eldest is away at university.
They too are facing similar societal pressures.
“Because we are in Germany, our shutdown happened a little bit earlier than it happened in Canada,” recalled Wieden.
“For us, it happened twice, the university shut down and then daycare shut down, so basically we were stuck at home with the children and still having to work with the Canadian side of things,” he said.
Kothe says the constant need to multitask between parenting and work can often be very overwhelming, leaving her to feel as though neither job can be completed sufficiently — especially during a global pandemic when fewer resources are available.
“You can’t be the good mother you want to be, because you have to send your kids away,” said Kothe.
“You can’t be the professor you want to be or supervisor to your students… because your kids are coming in every 10 minutes, interrupting any meeting you have with your students,” she added.
With the age-old struggle, the group believes there is an outstanding perception that dedicated researchers are devoted to their craft because it is more important. However, Wieden, Kothe and Roberts disagree.
“Without any doubt, the well-being of our children and family is most important,” said Kothe in a release.
“But it is not only for selfish reasons that our children must be the highest priority.
“They will be a generation who has experienced and been shaped by the pandemic — the greatest global crisis since the Second World War.”
Kothe added that building resilient institutions that are better prepared to handle future threats and pandemics is important.
The researchers also recognize that all parents have an essential job.
The trio also argues that implementing access to affordable child-care and policies, allowing for adequate family time, is imperative for having a healthy work-life balance and reducing stress.
“The current structure of the academic system — funding, publishing incentives and career options — disadvantages parents and women in particular,” Wieden said.
“The present pandemic deepens the already existing divide between parenting researchers and their peers without such obligations. In the long run, this will negatively affect recruiting and retaining junior researchers and maintaining a diverse talent pool,” he said.
As a result, the trio feels the community may be losing valuable scientific contributors who place familial priorities on a higher level.
In turn, the team is calling for an overhaul of the academic system, since too many researchers have to choose between their work-life or having a family — and vice versa.
“We’ve sort of backed ourselves into a corner here with academia, you apparently can’t have kids and be competitive, because it’s much more difficult, now you’ve got this extra thing,” Roberts said.
He added that applying for competitive grants, and staying on top of authoring compelling research can take a toll on those who also value time and commitments to their families.
“There are some larger things we can do on the policy level by looking at what extra things people are doing, maybe compare the quality of their research opposed to the quantity of their research,” Roberts said.
“Now is the time to completely re-think the academic system.”
“It is critical that we analyze the effects of the pandemic on parenting researchers and trainees and seize the opportunity to thoroughly revamp the academic system and not simply go back to the old routine once it is over.”