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Maintaining Work-Family Boundaries during COVID-19

By Karen Austin

The first part of quarantine felt like an adventure. I had a lot of adrenaline concerning getting my adult children home to shelter with us. I had to stock up on supplies while being careful about going out. I started reading updates from CDC, WHO, and CIDRAP about how the virus functions. And I had to file grades for the Spring 2020 semester.

Now that we are in Week 12 of quarantine, the adrenaline has gone. I’m trying to manage changes or challenges to my roles as family member and employee.

Who is doing the extra meal prep and extra dishes now that most meals are eaten at home? Who is doing the shopping? For other women, I wonder: Who is helping the school-aged children with their homework? Who is watching the toddlers and infants?

For example, I had a Zoom meeting with another university employee who had to manage her three-year-old son. I assured her repeatedly that I was fine. I raised two children, and I have had to juggle similar situations. I told her a story or two from my son’s toddler days to show empathy.

I do like to run my own kitchen, and it’s my choice to wash hand towels daily for increased hygiene. And it’s my choice to read reports by virologists and epidemiologists every day. And increases in anxiety and depression have compromised my cognition a bit.  With all these added pressures (some self-created), I really need to be more strategic about getting my paid work done.

I still have some paid work, but I’m designing a new course for Fall 2021 on global aging, so I don’t have students to help motivate me through the process, but I do have a messy house and hungry family members physically present.

I’m not the only one trying to establish boundaries between these roles of employee and family member. Insider Higher Ed reports that submissions to academic journals by men have increased with quarantine; however, submissions by women have fallen. This is a bigger problem for women striving for tenure and promotion, and I am an adjunct.

In addition to striving to protect time for paid work, I am also trying to respond to increased levels of anxiety and depression among all members of our family.

We have different biorhythms for eating, sleeping, and exercising. And we have different degrees of need for social interaction. It’s nearly impossible to get everyone’s needs lined up perfectly in a day. Consequently, at least one of us is grumpy about being off schedule or wrestling with an unmet need.

Even though I feel as though I’m swimming through concrete most days. I’m trying to focus on my paid work from 8 am to 12 noon (my peak cognition time). I’m trying to exercise every day, even though working out alone is less motivating. I’m exploring new ways to put oil in my lamp.

I have a better day when I express gratitude and serve family and friends instead of focusing on my own losses and challenges. For example, I’m trying to reach out to at least one friend or extended family member a day, to see how she’s doing. And I’m trying to give myself permission to be a little less productive, considering the circumstances.

What types of things are you doing to help you manage challenges to your roles and responsibilities in response to various challenges presented by COVID-19?

About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

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