‘Struggling Like Hell:’ How COVID-19 Intensified the Pressure for Teachers Who Are Also Moms

“Ihave never been so tired as when I was a teacher, it is an exhausting career when you are with kids all day long,” said Mary Hermann, associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. The former teacher was able to relate to the struggles that educators expressed in a recent study she co-authored. As schools have moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these women are bearing the brunt of the blurred boundaries between work and home, revealed the U.S.-focused research published in October last year.

The expectations from mothers and teachers got more intense due to the pandemic, observed Hermann. “The word that my participants use is ‘impossible,’” she told Re:Set. As parents, they have the added responsibility of homeschooling and those with younger children are being hit the hardest, she added. Having a separation between school and home allowed these teacher-mothers to “have a break” between their children and their students but now a year into the pandemic, that respite no longer exists with the added burden of household chores. 

Prior to the pandemic, teachers around the world were already overworked and underpaid. Now with technology facilitating education, teachers are also expected to be available around the clock to answer emails and calls from students and their parents. A participant in the study mentioned being so drained that she was unable to breastfeed. “I’m so tired, and I’m trying to pump and there’s nothing,” she told the researchers. “It was kind of this metaphor where ‘I have nothing left to give to my own children,’” Hermann reflected. 

Falling behind on parental responsibilities

The problem isn’t just limited to teachers in America. Around the worldeducators have been navigating the challenges created by the pandemic. In India, there is still little clarity as to when and how schools will be allowed to reopen again while some teachers are still learning the ropes of the technology they need to be able to teach remotely. 

For Dubai-based high school physics teacher Dhanya Geethanjali Sasidharan, her experience of teaching from home since last March while taking care of her 6-year-old daughter has been less than pleasant. While she would be teaching, her child would walk in demanding attention or food. “When everyone is at home and you have to cater to [them all],” she told Re:Set. Despite her strenuous workload, Sasidharan said she feels pangs of “mommy guilt” for not staying on top of her child’s schoolwork. It was only when she took a day off, she learned that her daughter was almost a month behind on her notes and spent the rest of the week trying to fix it. She remarked that this was not the case in the past when teachers were able to ensure that students were completing their assignments.

Work, studies, and family take up most of Sasidharan’s time. Photo courtesy: Dhanya Geethanjali Sasidharan

Her own workload has shifted significantly, especially now that she has returned to school where they are following a blended learning model with half the students opting for remote learning. Many of the students learning from home have become “passive” and inattentive leading to teachers like Sasidharan having to take the extra effort to include them in classes or even alert the higher authorities to inform their parents. She has also gotten additional requests from students asking her to send them videos explaining things.

Sasidharan sends her daughter to babysitting with a laptop to attend her classes but has her doubts about whether she actually partakes. “I’m struggling like hell….I’m not getting time. I’m doing a course so I have my classes on Saturday. Work, studies and my family, that is the current situation,” she said, adding that even when she’s on leave she still teaches the grades that have board examinations or standardized exams.

The balancing act between being a mother and a teacher is synonymous with “perpetual caregiving fatigue,” the study noted. 

This exhaustion is only intensified by the unequal sharing of household responsibilities, the lockdown has shed more light on how the onus often falls on women to do the majority of the childcare and housework. The teacher-mothers reported performing more second-shift activities such as cooking and cleaning than their partners. “This unanticipated and challenging global event has the potential to reveal some of the invisible work of mothers and educators,” said the study’s co-author Julie Gorlewski in a release.

Sandwiched between the pressures of motherhood and teaching, the participants were fully aware they needed time to take care of themselves, Hermann reiterated, but most of them struggle to find time. The research advocates for policy improvements especially for parental leave and family leave as well as mentoring programs to provide new teacher-mothers with the support they need. She pointed out that most women are raised with the need to be perfect and be superwomen, but that’s unhealthy psychologically. “We need to make sure that women have the opportunity to take care of themselves,” Hermann said.

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