Looking over my chapter1 again from Power Women: Stories of Faith, Motherhood, and the Academy induced a set of mixed feelings. On the one hand, re-reading the words I originally penned in the Fall of 2018 provided encouragement, reminding me of what a privilege it is to pursue both scholarship and motherhood, and how God’s truths about his timing, the seasons in our lives, and reaping/sowing can give solace when these identities seem to conflict. On the other hand, after a year and half of pandemic living, to be perfectly honest, it has been very difficult to hold fast to these promises under such extraordinary circumstances. If anything, the past year and a half of Zoom teaching and working from home has made it more apparent to me than ever before the fragility of attempting to maintain my identity as professor/scholar and parent/mother. I am not alone in this recognition.2
Recent studies have pointed out how the pandemic has disproportionately affected female professors and that this uneven impact holds true even for the general work force.3 What these articles and my own experience have borne out is that many of the noted conflicts already existing for academic mothers – what I named in my chapter as the ideal worker, motherhood, and individualism norms4 – became more visible and fraught during quarantine living. For me, at least, what had previously allowed me to resist the encroachment of the ideal worker and motherhood norms prior to the pandemic was to keep these roles in separate spaces: I taught two days per week on campus, did most of my teaching preparation at my home office, wrote and researched at a nearby academic library, and spent evenings and weekends with my children while juggling laundry, dishes, and dinner, in addition to being actively involved in my church. By allocating particular times and places for each area of my life, it allowed me to pursue all of them mindfully, without trying to squeeze in multiple things at the same time. For me, compartmentalization enabled me to have enough mental and emotional bandwidth for all of these roles if they stayed within their respective predetermined boundaries.
Yet all of the neat divisions I had apportioned for the different responsibilities in my life quickly fell apart after the California state-wide mandate that compelled everyone to stay at home in March 2020. My husband, head of engineering at his company, began working from home full-time and has not resumed working in-person since. My two children (ages 11 and 7 at the time) attended school on Zoom full-time through May 2020 and also for two-thirds of the 2020-2021 academic year. We no longer had access to afterschool care, upon which we had previously relied 2-3 times per week. Those early months, as well as the ensuing year, made me realize how important it was to have actual physically separate spaces as boundaries. Indeed, it reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s yearning for a “room of one’s own,” which was often my own heart’s cry in the past year and a half.
What I want to convey here, which actually surprised me, is the precarity of attempting to pursue research and remain an engaged parent at the same time. Obviously I knew this before, as my chapter testifies, but the pandemic highlighted for me once again just how precarious it was. It wasn’t just the increased domestic labor (more people at home = more dishes in the sink, more food consumed, etc.) but, more importantly, the lack of silence and solitude, which made it difficult to have the focused attention necessary for thinking and writing. More crucially, working from home during the pandemic revived many of the received narratives I held about what it meant to be a “good mom,” ones I thought I had already put aside when I first chose to work full-time outside the home. While I didn’t know how to articulate these intersecting conflicts within me at the time, reading through Jenny H. Pak’s and Christina Lee Kim’s chapters in Power Women recently gave voice to the many tensions I faced while having children at home.5 As an Asian American woman who grew up primarily in ethnic church cultures that subscribed to traditional gender roles, I found it much harder to resist such models once my family was within my constant purview.
Even with an incredibly supportive spouse who tried his best to share equally in domestic responsibilities, I struggled to let go of the motherhood ideal when faced with frequent interaction with my children throughout the day. Each meal time, break time, snack time, and many other daily moments were moments of decision fatigue and self-questioning. Additionally, my university, like many others, felt acutely the pandemic impact on student enrollment, compounding the pressure on faculty to retain students. Not only was I parenting more intensively than before at home, I was also trying to teach and care for students who were themselves understandably exhausted, anxious, and isolated. It was a daily mental and emotional fight not to allow the increased demands of teaching consume me while also resisting the (admittedly, self-imposed) traditional gender expectations from my earlier faith experiences. Throughout the 2020-2021 academic year, I often felt overwhelmed and burnt out, and seriously questioned whether remaining in higher education was a sustainable choice.
Yet there were also moments of joy. My writing became a new source of inspiration and solace, as an outlet for my intellectual and creative life: I tried writing in different genres for the first time, including writing Advent and Lent devotions and a personal reflection essay on becoming a fan of global pop group BTS during the pandemic. I presented new research at an online academic conference in the spring and was also able to complete the final copyedits to a peer-reviewed article that will be coming out this fall. These endeavors, as difficult as it was to make space for them, made me realize, once again, how essential scholarly research and creative pursuits were to my professional and personal well-being. Even as the increased mental and emotional loads of teaching and parenting weighed down my spirit, touching my writing during this season renewed my desire for and excitement in engaging in literary research and cultural analysis, reminding me yet again that the goal was not a binary choice between being a “good mom” or productive scholar-teacher, but seeking to embody my whole self. Caring for and cultivating my own intellectual needs, even in a time of heightened childcare demands, required courage to say yes to my full selfhood.
In “Divvying Up Love,” I questioned whether the language of conflict, division, and fracture might be the best way to characterize how we perceive and embody the twin desires of engaged parenting and scholarly work in our lives. While I acknowledged that their coexistence might often feel like tension, I concluded that both pursuits lead to greater authenticity and awareness of whom God created us to be, thus yielding greater wholeness. While I still believe in those words, I would add now, with the benefit of this past year, that that wholeness has the best chance of taking root and flourishing in the context of two recognitions: First, I must acknowledge the continual effort it takes to resist traditional, culturally- and spiritually-inflected notions of female identity that can stifle my joy and sense of purpose. Striving to embody and pursue multiple roles – as parent, scholar, teacher, wife, and many more – is not a one-time decision but a constant process of being aware of how my culture, faith, gender, and family experiences shape my understanding of what it means to live wholly and faithfully. Second, if it is true that this effort is a continual, and even lifelong process of making adjustments, then administrators and other faculty need to recognize the constant mental, spiritual, and emotional labor experienced by faculty mothers simply in choosing to remain in academia. Please don’t take for granted the internal negotiations, coordination with spouse or other caretakers, strategic planning, disciplined allocation of time, and many other ways we work out our calling to stand in the classroom, write articles, and contribute to committee meetings. We are powerful women, yes; yet that appellation can often feel fragile and fleeting. I hope my reflection makes visible in some way the paradoxical coexistence of power and precarity that marks being a professor mommy.
- “Divvying up Love: Scholarly Ambition and Motherhood as Spiritual Formation” in Power Women: Stories of Motherhood, Faith, and the Academy, eds. Nancy Wang Yuen and Deshonna Collier-Goubil (Downers Grove, IL: 2021), pp.11-26.
- Giuliana Viglione (May 20, 2020), Nature, “Are women publishing less during the pandemic? Here is what the data shows,” https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01294-9; Jillian Kramer (October 6, 2020), “The virus moved female faculty to the brink. Will universities help?,” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/06/science/covid-universities-women.html.
- Andrea Hsu, (September 29, 2020), All Things Considered, NPR, “Working moms are reaching a breaking point during the pandemic,” https://www.npr.org/2020/09/29/918127776/this-is-too-much-working-moms-are-reaching-the-breaking-point-during-the-pandemi; Terry Gross, (Feb 18, 2021), Fresh Air, NPR, “Almost a year into the pandemic, working mothers feel ‘forgotten.’”. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/968930085.
- Page 18, “Divvying up Love.”
- Christina Lee Kim, “The Good Mother,” Power Women, pp. 81-97. Jenny H. Pak also describes the gendered and cultural conflict experienced by Asian American female professors on pp.132-133 of her chapter, “Juggling Multiple Roles: Narrative of a Korean Pastor’s Wife, a Mother, and a Psychology Professor.”