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How graduate student parents are navigating U of T during COVID-19

English department members on time constraints, child care, difficulty accessing resources
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ANANYA ANANTH/THE VARSITY
ANANYA ANANTH/THE VARSITY

With repeated shutdowns of schools and daycares, the pandemic has been a challenging time for graduate student parents. Between balancing their own work and taking care of their children, student parents have reported feeling overwhelmed.

“Many members of our community must balance family obligations with studies and/or work,” a U of T spokesperson noted in an email to The Varsity. “As an open and inclusive organization, one of our priorities is to foster a family-friendly learning and working environment. This has been critically important during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Varsity interviewed several U of T graduate student parents in the English department on the challenges they’re facing and the resources available to them. 

Time constraints 

One of the biggest issues graduate student parents face during the pandemic is a lack of time. In an email to The Varsity, Jessica Elkaim, a fifth-year PhD student, described a busy day filled with her and her partner rotating between child care, housework, and schoolwork. “I always plan to do more work after she’s asleep but I’m always too exhausted,” she wrote. “I’m exhausted just describing what our days look like.”

Elkaim is a new parent whose daughter was born in July 2020. “I don’t know what parenting looks like outside of a pandemic but I would think confinement and social isolation have definitely exacerbated the normal challenges of being new parents,” Elkaim added. 

“We can’t ask anyone for help and it’s difficult to give each other a break because there’s nowhere to go. We haven’t had any time to ourselves since she was born.”  

Titilola Aiyegbusi, a first-year PhD student — whose children are aged two, five, and seven — said in an interview with The Varsity that because of school closures, taking care of her children monopolized her attention during the day. “I wasn’t getting enough sleep, but I couldn’t afford to sleep too because I just didn’t have the hours,” she said, recalling that she often went to bed at 10:00 pm and woke up around 2:00 am. This meant that she could squeeze in four working hours before her children woke up. 

“Once the kids get up, that’s it. You really can’t do much.” 

Part of this was due to the difficulty of navigating her children’s Zoom school on top of her own studies. “I have two kids having Zoom classes,” she said, noting that especially for her seven year old and five year old, “I just can’t leave them to navigate the computer by themselves.” She described moving back and forth between her children’s Zoom classes, ensuring they were engaged in school and working the technology properly. 

“You can’t even afford to be stressed because the stress requires time,” she said. 

Aparna Menon, an English master’s student, wishes she had time to do more research for her seminar papers. “You do papers where you would ideally like to read more, but you don’t, simply because you run out of time,” she said in an interview with The Varsity

Ironically, several students said that parenting during the pandemic had improved their time management skills. “Having a child to take care of has made me much more efficient with my time,” wrote Elkaim. “I get a lot more writing done now in few hours than I ever did before.”

“It does make you more productive,” Menon said, saying that student parents need to be “very specific and completely rigid in terms of time schedule.” She added, “I think I’ve heard this from almost every parent of the group.” 

Parent first, student second

The parents described that, unlike other distractions, parenting isn’t something that can be turned off. “It is very stressful,” Aiyegbusi said. “You can’t stop being a parent. It’s not something you can take a break from, especially when there’s nowhere to go.”

She found it difficult to find time for classes, reading, writing, and grading when she couldn’t put her children in schools or daycare. During this time, Aiyegbusi would set up her daughter’s high chair behind her on Zoom so that she could keep an eye on her daughter during classes and meetings.

“You can’t put an 18 month old in front of the TV for three hours… You have to ensure that they are safe,” she said. 

“I realized that I couldn’t drop the ball on parenting,” said Aiyegbusi. “I tried not to drop the ball on my studies, but I couldn’t drop the ball on parenting.” 

Elkaim wrote that having young children at home can prove especially distracting while teaching or in meetings. “I normally enjoy talking to students about their writing but it’s been very stressful to schedule and hold office hours from home,” she wrote. “My daughter has a knack for throwing fits when I’m on Zoom.”

“Honestly, getting a PhD is a piece of cake compared to parenting,” she added. 

Julie Prior, a PhD student, said in an interview with The Varsity that when the pandemic first hit, she had to manage her schoolwork while taking care of a two year old and a four year old full time. She shared an anecdote about being at a Family Care Office (FCO) Zoom workshop that offered strategies for keeping up with work while caring for children at home. 

“All you could hear in the background was little kids begging their parents to give them attention,” Prior said. “This whole workshop was supposed to be about how to keep doing your job while you have kids at home and it was almost just comical.” 

Many student parents struggle with unique challenges. “It’s a little more complicated for me, because he also has special needs,” Menon said of her three-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum. “There [are] the added challenges which come with that, like attention span.” She added that “getting him… to do therapy or something online… was hard.”

Resources for parents 

In the graduate English department, master’s and PhD student parents have formed a group chat where they can share resources and offer one another support during what may feel like an alienating and stressful time. 

Aiyegbusi recalled speaking up about “feeling isolated” during a meeting of the Graduate English Association’s Equity and Diversity Committee. “All these other students are single students,” she said. “They might not know my realities and it’s hard for me to ask [them] for help.” 

Others expressed a similar desire to connect with other student parents. “It’s been comforting to know other parents in the program are out there,” wrote Elkaim.

However, there are official university resources aside from such informal communities.

Prior said that she was drawn to U of T because of the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3902’s leave policies. She cited the union’s Childcare Financial Assistance Fund, through which Unit One workers can be reimbursed for any child care expenses provided either by a child care centre, babysitter, or the students themselves if they are the child’s primary caregiver.

According to a U of T spokesperson, the university offers many resources for student parents. “Our Family Care Office provides faculty, librarians, staff and students with information about childcare options near the University, near their place of work or near their home,” they wrote. 

“Campus childcare services began re-opening in August and we plan to be operating by September at the optimal capacity permitted under the local Public Health COVID requirements.”    

The spokesperson also pointed to the Parental Grant program offered through the School of Graduate Studies.

While U of T does offer resources for student parents, many student parents may not know about them. “I want to believe [that] U of T is supportive,” said Aiyegbusi. “[But] we’re so overwhelmed that we don’t even know where or how to get the support.”

“Child care subsidies and parental grants are available but finding those resources in the first place is difficult,” added Elkaim. “Applying to all the resources I was eligible for and organizing my maternity leave were very frustrating. I received a lot of conflicting information and was still filling out forms and chasing people down a month after my daughter was born despite starting the process months early, before the pandemic.”

Menon added that while financial support is available, “a lot of that… is available only at the PhD level, not so much at the [master’s] level.” 

Menon said that she hadn’t specifically looked to U of T for support with her child’s autism, “but at the same time… I feel like maybe this is something that we should begin having a conversation about.” 

Disclosure: Isabel Armiento is an MA rep on the Graduate English Association.