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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Collapsed Time: Stories of Two Academic Caregivers and a Call to Action

Jessica Jorgenson Borchert and Brooke Kowalke

Table of Contents

Keywords: parenting; anxiety; child loss

Categories: Parenting and Possibility in Impossible Times; Sick/Disabled Bodyminds during Sick/Disabling Times

Content warning: child loss

Abstract: Our contribution is both a collaboration and an individual contribution where we each share our own story of academic care work during a global pandemic. Our narratives are arranged through individual timelines, with an added section of reflection shared by each of us following our individual timelines. Our contribution ends with a Call to Action where we share a set of guidelines, or guiding principles, professional organizations and academic institutions might consider in efforts to support academic caregivers within their organic spaces.


Jessica’s Story


March 15, 2020: As a parent to twin toddlers, I always had to think about how I was managing time between family obligations and my work schedule. Before the pandemic, I had a solid schedule between parenting and work time. I would often get to my office at about 7am each day so that I could leave before 4pm to spend time with my kids and take over the role as “primary parent” from my spouse, who is a stay-at-home parent. Life went smoothly, or as smoothly as life could with two-year-old twins. But when the news arrived that our campus would be moving to remote instruction on March 15, 2020 after spring break, I felt the boundaries between work and family collapse into themselves where my work time fell into caregiving time. I remember feeling emotions of panic and worry: panic about how I would manage working from home and worry of how this might affect my tenure and promotion.

Like many institutions, we were all given time to prepare to move our classes online. All faculty at my institution were provided with a two-week space of time to prepare for remote instruction. I had taught online before, so online teaching was not new, but I still needed to make some changes to my Canvas course so that students could work through the content remotely. Along with this, as Director of Writing Across the Curriculum, I provided support to faculty for their writing to learn courses, and many of these faculty had not taught online before.[1] This meant during the two weeks faculty had to prepare courses for remote instruction, I was often creating videos and resources to help guide and support faculty through moving their courses online. During the last few days of that two-week period, I had some time to prepare my own courses.

Once classes resumed, instead of having uninterrupted time in my office to work, I now found myself working in a space of two hours while my partner watched the kids. I had only a couple solid hours because of the demands of parenting: our twins had a routine, and naps and mealtimes became challenging to work through, so I simply started to stop working during those times. I also worked upstairs in our bedroom, hoping it would provide me with some solace to work, but my kids slept in the next room so teaching synchronously while they had naps proved impossible. However, being unable to teach synchronously as I had planned worked in my students’ benefit as well since many of them had unreliable internet access or no internet access to attend synchronous class sessions. If they had access, they seemed to have no time between the demands of other classes and their own jobs and other obligations.

I had some hope during spring 2020. My kids were learning to be more independent and so could play on their own and they were both able to eat independently with some help getting up to the table to eat. But they were also still 2.5 years old and required daily care and supervision. Often, I would find myself managing childcare while also completing smaller work tasks, like responding to emails or grading quizzes and other short assignments using the Canvas mobile app. Occasionally this collapsed time made me feel more productive, and productivity was something I needed to feel, in part because of my Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I felt productive because I was doing so much and all at once. But in reality nothing was sustained for long periods of time, which left me without any publications after four years of being able to share that I had published something for each year I was in pre-tenure status.

Despite time collapsing into itself, where work and childcare became blended in a haze of activity, I found that I could attend and do things I normally couldn’t do. Traveling to conferences was something I could do only if I was presenting at them, and only for a short time, because of my university’s reimbursement policies. My family lives only on my income, so I had to be pragmatic about my conference travel. I would typically fly out and stay long enough so I could present and then fly back home to continue in my role as parent. With the pandemic, I could attend conferences, even if I wasn’t presenting, since I did not have the added expense or travel and did not have to commit to being away for a few days. Granted, it was still a difficult balance in this collapsed time, since again both work and childcare were blended together, in a haze of action.

Fall 2020: We returned back to campus, which also meant I returned back to campus. This change allowed me more time to work without the added childcare or family needs, but I was concerned for my safety and the safety of those around me. We weren’t out of a pandemic. As a response, I cut down on hours spent on campus, trying to keep myself and my family safe. I chose to work on campus Mondays-Thursdays until 3pm when I would leave and take over parenting duties. I made Fridays, a non-teaching day, a day I would work asynchronously from home, unless I had an in person meeting I had to attend.

Spring 2021-Present: I realized that not being in the office each day was hard to manage, so I increased work hours. I am also scheduled to teach every day in the spring semester, so I spend each day on campus, even if my students are asynchronous or online for the day. I find working in my office to be less stressful. In the spring of 2021, I learned I received tenure and promotion effective fall 2021. In fall 2021, our campus fully opens. I am no longer working remotely, but the trauma of remote work is still there.



Most of the year 2020 is memories of grief and anger. I grieved my uninterrupted work time, a consistent work schedule, where I could return to the office and not be interrupted by requests for snacks or other needs from my kids. I also felt angry: angry that others didn’t realize how hard it was to work from home while parenting small children. Anger and grief filled me, both of which carry rhetorical actions. During the pandemic, my grief and anger became a social action through personal stories of losing loved ones along with the stories of other academic mothers, carrying around the weight of their children as they attended another remote meeting.

Sometimes in my grief, I found myself missing the person I was before kids. I longed for her, that person I once was. That was my grief.

A TikTok trend emerged in the summer of 2021 where mothers were sharing how they missed who they were before having children. These videos were full of images of their before-kids selves, but also near the end featured images of themselves as parents, and as a viewer watched it was almost like they could see the change happen in those years. It really touched me and actually made me emotional when I created my own TikTok, which I have shared below.

A bespectacled woman with brown hair and bangs framing her face holds a blue cup. In white superimposed text reads,

The video above includes a montage of photos of myself and of my children. The video is focused on how even though I love my children, it is sometimes hard to think about the person I was before kids, and the personal freedom I had before kids. Looking back, I am not sure how I feel about the video now. I do love being a mom, but being a mom is hard, and it has been harder during the pandemic.

I’m still processing my feelings of grief and anger as I write this. For me, it’s a reconstruction of self, of time, of my own values. I’m trying to find ways to advocate. To take action.


Brooke’s Approach


March 12, 2020: I started the day by taking my son to kindergarten amidst growing concern that the virus that was spreading so rapidly abroad had come to us in the center of the US. I was on sabbatical, working on what I was calling “Career 2.0” as I shifted gears professionally to focus on the medical humanities. During this period, my son went to kindergarten every day and to daycare afterwards on MWF. My daughter also went to daycare three days a week, and was home with me on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This was the most consistent childcare I had ever had, and part of my sabbatical was spent trying to relearn more typical work patterns, rather than constantly trying to work while also taking care of little ones as I had been doing. The 12th, a Thursday, meant that my youngest was home with me, but she likes to play independently and so I was able to do some reading and planning for the writing I would do the next day. Self-care was part of my plan for my sabbatical, so we snuck in a little nap together and then I returned to reading and planning that afternoon while she played nearby. The rhythm of my work life and caregiving life felt relatively healthy, perhaps for the first time since becoming a mother. Then, that night, we got a phone call: the WHO had declared a global pandemic and school was canceled for the next two weeks. An extended Spring Break, they called it. Beginning the next day.

March 13, 2020: I sent the kids to daycare Friday morning and attempted to continue on with my sabbatical work with the intention of tackling the writing plans I had made the day before. Instead, my mind swirled with anxious thoughts about the pandemic. I read every news item I could find (and there were plenty), searching for the answer to the pressing question of what I should do: should the kids stay in daycare, or should I keep them home? What kinds of risks were we facing and how could we best mitigate them? What was our responsibility to our kids individually? And what was our duty from a public health perspective? My mind would not settle down. Thoughts crashed into each other like the waves of a stormy ocean. As my anxiety level grew, I knew that whether the kids were in daycare or at home, my concentration was gone. One thing became clear: my sabbatical was, for all intents and purposes, over. Career 2.0 would have to be put on hold. Taking care of my family--and, by extension, my community--would have to take priority. When I picked the kids up from daycare that afternoon, I decided they wouldn’t be going back.

Spring 2020-Summer 2021: In the weeks and months that followed, I found myself back to what felt familiar--a constant struggle to be present as a caregiver to my children, while also keeping up with my work. Initially, I felt like “super-mom,” able to do fun things with my children during the day, while keeping up with small tasks like email and grading discussion boards, and then, after they were in bed, staying up to do the rest of my work into the wee hours of the morning before going to bed so I could get up and do it all again. But as time went on, burnout set in and so did anger. I found myself angry at everyone all the time; my patience wore thin and my exhaustion was real. While this scenario is certainly not unique to me, I soon began to realize it was utterly unsustainable. However, alongside this very real burnout, I also realized Career 2.0 was not over. It was significantly changed, but once the whole world was dealing with not being able to travel (something I had been dealing with since becoming a mother in 2014), some things became more accessible for me. What I thought were my own personal and professional failings—going from presenting at two or more conferences a year from the time of my hire in 2004 until 2010, to attending no conferences in the years following my tenure and the start of my years of having children in 2014, 2016, and 2017—were exposed as access issues that the profession was able to accommodate once the whole population was affected. By the end of 2020, I had presented at two virtual conferences on topics related to my new focus in medical humanities. So far, in 2021, I have attended one conference, I have presented at two overseas conferences which would have been entirely inaccessible to me in the “before times,” I have had papers accepted at two domestic conferences that will take place this fall, and I am giving an invited talk. All of this is possible because all of these opportunities were made available virtually. The difference is stark. Sure, I’ve had to turn off my camera and mute my microphone in order to get someone apple juice or settle a sibling dispute during panels I attended; and, I’ve presented papers at 3:30 am due to time zone differences. The juggling act of caregiving while attending and presenting at conferences has been taxing. But, for the first time in such a long time, I can participate.



What stands out the most to me about this is that my working conditions in the past 17 months have been far worse than usual. I worked entirely from home (like so many of us), and I had my 7-year-old and 3-year-old home with me full-time, with the exception of my youngest doing a short stint back at daycare from mid-August through early November before I felt like she needed to be at home again when case numbers skyrocketed. I homeschooled my 7-year-old, and I had to do most of it myself since my husband’s job is inflexible and we don’t have a “bubble” of local family or friends to help with childcare, etc. It hasn’t been pretty, it’s taken a significant toll on me emotionally and physically, and I certainly wouldn’t want to go on this way. But, it also made clear to me that when professional activities are made more accessible to those of us who cannot travel—whether because of childcare issues, financial concerns, disabilities, and more—we can and will participate.

Alongside the joy of finding participation in professional activities to be more accessible, there was also grief. I lost my sabbatical—time I was planning to spend focused on writing my memoir, the story of mothering our middle daughter, Grace, who had Trisomy-18 and who died when she was five months old. I didn’t have nearly enough time with her in my arms; my sabbatical was going to be time for me to spend with her as I wrote. And, for a couple of months it was. I spent days writing about her, processing my ongoing grief, and reading stories of how others have survived child loss as I worked on telling my own. Then, when the pandemic was declared and we decided to keep our other kids home, I was grateful for the opportunity to keep them safely at home. Having lost one child, despite doing everything we could to help her medically, my anxiety about losing another is always high and it certainly increased with the news of the pandemic. The privilege of being able to keep them home and out of harm’s way was not lost on me.

At the same time, I grieved that lost time for professional renewal that my sabbatical promised. And, as the pandemic continued into the 2020-21 academic year and I taught remotely so that my kids could continue to stay home, I grieved being able to go to my office and be around colleagues and students. I felt the loss of a professional identity as I sat in my home office decorated with kid art and learned to roll with the surprise kid visits during my classes on Zoom or to quickly shift to conducting class from my cell phone when my home internet crashed in the middle of a lecture.

As we begin another school year, still in the midst of the pandemic, and with Delta throwing us a curveball, my kids have returned to school and so have I. I am anxious about our health and safety—especially that of my kids who are too young to be vaccinated yet. And, I am anxious that the “return to normal” we are being called into will mean we lose some of the accessibility that the pandemic brought us. I’m sure that I don’t want to return to the “normal” we had before. I’m sure that we can learn from the ways this pandemic has, and continues to, lay bare inequities and fractures. I’m sure that we can do better. We can, if we so choose, create a new normal. A better normal. A more inclusive, compassionate, caring normal.


Our Call to Action

With our combined grieving in action, we come together to provide a set of guidelines that institutions and organizations can adapt or use as a guideline to support academic caregivers, and many others working from home caregivers at this time. This policy statement takes into account our narratives, as well as the constraints others face. However, we realize that this statement may not fit all needs. We identify as white cisgender women, one of us queer, and each of us able-bodied. One of us has a partner who is a stay-at-home parent, allowing her privileges other academic caregivers do not have. We recognize the privileges we have in saying that what we faced during the pandemic were things facing some academic caregivers prior to the pandemic, and acknowledge how the pandemic continues to stretch already thin access to resources and time. But with this acknowledgment, we put forth the following guidelines that we hope would support many academic caregivers. It is important to note such guidelines would also support all academics.


Guidelines: Commitment to Academic Caregivers:

Guideline 1: Institutions as Organic Spaces: The pandemic has made visible the fractured spaces many of us occupy, between work and family, creating a need for institutions to propose flexible work policies that support employees who identify as caregivers. We recognize institutions as organic spaces, or spaces that are locally-informed and context-sensitive. This organic sense of space leaves the potential of academic caregivers to advocate for more inclusive spaces that support academics with obligations toward family and other dependents.

Guideline 2: Creating Flexible Policies: Academic caregivers need flexible policies.  When it comes to policies and procedures of institutions, context matters. Changing any policy may become an almost do-it-yourself (DIY) approach, but such an approach may leave opportunities for academic caregivers to self advocate and/or become involved in institutional governance procedures. It is important that academic caregivers take time to survey their institutional process and procedures, and work to be advocates. Anything that benefits caregivers will benefit most others in that institutional context. Supporting academic caregivers could include extended leaves of absence, flexible scheduling, or remote work environments. Further, finding ways to allow grants or other financial supports aiding academic caregivers in obtaining childcare should be something institutions consider committing to. Funding for such initiatives could come from internal grants or be a part of professional development funds.

Guideline 3: Adaptability of Professional Activities: We have seen how the availability of virtual and hybrid conference formats have aided us as academic caregivers in allowing us the time and flexibility to share our academic and professional voices. We recommend that professional organizations continue to allow virtual and hybrid options that support academic caregivers in their professional and academic endeavors.

Guideline 4: A commitment to continued support: We recommend that any change an institution makes to support academic caregivers continue beyond the pandemic. What has resulted during the pandemic has only laid bare fractures that already existed before the pandemic. It is important we keep flexible and adaptable practices in place.

Finally, we write this knowing that such initiatives are challenging during times when budgets are stretched because of pandemic teaching and learning. However, we wish to argue this is also a time for all institutions to carefully look at what value could be added from supporting academic caregivers that allow for innovation of support systems. 



AAUP (2020). COVID-19, academic mothers, and opportunities for the academy. Retrieved from

Fulweiler, R. W., et al. (2021). Rebuild the academy: Supporting academic mothers during COVID-19 and beyond. Retrieved from

Langin, K. (2021, February 9). Pandemic hit academic mothers hard, study suggests. Retrieved from

Remmel, A. (2021, March 2). Scientists want virtual meetings to stay after the COVID pandemic. Retrieved from

[1] 15% of writing to learn instructors at my institution had taught online prior to the pandemic. 



Jessica Jorgenson Borchert is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. She teaches courses in professional and technical writing and researches motherhood and postpartum/perinatal rhetorics.

Brooke Kowalke is an Assistant Professor of English and Medical Humanities at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. She teaches undergraduate and medical school courses in the medical humanities and researches the literature of grief. 

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