header photo

The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Carework and COVID-19: Rhetoric in (Un)Conventional Spaces

Luciana M. Herman, M.A.

Table of Contents

Keywords: parenting, military spouse, gratitude

Categories: Creatively Caring for Self, Others, and Place; Somewhere in Between: Grad Student Perspectives

2020 was the longest, most acute, cluster-blur of my life. When COVID broke out in March of 2020, I moved from juggling everything in my life, to dropping it all on the floor. My husband was deployed (and due home soon from his 9-month tour in Afghanistan); I was finishing the second semester of coursework for my Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition; I had kept my two, small kids (5 and 7 at the time) alive, healthy, and reasonably unscathed by all the upheaval in their lives; I was blissfully teaching First-Year Composition (FYC); and I was proud of myself for all the aforementioned. And then, on Friday (March) the 13th, my life came to a screeching halt with seemingly deadly force.

My kids didn’t return to school in person, so that meant that in addition to my own studies as a student and my teaching of FYC, I was now figuring out how to facilitate Kindergarten and 2nd grade online. That first weekend of the pandemic, I ensured that my kids had Chromebooks and figured out how to show them the proper way to use them, irrespective of their YouTube Kids watching while I was in class on the computer at night. My daughter was beginning to learn to read, so I taped “sight word” cards all over the house, and my son’s math homework had already eclipsed my abilities. I constantly worried if I was the best person for the job–as their teacher and their mom.

To make matters worse, my husband’s deployment was extended indefinitely. There was no safe way to move his unit home and to replace it with a new unit, so the military stood at attention in place while I sat on my couch and waited. He came home safely in June (thank God), but by then my litany of summer classes were already in full swing and my kids were home all day, every day because there were no camps open to save my life (and sanity).

This isn’t a sob story; it’s one of impressive and surprising innovation. Instead of succumbing to every punch COVID-19 threw at me, I chose to test myself by it. What could I do to make my teaching better? How could I use the resources available to me to continue my studies and put out meaningful, publishable work? How can my children use technology to mitigate the absence(s) felt by not having access to their friends, school, teachers, and family members who live so far away? How can we thrive despite the hardship?

We (my kids and I) took to the kitchen to add elements of performance and materiality to reading and writing. We worked through issues while kneading dough, layering ingredients in sauces, tending the garden, and drawing pictures. We shared conversations in (un)conventional spaces: in the car on a drive around the neighborhood, sitting in the closet while we cleaned out old clothes, around the fire pit when we wanted to get some air, on the driveway while we decorated it with chalk, and together in my bed each night as we revelled in the glow of our Kindles before bed.

We journaled through coloring, drawing, and upcycling. We became mindful of the daily practices we enjoy and what they create for others. We made up stories, and my kids helped me brainstorm topics for research. We asked silly and serious questions, and searched for answers together. This type of organic composition had been foreign to me before, but is now an integral part of my process. My children instilled a sense of community composition in me and taught me to revere the novice’s point of view as something fresh and critical.

This shift was uncomfortable and remains that way. I recognize that my situation, while common, was also uniquely uncommon. Living in El Paso, quarantine was not awful–we live in a neighborhood outlined by gorgeous hiking trails and in a climate that sees sun 300 days a year. My kids, as military BRATs, are used to change and having plans canceled; they rarely spend birthdays with their family and are champions at using video calls to stay in touch with loved ones. UTEP, where I teach and am enrolled as a student, met the pandemic head on and was proactive in its response. Additionally, I have used grocery ordering options for years; I have never missed going to the store. Yet, I am not everyone.

I watched many people struggle and I felt for them. It’s as if the axis of the world (and the family) shifted–suddenly parents were shouldering not only the responsibilities of working, paying bills, and parenting, but also jumping into the roles of daytime caretakers, teachers, chefs, handy-people, and the like. The concept of “carework” took on a completely new meaning. What were we going to do now? What would we prioritize? How would we (parents) care for ourselves while also bearing the weight of the world on our shoulders? How would we navigate caring for our fellow people while also heeding the guidance of the CDC and protecting ourselves and our families?

As adults, we struggle to keep pace with work or find new work if we’ve had to reinvent ourselves and shift careers. Working from home isn’t a luxury, it’s a challenging necessity. Suddenly, our homes are now co-working spaces, peppered with pets, spouses, kids, and clutter. Our couches became places where we met online with clients, redefined “business casual,” and wore in the cushions while creating new professional meaning. Even now, many of us have returned to our brick-and-mortar offices, but often have to shift to tele-working when pressing situations arise (read: COVID breaks out or when our kids have ANY symptoms). The known unknown is enough to trigger immense anxiety and turn all our hair gray, but didn’t COVID keep some of us from the salon long enough to embrace that, too?

We became a community and continue to redefine senses of meaning individually, yet together. We look to see how others are weathering the new normal, maybe adopt what they’re doing, maybe adapt their practices to what works for us in our spaces, and charge ahead. For all of the “public” (i.e., social media) shaming that happens on a daily basis with regard to parenting, attitudes about vaccinations, in-person/remote working, and the like, the abundance of perspective sharing moves organic composition to the forefront. Our expressions, embodiments, and actions are working in concert to revamp our identities and define the (rhetorical) situation we’re in. We’re all moving through this time period at the same speed and all trying to come out on the other side a little better for it.

What about our kids, though? For them, this has been/is normal. They are ready to revert to online schooling at a moment’s notice, are overly aware of when they have the sniffles, and realize that life can change in an instant. It is as if every playdate has now become a treasure, anytime they can go to the trampoline park becomes a golden opportunity, and wearing a mask has become another outfit accessory used to express themselves. They have learned how to assess situations with skills beyond their years: They know to socially distance, appreciate who is in the room versus focusing who isn’t, turn their attention to instruction in myriad forms, and savor the experiences they get to have even if they look different than they would have in the “before times.”

Before COVID, I was a mom, but I think I’m a better mom now. My “carework” increased exponentially and became the center of my everything--every decision I make as a student and teacher harkens back to how I’ve navigated the pandemic WITH my kids, and not for them.



Luciana Herman has just entered PhD candidacy in The University of Texas at El Paso’s Rhetoric and Composition program and currently works as a professional materials consultant. In addition to her research in technical communication, the rhetoric of health and medicine, material rhetorics, and UX/UCD, she is deeply pulled toward the art of impactful storytelling in myriad ways and validating lived experiences. Beyond her professional life, Luciana is a dedicated Army wife and loving mom of her two kids and dog. 

Table of Contents