CAREER COLUMN

Screams on a Zoom call: the theory of homeworking with kids meets reality

Neurobiologist Anne-Laure Mahul-Mellier has found life under lockdown harder than she thought.
Anne-Laure Mahul-Mellier is a senior neurobiologist working in the Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology and Neuroproteomics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.
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Female professional with two sons working at home.

There are no easy solutions to balancing work and family during the lockdown.Credit: Simon Ritzmann/Getty

The flood of e-mails began on Sunday 15 March. All schools in Switzerland had been closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and teachers were sending instructions about what they expected me to teach my sons, aged eight and nine, in the coming weeks. The next set of e-mails provided a list of homework assignments, which had to be printed, taught, corrected, scanned and returned to the teachers by the end of the week. The same evening, I received WhatsApp notifications about four new parent–teacher groups. At the same time, my university, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), had been closed to all but essential staff, so I would have to work from home. Suddenly, I had become a full-time mum, teacher and research scientist. My husband, who also takes care of the kids under normal circumstances, is part of a team that manages a hospital, and so is unable to work from home.

On Monday morning, the adventure of working remotely started. I made a plan of the day and printed out teaching and homework assignments for the kids, and we even agreed on a reward system for good conduct. Our workstations were organized side by side so I could keep an eye on my children and help them if they faced any difficulties. It was 9 a.m., the weather was nice and I still believed I would control the course of the day. After all, planning is one of my strengths.

I had my first lab meeting at 10 a.m., over the videoconferencing app Zoom. For quietness, I asked the children to go outside to play, hoping there would be no disasters. By 10.30 a.m., the meeting was going well: the online connection was fluid, my colleagues were taking an active part and the discussions flowed well. But suddenly I heard my youngest boy screaming. I muted the microphone and went outside, only to find him fallen from his bike, with broken glasses. At that exact moment, I realized that the coming days and weeks would be more complicated than expected.

From then on, I tried to keep my work day going, but was constantly interrupted by meals to prepare, conflicts to be resolved, homework to help with and questions to answer.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted even though I hadn’t moved from my house, and I hadn’t taken a single moment for myself. I found myself moving 30 minutes of pilates — one of a handful of resolutions I had wanted to keep during this period — off my schedule.

On Tuesday morning, I realized that I was falling behind in my work, and my stress and anxiety levels went up a notch. I contacted my lab leader, Hilal Lashuel, to reorganize my priorities and bring them more in line with my new routine. We had created a detailed plan for how the team should work and collaborate remotely, but I had failed to realize the level of disruption I would face. He reassured me and reminded me that the key message of our research continuity plan was to give priority to families and their well-being. I felt reassured for a moment, but then the reality of life in the COVID-19 world hit me again.

On Wednesday, notifications from WhatsApp groups — from the lab, my kids’ teachers, parents — and Slack work groups, e-mails and Zoom meetings became incessant. My kids repeated the previous day’s interruptions. For the first time in my life, I felt I was falling behind the rest of the team.

At this stage, three days into the lockdown, my guilt about not doing enough for either my job or my children was at its peak. To top it all off, scientists around the world started publishing articles and infographics, on Twitter and elsewhere, to explain the positive effects that remote work and COVID-19-related confinement had had on their creativity. My social-media timeline was alight with success stories as I faced another day of faltering productivity and guilt.

And here I broke down. I shared my concerns and feelings with my boss. His response was straightforward: I should take the time necessary to bounce back by reflecting on my experience and sharing it with our scientific community.

So, I started talking to colleagues, friends and family members. I quickly realized that most of the parents working from home shared the same situation and the difficulties that I was facing. It was good to know that I was not the only one. We have rapidly formed parental support groups — which means more WhatsApp notifications, but that’s OK. It helps us to alleviate our difficulties, to laugh at the daily bizarre situations caused by kids meeting work, but also, and most importantly, to support and encourage each other.

I have not yet found all the solutions to the difficult equation of reconciling family and professional life in the time of coronavirus. But I’m working on it. After all, I am a researcher: finding solutions is my job. In the meantime, it’s nice to know that I am not alone.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01296-7

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