Balancing childcare and career in the age of COVID

Dear Labby,

Thank you for your very helpful advice on how to navigate the complicated scheduling required to do bench science in the time of COVID-19 (see the Dear Labby column in the June ASCB Newsletter). As a postdoc with both a preschool and school-age child, it feels like I am faced with impossible choices. I could compromise my children’s safety by putting them in a much-less-than-ideal childcare situation, or postpone my return to the lab, thereby endangering my career. My institution has made returning to work voluntary, and has encouraged PIs to provide flexible work arrangements. Without childcare, I need to stay at home and therefore get left behind. Our local childcare facility is giving priority to essential workers (including research scientists) but is operating at reduced capacity. Besides, between questions about the quality of the limited childcare available (I shopped for months to find the perfect program for my children!), the restrictions that may be involved (preschoolers maintaining a six-foot distance? Have you ever met a preschooler?), and the fear that my family may contract COVID, I don’t see how I can send my children there. My spouse is a true partner in childcare but has a job that requires working Monday–Friday onsite without the option of working from home. We have no family members in the area to help us. Any suggestions would be welcome.

—Trapped by COVID

Dear Trapped by COVID,

These are incredibly challenging times and you are in a crucial phase of your career. And you are a parent. Labby has some suggestions but none of them will return you to what now looks like an easier time last fall. Please know that this too shall pass, and that your PI, institutions, and funding bodies are taking seriously the toll of this pandemic on parents and young investigators: You are very important and they have your back.

But in the meantime, let’s take a deep breath and Labby will share some creative solutions learned from others. Remember you are a person who is really good at solving problems; otherwise you wouldn’t be a scientist and wouldn’t have earned your PhD.

Here are some thoughts on how you might adapt and remain productive.

Try to develop a flexible work schedule both in the lab and at home. Since your spouse can be home on the weekend and probably the evenings, see if you can arrange your lab work during those hours. Labby learned that some labs post a “help-me” spreadsheet so that even though people may be coming in for one-third the hours, there are clear instructions for what help each person needs to move things along.

What about home time? How do you manage to get time to read, write, think? Right now, do what you need to do, which may mean temporarily abandoning your previous restrictions on kids’ screen time and allowing more time with programs that are creative and educational. When life returns to normal, the outdoors, museums, and people will successfully compete with the screen for your kids’ attention.

You may want to explore daycare and babysitting alternatives. Establish a family bubble or “quaranteam” with another family whose COVID safety measures match your own and with whom you can trade coverage or share the expense of an in-home caregiver. Labby’s institution invited PIs to contribute to a fund that can help postdoc parents absorb unexepected expenses. Also maybe there are undergrad and grad students in your community who could organize a volunteer babysitting service like COVIDsitters staffed by volunteer sitters at University of Minnesota Medical Schools (

Finally even family members who live far away can babysit via FaceTime. Many kids are just happy hanging out with a grandparent, listening to stories, showing them the projects they’ve been working on, maybe putting on a puppet show, etc.

You may want to join a peer support group on social media; there are several such groups for academic parents. There you can find people with whom to share your own challenges and ideas. Labby found an article that was very helpful in thinking about different solutions for a new time when there are no right answers, only ways to make the best decision for you:

The solutions you find now will be helpful in the long term, since Labby doesn’t see the United States addressing our need for adequate childcare in the near future.

Finally, this is a good time to revisit your career timeline (i.e., revisit your Individual Development Plan). Labby has heard that the University of California system negotiated a one-year extension of postdocs contracts. This could diminish the pressure to complete that major project and to start your job search. You can approach your PI with a plan for how another year would move forward the lab’s research and also allow you to contribute with less stress.


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