Balancing Motherhood and Remote Learning

Balancing motherhood and remote learning has been bittersweet, and ultimately, very emotionally transformative. Both have required every bit of my attention every second of the day in different ways. 

The first moment I realized how difficult it would be raising a toddler while keeping up with the rigour of university coursework and networking happened right before the semester started. I was at one of the first meetings I ever attended with USC, a virtual orientation for the Sidney Harmon Academy for Polymathic Study. I chose to attend the earliest session because I knew my son would still be asleep. Waking up minutes before the meeting started, I threw on the first hoodie I found and crept out of the room with my laptop in my hand.

By the time I had made it to the couch and logged on without hearing little toddler footsteps following me, I had deemed myself successful and continued on with my meeting. However, after I introduced myself, I heard “mama” from the opposite end of the hallway. My sleepy son had woken up at the sound of my voice and crawled onto my lap for comfort, which I gladly allowed. With my video on, the professors mused over how adorable he was. Although I was nervous, not knowing what the initial climate at USC would be like, everything seemed to be working out. However, maybe a minute and a half later, he peed on me while I was still in the meeting. Distraught, I immediately turned off my video and grabbed a towel. 

The situation repeated itself a month later when I was in an evening club meeting.

Looking back at those moments, I am able to laugh about how worked up I got. He is a baby, and I am well aware of his advanced capabilities to instantaneously create messes. However, in the days that followed, I took it as a bad omen for the semester to come. My excitement dwindled, and I began to see my first semester at a university with remote learning as an impending doom.

I have actually spent most of my educational career doing virtual learning. I went to a charter school during the second half of my freshman year and all of my senior year in high school, and I attended Olin Virtual Academy (now bankrupt) my entire sophomore year. I started taking classes at my local community college two weeks after my son was born, so during that entire first year of college, I remained online as well. Without any catalyst, I had somewhat excelled in and preferred virtual learning. However, that first year of college, my son was small and slept most of the day so I hardly ran into issues with online classes. Now, as he grows into an active toddler who loves to play and make messes, remote learning has brought a new dimension of difficulties that I never would have anticipated.

Sometimes while I was in class, my son would sit in his chair at my desk beside me, eating a breakfast sandwich and waiting patiently; sometimes I would put on Disney movies for him. However, most times, it would be unrealistic for him to remain in one place long enough, nor do I expect that of him, so he would go play with my brother and sister. Since I still wanted to be a part of so many organizations, I would bring my son, to make it fair to him, and introduce him at various club meetings. Acceptingly, they would gush about my son’s little curls and his broken words that he spoke with so much effort.

Although we were always in the same house, as he was primarily watched by my siblings, I would still worry about being away from my son. Whether it was 25 miles away from him or simply the other side of a wall, it didn’t matter, I would still miss him. Yet I also felt confident in the work I was doing, and I know in the end, he is going to be very proud of me. There are no other situations outside of remote learning that would have allowed me to attend virtual class and events while my toddler napped on a bed less than five feet away. If I felt anxious in a meeting, I was able to go hug my son immediately after and remind myself that in the greater sense of things, and no matter what happens, I will always have him. Having that sense of perpetual and unconditional love in the same space I was doing high pressure work was very relieving.

If I had taken classes on campus, I would have been worried about who was watching my son or what he was doing, which were concerns that would usually distract me during past semesters at school. However, while attending class virtually, I was also able to mute my volume to listen for what he was doing and the room he was in. Through the window in my room, I was able to peer out and watch my son run around in the mud with the dog, a priceless view that no other place could ever afford me. 

For the most part, I attempted to conceal my motherhood from my professors and potential employers because I didn’t want anyone to think I was less capable than I actually was. I worked very hard to get accepted into USC, which was always my top choice university, and I didn’t want to be looked down upon as a “teen mother” when I was so much more. I have always known that I wanted to be a working mom and show my son that women can be just as successful as men, in addition to having my own identity outside of motherhood. USC granted me that prospect, yet it seemed to be threatened in the remote learning environment.  I have always been very cautious about not introducing myself as a mother, because I am so much more than that -- I refused to be put into a box as one thing when I am also a writer, journalist, and prison reform advocate. 

There was also the very ethically challenging question of who to prioritize. There were days I would have to miss out on readings because my son needed me, but there were also days that I would have to tell my son “no” to focus on important exams and essays. As a mother, you tell yourself that your child comes first no matter what. Remote learning really challenged that, especially since he could come knock on my bedroom door to call me; though, in a way, I knew completing school would show him the importance of work ethic and finishing something that was started. There is no way my son will ever have a valid argument that he doesn’t want to go to school or that he missed a homework assignment, because I will remind him of the time he was knocking on my door and yelling in the hallway while I was taking my timed final exam.

I know that some people think that a mother should be whole, or at least able to stand alone before her child, but I have no problem openly admitting that I need my son. At the end of the day, I appreciate remote learning for the allowance it gives me to attend class, explore student engagement opportunities and still be exponentially more present in my son’s life than I would have been if activities were on campus. Even so much as a hug from him between classes really makes my day so much more fulfilling. Though it presented its challenges in the beginning, the will of a determined mother will overpower all.