Josephine wakes up at 8 in the morning, eager for adventure. She’s 2. Around the same time, her mom closes her laptop, concluding a three-hour dissertation writing session.
Marah Malleck, a 25-year-old UF political science graduate student, is one of many student mothers at UF who have spent the quarantine juggling a sudden lack of child care with classwork. She wakes up at 5:15 a.m. to concentrate on her work. Later, she spends time with Josephine.
“Being home all day with a two-year-old, you're really at the two-year-old’s mercy,” Malleck said.
Balancing graduate courses was easier in the past, when her daughter spent time at daycare, Malleck said. That ended when the pandemic began.
Malleck characterized the struggle between not wanting to give up time with her daughter or her academics in two words: mom guilt.
“I struggle so much with that mom guilt of, ‘I don't wanna put on a movie and just go do my own thing while she’s awake,’ so I need to do it when she’s asleep,” Malleck said.
Baby Gator, UF’s daycare service for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years, closed just as Suyapa Peachey, 22, was finishing her time at UF. She graduated in May with her Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering, despite the challenges her final months presented.
Peachey said she was fortunate that her mother was able to move into her apartment to help take care of her 4-year-old daughter, Nami. That way, she still had time to take finals and meet the deadlines she needed to in order to graduate.
Her daughter didn’t understand why Peachey needed to be on her computer so much, Peachey said – why she wouldn’t rather play with Barbies instead.
“You’re gonna get mom guilt, or sometimes student guilt, but you just have to remember why you're doing it,” she said. “It’s not a race – you're not trying to compete with anyone. You're trying to be a better you, each and every day.”
Peachey said she planned on using the Spring semester to boost her GPA. However, without childcare, she wasn’t able to attend every online lecture, and she needed extensions on assignments. She switched the majority of her classes to a pass/fail option in order to maintain her GPA.
“You need to be forgiving with yourself,” she said.
Sarah VanSchoick, 25, is also a recent UF graduate. She is the first in her family to graduate – she did it all while caring for a young son. Elijah was 1 when his mother decided to return to school.
In her last semester, Vanschoick began to homeschool Elijah because his preschool closed following the COVID-19 pandemic. VanSchoick said that juggling her own final schoolwork with his was extremely difficult.
“For about a week, it was like a cocktail of anxiety and situational depression because it felt like I had worked so hard and gotten so close – and now I was about to drop the ball,” she said.
For most of his life, VanSchoick said Elijah was used to his mom going to school and coming home to be with him always. Now, he doesn’t understand why she needs to be at her desk so much.
The best way for 32-year-old UF art history graduate student Macarena Deij Prado to balance classwork and her 18-month-old son, Lucas, is to work until late into the night.
“As soon as you put your son to bed, it's time for you to do your work,” she said.
Deij Prado said she used Baby Gator until it closed due to COVID-19. Now, she and her husband, both international graduate students, are left struggling to keep on track with their academic goals.
They take turns watching Lucas throughout the day to balance work and parenthood during the quarantine. However, Deij Prado said she still encounters moments where she wishes her son could understand why she needs to go into her bedroom to work.
“He was always screaming at the door, ‘Mom! Mom!’” she said. “It's hard for them to understand why you don't want to play with them when you're home.”
While her peers seem to have ample free time to pursue their goals, Deij Prado said she finds herself frustrated and exhausted. In those moments, she closes her eyes and breathes deeply.
She’s trying to find the energy to keep going.
Despite the newfound challenges with around-the-clock child care at home, Deij Prado said she recognizes the beauty in having her whole family together.
Lucas has begun to say “uh-oh,” and “bye-bye,” along with Spanish words his parents have taught him, like ballena (whale), perro (dog) and agua (water). Deij Prado said she’s grateful to constantly be around her son at an age when he is constantly learning and bringing joy to their lives.
“There are moments every day where I'm like, I don't care if I’m gonna sleep five hours tonight,” Deij Prado said. “That's fine, because I'll get to spend time with him.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Deij Prado's name.