How five UK faculty members are balancing work and childcare

Ramla Miller, a counselor in the Lewis Honors College, and her son Nas.

Emily Girard

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, multiple UK faculty and staff have had to juggle working from home with taking care of their children. Whether their children are infants, school-aged, or a few years away from graduating, being both staff members and parents has presented them with unique challenges—and some advantages. 

Crawling Forward

When Ramla Miller ended her maternity leave seven weeks after giving birth to her son Nas, she never expected to be at home with him six months later. Now, Miller must manage both her job and a “very restless” seven-month-old.

“It’s difficult when you have these different roles,” Miller said. “You’re [in a] mom role, but also [an] employee role, and now it’s all merged into one.”

Miller is an external partnerships associate and personal development counselor with the Lewis Honors College, connecting students to employers, internships and graduate programs. However, she says that these connections have transitioned into safety checks, as most businesses are not offering internships due to the pandemic.

Miller also holds one-to-one conferences with students through Zoom, though she often turns her camera off so she can give attention to both her students and her son. 

“[Nas] doesn’t understand when I’m on a Zoom call,” Miller explained. “When he wants to be picked up, he wants to be picked up. He doesn’t want to just sit there and play by himself.”

Dr. Kenton Sena, a lecturer in the Lewis Honors College, has encountered similar difficulties. His 14-month-old son, Silas, often interrupts him when he leaves his home office.

“I go downstairs to grab snacks or get a water…and then Silas sees me, and he wants me to pick him up,” Sena said. “Then he cries when I go back upstairs.”

Sena, who teaches Honors 101 and Honors 301, says that taking care of his son is not his biggest difficulty. Rather, he struggles to maintain and encourage discussion in online seminars.

“I’m more interested in the conversations than in the content in my classes,” Sena said. “There’s something about…being able to look across the room and…drop in on individual group conversations. You just can’t recover that sense of community online.”

Sena explained that although his home office provides a “nice separation between work and living space,” he still has to deal with the challenge of keeping Silas occupied.

“He’s really energetic and curious and constantly wanting to tear things apart,” Sena said. “He’s consistently deconstructing the living room.”

Both Miller and Sena go on walks so that their children do not have to spend all day inside.

“Every little thing is so exciting to [Nas],” Miller said. “Going to the mailbox is exciting to him because he gets to be outside and hear the birds. Every day is a new adventure.”

Silas frequently stops to pick up sticks and dandelions, which he then carries with him, Sena said. 

“It’s sad that the [UK] arboretum and some of the other [public] outdoor spaces are closed down right now, because I know that [we] would have been taking walks there as well,” he said.

And though they look forward to a return to normal life, they are grateful to spend more time with their families. Miller said she enjoys seeing her son grow.

“There was always that mom guilt I was struggling with. While I love my job and everything I do at work…I was missing all the little things,” Miller said. “As a mother, you resent not being able to see those important milestones. It’s cool to be the first person to say, ‘Oh, he was crawling backward, now he’s crawling forward.”

Not Summer Yet

For UK families with school-age children, maintaining their children’s education from home is difficult, especially when both parents have jobs of their own. For Jeff and Alicia Modenbach, this means maintaining a virtual daycare for their five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.

“We’ve been spending most of the time that they are awake trying to keep them entertained so they are not just watching TV all day,” Jeff Modenbach said.

Jeff Modenbach is a lecturer in the Department of Statistics. His wife, Dr. Alicia Modenbach, is an advisor and lecturer in the College of Engineering. He said that their biggest difficulty has been planning their schedules around their children.

“I can usually only answer emails while they are awake. I have to do most of my other work when they are sleeping,” Jeff Modenbach said. “We’ve been trying as much as possible to avoid working on the weekends and relax when we can.”

Dr. Ryan Voogt, a professor of history and Lewis Honors College lecturer, has encountered similar difficulties while taking care of his four children.

“I’ve never been one who’s able to mix work and parenting,” Voogt said. “I’m not able to sit here on my computer while they’re…crying and screaming and needing a parent.”

Voogt works in his office, formerly his guest bedroom, 20 to 25 hours a week. He makes sure that someone takes care of his children while he works. 

“When I come [downstairs], I expect to help with homework and…do the parental things,” Voogt said. “When I come [upstairs], I don’t have to worry that they’re burning down the house.” 

In addition to their nanny, his wife, Dr. Shannon Voogt, also assists with childcare. Dr. Shannon Voogt, a doctor of family medicine at UK HealthCare’s Turfland clinic, is able to take Tuesdays off due to a decrease in patients.

“People don’t want to catch the coronavirus,” Voogt explained. “Everyone’s keeping a distance, so people are not getting sick nearly at the rate they were before.”

Modenbach and Voogt are doing everything they can to keep their children in good spirits; however, they said that their children are still having trouble processing the changes.

“It’s been very difficult trying to explain to our kids why they can’t see their friends, go to the park or playground, or even go out to eat at a restaurant,” Modenbach said. “We can tell they are definitely getting tired of being home all the time.”

“Some days…it’s like pulling teeth to get them to do their [school]work,” Voogt said. “They don’t miss going on errands…they just miss being able to play in closer contact with their friends.”

Still, they are grateful for the extra family time, and they have created family activities to keep themselves and their children entertained.

“We [started] using Friday nights as a ‘pick up something from a local restaurant night’ to…give us something to look forward to each week,” Modenbach said. “We give my son a Lego challenge every day, like [building] a rocket that can get to the moon. We’ve just been taking it one day at a time.”

“We’re very fortunate to have a yard and a green space to run and play and nice sidewalks to bike around in,” Voogt said. “If it would have been summer when we [couldn’t] go to the pool, that’d be pretty sad, but it’s not summer yet.”

Motivation at home

Isolation is especially taxing on people who are normally outgoing. In some cases, these people have had to get creative in order to stay in touch with their friends.

Dr. Pearl James, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, is currently isolated with her 15-year-old daughter, Chloe. She said that Chloe, a freshman at Henry Clay High School, was initially annoyed at the cancellation of school and extracurriculars, but she has handled isolation well.

“She gets a news feed every morning, [and] she’s reading on her own about the virus,” James said. “She understands that this is not something [parents] are imposing.”

James and her daughter, both extroverts, have struggled to maintain their social lives. Chloe maintains a virtual connection with her friends, and she spends two to three hours a day playing Minecraft with them. However, James still wishes Chloe could reunite with her friends, especially after Chloe’s debate team won the Kentucky High School Speech League’s state tournament.

“She’s made a lot of friends in debate, and I think they would have…gotten together…and that didn’t happen,” James said. “I think she would have enjoyed getting to celebrate.”

James said that because of the rapid implementation of stay-at-home orders, her family has not yet adjusted to isolation, and “everybody gets on each other’s nerves once in a while.” Still, she finds managing the situation “doable.”

“I won’t say that we’re enjoying more time together…[but] we’re making the best of it,” James said. “Sometimes during our regular lives, we’re all booked at the same time and it’s stressful about who’s going to drive who where. We don’t have that kind of stress right now.”

James and her daughter have also encountered difficulty handling their respective workloads. She must manage graduate students, meetings and student essays, while Chloe has struggled with math and AP classes. Additionally, both struggle to stay motivated while being separated from others.

“I find myself really unmotivated to do the work,” James said. “Normally in April, I’m just a machine. I just get it all done. It’s hard to stay motivated about schoolwork [now] because it seems vaguely unreal.”

 Small Blessings

Despite the difficulties that come with managing both a job and a family, especially during a time of national crisis, UK’s faculty members are grateful for their families and the support they provide.

“I, as a professor, am insulated against some of the effects…my colleagues are feeling because my wife [Susanna] is already…a stay-at-home mom,” Sena said. “She’s keeping us steady.”

Miller is also grateful for the support of her husband Shawn. 

“This is really where being a team player shows up, having a baby who doesn’t understand [the pandemic],” Miller said. “I feel absolutely lucky to have a spouse that I’m able to partner with on these things.”

Isolation has also caused people to take a step back from their lives and appreciate what they have. Voogt expressed sympathy for others in less fortunate situations and cramped living spaces.

“Being kept away from friends and family is sad, but it reminds us that at least we have friends and family to be sad that we’re missing,” he said.

“All things considered, we’ve been lucky enough to still have jobs that allow us to be flexible and continue working from home,” Jeff Modenbach said.

“We’re healthy, we have more food than we can eat, we’re in a comfortable home [and] we have Internet,” James added. “We’re fortunate.”