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Talking Union E1: Parenting during the Pandemic

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Narrator: Hi there. My name is Ida Hoequist, and I’m a PhD student at the University of Virginia.

You’re listening to Talking Union, a podcast produced by United Campus Workers of Virginia. We’re a union made up of workers at universities across the state of Virginia, and here’s the really important thing: we’re what’s called a “wall-to-wall” union. That means that, for our local chapters, anyone who works for the university can join. Student workers, faculty, staff. This organizing model is all about challenging the idea that different workers at the university ought to remain separate, and instead coming together to build power for all workers. We’re also a rank-and-file union, which means the union is run by its membership—people like me, as well as the other workers you’ll hear on the podcast today.

This podcast aims to demonstrate the principle of “wall-to-wall” organizing in practice. It’s also a way of reconstructing the norms of our workplace, and doing so intentionally, with our collective aims bringing us together instead of keeping us apart. So, on this show, you’ll hear workers from different universities, and from different parts of those universities. There’s no interviewer, and no host, so you won’t be hearing much more from me. Instead, you’ll hear two people in conversation, talking about their experiences in their own words. Unions are their members, and our goal is to make ourselves heard.

Today’s episode is called “Parenting during the Pandemic.” It features two union members who are also mothers: a faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and a staff worker at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

This conversation was recorded in the fall of 2021, as both VCU and UVA were returning to a mode of mostly in-person classes and working. You’ll hear our interviewees express some frustration about the way this transition was being handled by both universities. We expected that these features of the interview would feel out-of-date by now, but as we move through the spring of 2022, these profound concerns remain as urgent as ever. Stay tuned for some reflections on parenting, the pandemic, the structure of working life in America, and why joining a union is better than just being angry on Twitter.

Julianne: [00:00:00] Hello! [Laughs] I'm Julianne Guillard. I am a faculty member at VCU. I am a partner and a parent to two young kiddos—five and newly three, just turned three, like two days ago. This is my, shoot, 16th year of teaching in higher ed. My sixth at VCU. My pronouns are she/her and I am a proud member of UCW, United campus workers, at VCU.

Helen: So my name is Helen Chandler, and I have been at UVA in various capacities for about seven years now. I came here to Virginia as a grad student in the MFA [00:03:10] program, and spent a few years as a graduate instructor in the English department before graduating and taking on a role at the university press. So I'm an acquisitions assistant there. And I have been for three and a half years now. And I'm a mom to one kid. He's 21 months. So he was born in December, 2019.

Julianne: Wow.

Helen: Which is like the end of the before-times.

Julianne: Wow.

Helen: So, I have thoughts of pandemic parenting, but just from the perspective of somebody who has only parented during the pandemic and never in any other capacity. So, uh, yeah, I guess I'm interested to know how our experiences differ., You know, your kids are at a tough age. Like it's, it's exhausting having kids those ages.

Julianne: It’s exhausting being a new [00:04:08] parent, it's a major learning curve. Outside of any kind of global pandemic. But I mean, my hat is off to you. I know a handful of folks whose, whose babies I haven't met yet because of the situation we're in, but who have only known having a child in this situation that we're in and it's, you know, compounded with what I experienced being a new parent and what that felt like, and the kind of isolation and the major changes that come with your life. Because it is a huge change. So I, yeah, I'm kind of hugging you from afar.

Helen: Well, I mean, same with you. I remember at the beginning of all of this, [00:05:07] when he was a tiny baby and it was starting and we were going into lockdown and thinking, “Well, I'm supposed to be at home right now.” You know, “I’m supposed to be staying indoors and hugging my little baby now. At least he isn't preschool age, because that would be so hard.” You know? And now, it’s dragging on to where we are starting to think now about sending him—I mean, he’s starting Montessori next week, which is not something that I ever thought I would have to deal with in the Pandemic. I remember thinking, “Oh, well, at least, you know, I don't have to worry about trying to get him to wear a mask because he's just a baby.” But now we're coming up on two years, and he will have to start wearing a mask, and we're still doing this. So it's, you know, the circumstances have changed, as regards the care work that I'm doing. But the pandemic remains still this huge, unsolved problem, and a worsening problem almost.[00:06:05]


Julianne: It's funny. That's another thing that we have in common, because my five-year-old is in Montessori, and today is his last day. He has been in the Montessori school that he is at now, since he was, I would say, a little [00:06:26] over a year old. And today is his last day because he's old enough now to enter kindergarten in public school.

So, March of 2020, everything kind of shut down here in Richmond. And so, everything was virtual. And I mean, we were juggling a baby, two full-time jobs, both at VCU, and trying to do primary school virtual. But our systems just aren't set up for this kind of support.

Helen: No.

Julianne: Whether it's Montessori or public school or, you know, or higher ed.

Helen: Well, you mentioned systems there, and I've been, you know, thinking a lot about the different kinds of systems that have to be in place in order for us to just survive right now. So, you know, I'm curious about the system inside your home. How did you do it, basically, you know, yourself and your partner, both of you at home with two kids. So, I don't know about you, but we had to really, like, break it down into who was doing what when, all day. So I'm curious to hear what your system was.

Julianne: You know, obviously we wanted to keep our jobs, and do as much within the context of what we could, it was a conscious effort of constantly talking with each other, and figuring out, Okay, what are we expected to do this week or today, and how can we fit that in? But our kids and our sanity come first. And for me, that was—that was really a difficult, now that I'm saying out loud, it sounds terrible, but it was a [00:08:23] difficult thing to adjust. Because I was, adjunct, contingent faculty for so long, you know, graduate student adjunct in these, in these spaces where my job could be cut like that, that I was used to… to burnout. And I was used to this level of fear, when it came to work, that I had to overextend, overcommit, and try to be everything to everyone in order to keep my job, or prove that I belonged in this space. And it took a pandemic, and being with my children all day, to—like intellectually, you know, I knew that it wasn't right, but you know, it, it took being in that situation to slow down [00:9:19] and fix those parameters, and just say, No, I'm not, I'm not going to do this. I'm not going to be on my computer. I'm going to respond to my students. I'm going to take care of them when they need me, but I don't need to be in all of these, aspects of service to a job when there is no service or support net that's reciprocated. I don't know how, how about you? How about your household?

Helen: Well, I mean, I feel the same way that you do about, you know, not, killing yourself, essentially, to complete work that, at the end of the day isn’t the essential work of keeping somebody alive. So, you know, I mean, you really have to, like, weigh up what's important. And the system that we have had in our house has just been shifts. [00:10:18] we wake up early with the baby. I mean, I'm still calling him the baby. He's almost two!

Julianne: I get it. [Laughs]

Helen: I feed him. He's still nursing. And then my husband takes him and that's my work time. So my work time can start anywhere between 6 and 7 a.m. And I just go straight in and start working. And my husband can reasonably keep our son until, I don't know, 11:30 a.m. or noon. And then, you know, we give him lunch and then put them down for his nap and I work a little more. At which point then my husband goes and starts focusing on his job and I’m doing the caring for the rest of the afternoon. That leaves both of us with a deficit in terms of, like, the amount of time we can give to our jobs. We're not giving eight hours by that point. But then by the time the baby goes to bed around 7 or 7:30, [00:11:12] then it's time to sit back down and continue with work.

Julianne: Yes.

Helen: Until it's done, and then you fall into bed, and then you wake up.


Julianne: And do it all over again.

Helen: Now, I say that as if I have been doing exactly that every day, since we came up with the system. And I have not, because I'm burned out, and it's not possible to continue to respond to emails and to be, you know, constantly on and in touch with the people that I'm working with, while I'm also giving my body to my baby still, physically, you know, running around after him and picking him up. I mean, he's getting bigger and more rowdy now. He's more physically demanding, almost, than he was when he was a little baby and he was nursing ten times a day. So, either way, I mean, I'm physically sort of tied to him, in a way that's exhausting.[00:12:08] But it's the sort of mental strain of having to be available to my computer on my phone, throughout the day. That's the thing that I have started to let drop. And I feel as though I can justify that, and that I can have the frank conversations with my immediate supervisor that I need to have, and say, "look, I know that I'm not doing my best work right now. I'm possibly relying on the good will that I might have built up over the years that I've been doing this job, to say I'm not able to be the best editorial assistant right now." Hopefully there will come a time where the circumstances will align to allow me to be better. And what I'm not saying to my direct boss, or my boss’s boss, is that, [00:13:04] a lot of structural things would need to change in order for me to be able to come back and be the best editorial assistant I could be. I was good at my job before all of this, and they know that. And I suppose I'm relying on that kind of good will. And maybe they're expecting me to come back and be that good again. The problem is, is that I've realized—and this is something that maybe I always knew—but that the structures are not in place to allow me to be a great employee and a great parent at the same time.

Julianne: Nope.

Helen: It's just not possible. In the current setup. Particularly at—I was going to say particularly at UVA, but may be particularly at universities? I'm starting to get the feeling that universities are uniquely [00:13:57] flubbing this moment for their employees, their faculty, their staff, their custodial people who they've, you know, like—

Julianne: Worked to the bone.

Helen: —not supported throughout all of this anyway. I've become just more and more aware of how badly they are now supporting, their employees, at a time when things are just so uncertain. They’re demanding that everybody come back to work in person. And saying, you know, "Oh, well, you've got some, childcare benefits as part of your benefits package. Here's the link to the HR page to show you what your benefits are."

Julianne: Yeah. That's the extent! That's the extent of what we get too.

Helen: That’s it.

Julianne:I was asked last year to participate in a panel, like a feedback panel for what the university could do to support parents and caregivers, kind of broadly defined, within the pandemic. And I said, you know, extended paid leave with a guaranteed, you know, return to job. And it resulted in a website. Of links to other links. I'm like, Okay. I looked at it maybe once, because that does not help me. And I understand that it costs money and it costs time. These are resources. But this is where you dip into some funds, or you move things from other places, to change some things, to innovate. Isn't that what we're here to do? To try new things, to work on ideas?

Helen: I think [00:15:48] they allow themselves to believe that they are doing those things by creating panels. Or making websites with links.

Julianne: That’s absolutely right.

Helen: It's lip service. I very directly said to the director of my unit, when she emailed me and she said, "Oh, perhaps your benefits can be of help here: link to HR website." And, you know, I replied and I very frankly said, "these childcare options that you're sending me, they cost $1,300 a month, to put your child in one of those centers. The wait lists are years long to get into them. Those care options are off the table."

Julianne: Yes.

Helen: You pay me $17 an hour.

Julianne: There you go.

Helen: So how am I supposed to pay $1,300 a month for this childcare? If they are so proud of themselves for offering childcare solutions to their employees, they should be subsidized.

Julianne: Exactly.

Helen: They should be free or, or, or very cheap. If you want me to come to work, give me somewhere to put my child while I do that. And you know, obviously this isn't a UVA problem or a VCU problem or a university problem. This is a countrywide problem.

Julianne: It's a cultural, and I—you know, I can't speak to, are you originally from Ireland? Is that the accent?

Helen: Yeah, I’m from Ireland.

Julianne: So yeah, I can't speak to what you maybe grew up with, or are familiar with, but you know, the feminist in me says, this is the devaluation—continual—of any type of caretaking. And if you can't capitalize on it, then it's not worthwhile and you shouldn't be there in the first place. And because we have these patriarchal institutions that are based in all different kinds of supremacy, there is no way that they are going to support a person who typically [00:17:43] is female, within the workplace, who fought tooth and nail to get there, to begin with. To go back to some of the other points that you were bringing up, we talk about staff and custodial workers. At least for a few years, that was primarily women, women of color here in Richmond, at VCU. And if they are caretakers, where's the subsidized or completely free care for their children? Who's picking them up from the bus stop, if it's a school year, if they are forced to go in person? You know, they are certainly not making enough money to do the $1300, $1,400 care. To point out to folks who are not parents who might be [00:21:00] listening, that that is typical, like average you know, big air quotes here, “quality care.” That is not, you know, a family member, that is not your neighbor, that is not the neighborhood daycare center. I mean, our daycare for two kids was more than half of what I make. And I know some of the pushback that I've gotten when I've brought this stuff up is, "Well, you, you chose to have kids." I absolutely did. And I would choose it again. However, going back to your point. if you want me to be the worker that I know that I can be, because I'm passionate about what I do, and I care about what I do, then why are you not supporting me in other aspects of my life? I'm not bringing [00:19:39] my whole self anymore. I'm bringing an exhausted, burnt-out bare minimum version of myself.

Helen: Well, and when you say to women, you know, you chose to have kids, so why do you expect to be so supported in the workplace? You're not talking about some kind of lunatic fringe of people who decide like, oh, maybe I'm going to do this crazy thing and have kids. It's a lot of people. You're talking about a huge percentage of your workforce. You can't pose this existential question as a sort of rational arguments. The existential question. “Well, you chose to have kids.” Well, well, yeah, I mean, but so do a lot of people! Are we supposed to drop out of society? Because that's, that's what you're begging us to do. And then there's obviously these broader arguments, or these broader conversations, like, “Oh yeah, we really have to invest in our children, they're the future, blah, blah, blah.” You don't care about children or the moms or the [00:20:37] parents who raised them.

Julianne: Yeah. It defines family very narrowly too. Right? It's such a complex problem. And there are times where it's felt so overwhelming that I'm just like, Nope, I'm out. I'm tapping out. [Laughs]

Helen: Yeah. I was thinking about this earlier, you know, I keep reading all of these articles, you know?

Julianne: Oh my gosh, I stopped.

Helen: Oh God, it's hard. The clickbait is so difficult to resist, but you know, it's all these articles about her moms are not okay. You know? Articles are talking about how broken the system the system is, how moms are the ones that are suffering the most. I mean, these are articles like in the New York Times

Julianne: Oh yeah! They’re everywhere,

Helen: —as well as newsletters and things like that. And people are tweeting the articles, and sharing them and going, “Yes, you know, that's so true. Jesus, what are we doing to moms?” But then nothing changes because all people, all people are doing is, is reading, acknowledging, and identifying with the problems. But we need to move beyond [00:21:37] acknowledging the problems. You know, the first step is acknowledging that there's a problem. Right. But I think that has broadly been done. We're beyond that. Everyone knows about the crisis of being a mom right now, or at least is aware of it. But it feels as though people are then, through that, being kind of gently led towards the oasis of radical change, you know, like, you know, “Come over here and talk about radicalizing. Talk about how you might, like, structurally address this problem.” But we can't, you know, force people to drink from that oasis. You know, like, we can't say to people, “Okay, now do something about it.” Especially because parents are the least [00:22:29] equipped to organize and make that change, because we're tired. We're so tired and already pressed for time. When are we supposed to find the time to, to, to write letters, to lobby? I

Julianne: I do not have time or space for it. No.

Helen: But we're the ones that need the change.

Julianne: Yeah.

Julianne: There's only so many times, and so many ways, you can ask for help, and hear people say, “Oh, yeah. I saw this article and I'm checking in on you. Love you so much, Julianne.I'm here for you.” This is what I need! Join this collective, the community." I was always a politically [00:23:21] aware, engaged person before I became a parent. And I have become more committed to my beliefs and my personal ethics, and taking these kinds of more anti-oppressive beliefs to formulate action. But like you said, my body—I know folks that I work with who, you know, whom I love as colleagues and value as colleagues, but who aren't caretakers in any way, shape or form other than themselves or their significant others, don't have the same level of, "I have the responsibility of making sure two other people, Bathe, eat, have [00:24:17] basic shelter, you know, the Maslow's hierarchy of needs kind of stuff." But I also want them to feel safe and the puzzle every day of trying to figure out, how does this little person, who is a whole person unto themselves, is part of me and my partner, but is a whole other identity—you know, how are they processing everything? Let's forget about the pandemic, but just their day-to-day life and their existence and figuring out how to interact with them and make them feel safe, valued, loved, excited, happy, and able to experience the whole range of emotions that human beings do. That is a day-to-day process of trying to figure out. So there's that mental engagement that parents and caregivers have to do every single day, but [00:25:19] you also have to figure out sleep schedules, feeding schedules, you know. And listen, I am a planner to the core, and that is something I had to let go of because you have to be able to—I'm going to use an administrative term here—pivot and be comfortable with being on your toes and just letting go. There can be no plans with an infant who needs you, literally needs to be on your body, for a large aspects of time. Or a three-year-old or a five-year-old or an eight year old, or, you know, a twelve-year old. You are responsible for so much that I don't think even your closest friend or family member, who might [00:26:13] be sympathetic and loving to you and your family, can ever truly understand until they are in a position where you're responsible for keeping an individual alive and happy—for forever, you know?

Helen: Yeah, what I am most baffled by is that the people who are in positions of power—I'm thinking specifically of the director of my unit, but I'm sure it's true across the administration of both of our universities—is that the people who are in power are maybe of a certain age, that their kids are grown.

Julianne: Yes. If they have children.

Helen: If they have children. But they maybe have this false sense of being able to identify with their employees who are in the thick of [00:27:13] parenting by saying—and this is something that I have been told—is, “Look, I get it. I was a working mom. I know how it works. I know how it all goes. I know the sacrifices that you're required to make.” And I almost feel angrier about getting that response than, you know, having somebody who's never had children just not understand. Because that person then is saying to you, “I had to go through it in terrible circumstances. And so therefore, so do you.” It's like the student debt arguments. “I had to pay my student debts. Therefore you should too. That's why we con cancel it, because what about me, I have already paid them?” You know?

Julianne: See, that’s just—that enrages me as a parent. My perspectives. Like, I don't want my children to go through the same crappy—I almost just said something else—same [00:28:11] terrible stuff. Like isn't that the whole point? That we make things better, so that what you went through, no one else has to. Like, I'm sorry you experienced that pain and that hardship because that's what it is. And part of me thinks, okay these people who say these kinds of things just want to be heard and have their hardships acknowledged. But for me, that's where it stops. That's where I expect you to change, especially if you are in a leadership position. But I think the weird thing about academia is that it is still despite all of its, despite all of its ego and thinking otherwise, it is still very—I mean, this is going to be obvious to a lot of people—it is still very white, patriarchal male. And straight. And the idea that [00:29:11] those identities do not encompass family or caretaking whatsoever.

Helen: Well, and the most disappointing thing, I think, about the way our universities are approaching this, you know, big return to work is that it's as if they have learned nothing. You know, the childcare situation that was sort of brought to the forefront of people's attention at the beginning of all of this, you know, the lockdowns and the work from home and the schools closing and all of that, and the problems that then sort of bubble to the surface as a result of all of that, that made people more [00:29:55] broadly aware of the struggles of working parents. People were talking, and maybe still are talking about, like, “Oh, now that we know about all of this, and now that the struggle has been elucidated in this really obvious way, we can't go back. We have to make change." And I remember for a moment, I think somewhere mid-2020, feeling kind of a little glimmer of excitement about the possibilities of the systems that could be overthrown by all of this change. And what’s so infuriating is how UVA—and I’m just speaking from the perspective of an employee at this institution, I know it's a problem across the country—is now trying to pretend as if none of that happened. They're sort of, like, publicly on their HR websites and such, things that are outward facing, saying “flexible work is the future, hybrid work is where, you know, employees [00:30:52] really want to be,” you know, “you've got to really, like, work with your employees who are parents,” yada, yada, yada, Managers, be flexible.” And then you've got the individual unit managers, like mine, who are saying, “No. Flexible workplace, that's not where we're at. We're not, we're not doing that anymore. September 7th, you must be back in the office. Nine to five, Monday to Friday with absolutely no flexibility whatsoever. At that point, we will talk about maybe a hybrid model working for the future of this unit, but right now—No.


Helen: You know, You're made to feel, no matter what you’re offered, that you're lucky for being offered it.

Julianne: Yeah, that's the capitalist model. Right? And what's so funny is that so many people claim that capitalism is linked to innovation. I'm like, "I'm not seeing it in my branch of capitalism" Right? Where's the innovation, where's the pivoting? Because I'm just being told, you know, both directly and indirectly, right, whether, you know, hearing your story or being in a meeting saying, “Well, you know, people, people are telling us that they really want this face to face. People are saying this”

Helen: —what people?

Julianne: Are we based in data? What forms of data? It doesn't have to be [00:32:20] quantitative, large data sets, but who is "the people?" Who is it that’s saying that? Is it the president, or is it the students and the people who are actually going to be doing the work in those either poorly ventilated or absolutely not ventilated at all, teeny tiny classrooms that you are packing with students and faculty and staff?

Helen: Yeah. I really, really do feel for the faculty who have to stand in the classroom, in packed classrooms. I've seen a lot of images already, you know, promotional images, which is confusing to me. They seem to be using it as a good thing. Images of packed classrooms and lecture theaters at UVA, [00:33:05] I think that they're seeing it as a good thing. Like, “Look at us all back together. This is over.” But of course it's not. UVA's hospital has has just now started to cancel elective surgeries again. So that's just a sign of obviously things are getting worse. You can see where they're going. You can see where this is going to lead, but now I think they're just trying to put on this sort of brave and happy public face, so that the kind of lockdowns and precautions that we would have taken for the same numbers this time last year, can't now be used. Because the disruption is just too great to them, to the institution and to their financial security.

Julianne: It's the financial, yeah. I mean, I can't tell you how many meetings I was in last year where leadership, administrative leadership, talked about the [00:33:56] blow to loss of income in revenue from housing and parking. It wasn't necessarily tuition. It was housing and parking. And so. Okay. Okay.

Helen: And you’re not broke. Okay? You’re not.

Julianne: Exactly. And let's not, and let's not force people into dangerous places. And I mean, I don't know when you all started. We started Tuesday, was our first day of classes.

Helen: I think that was the same here, yeah.

Julianne: So Tuesday, today is Friday. I have three—no, four colleagues I've spoken to within the past two days, who already have quarantined, positive students. Tuesday to Friday. I got a text last night of, our department has this shared space. It's like a study, lecture hall. Really cool. Really cool space, no windows to the outside, just because of where it's located in the building. A colleague who’s a graduate student, who’s fantastic, was teaching face-to-face on campus, went to go meet students there for office hours in this lounge, got to the building, and stood in front of the lounge, sent me a picture: [00:35:26] It was completely shut. Lights off, handwritten sign saying “This was disinfected for the prevention of COVID-19 spread, at like 10:39 in the morning.” And she was like, “What am I supposed to do? I don't have an office because I'm a graduate student. It's a hundred degrees outside. We could go somewhere and outdoors and shout to each other from a safe distance.” As a faculty member, I would love to tell you. I don't know. I would tell you to go home. Honestly. To do what you felt is safe for you and your students. Not just safe, but what is a sustainable method of teaching? Of nurturing these kinds of conversations and big ideas? You can't right now. And in the position that you, we, [00:36:22] are in.

Helen: Yeah. And you know, we're supposed to send our kids out into this worsening situation. The risks to kids are not nothing, but there seems to be this sort of, like, overarching idea that's been taken up, I think, by the people who want to talk down the risks now, that says, you know, “Oh, well kids are not that badly affected.” Which, across the board is only true if you don't mind thousands of kids getting sick and dying. Because that's what's happening.

Julianne: That is what's happening.

Helen: 0.2% of whatever number is still often thousands.

Julianne: Of lives. I know. People. I know. My anxiety has been ticking up [00:37:21] just because we're—

Helen: It's crazy. I mean, and my kid, because he's been inside my house his entire life, amd has never had a cold. He’s never had anything. And I'm going to have to send him out to Montessori next week. And I've been told by other parents, you know, more experienced parents—you can probably attest to this—he's going to be sick within a week. Whether it's with COVID or whatever else is going around in the classroom. And he's just going to be sort of constantly sick for the first while. And this is a thing as well, that, like, parents were dealing with before the pandemic. I kind of think that a lot of the issues that working parents are having now, and parents of young kids: they're the issues that were always there. Working parents always had to worry about their kids getting sick when they went back to school in September, or went off to [00:38: 20] preschool, daycare, kindergarten for the first time, and were getting sick and wondering, “How am I going to take this time off work?” That has been a problem long before the pandemic happened. It's just sort of tinged with this extra scary possibility now. But there's part of me that is inclined to believe that the pandemic isn't the worst of our problems as working parents. And that all of these problems existed beforehand. I started to get really angry at the structures that were in place when I found out that I was that I was pregnant. I remember immediately [00:39: 08] thinking, “Oh God, I'm only going to get 14 weeks off when my baby is born. That's insane.” That, that to me is just absolutely insane.

Julianne: Which lucky. 14 weeks. And that's, and that's how, what you, what we are culturally, you know, “Hey man, it was your choice to have a child. You're lucky you have a job. You're lucky if you do get paid time off.” I was told by my supervisors that other people in the department came back after a week or two weeks of giving birth. So… and then, then it was just like that ellipsis. It was just left open. “So, Julianne, why can't you do this?” I'm like, “Because I would die.”

Helen: Did provide the puffy pads to sit on for the the bleeding? Was that [00:40: 02] inconvenient for you at all? My God.

Julianne: If y'all want to see what it's like, I'll show you.

Helen: So much blood, so much sweat, so many tears. Yes, it’s insane. The conditioning of the workforce in this country is absolutely insane. You know, you're lucky to have 14 weeks. And it doesn't do me any good to say to my bosses, “Well, actually, where I'm from, you know, I would have taken, you know, up to a year off after my baby was born, and that would've been just about enough for me.”

Julianne: American imperialism would come right back and be like, “Well, go back to where you came from.”

Helen: Well, exactly. I would like to actually, it's just, it's harder to make a transatlantic move than you would imagine, especially with a young child.

Julianne: What? [ironic tone]

Helen: So there's that issue. Right from the moment I got pregnant, it was, “Oh my God, I'm going to need to take more than 14 weeks. Okay. So how do I make that happen?” Went to my boss. [00:41:03] And he said, “Oh, well, you know, UVA has amazing childcare options.” [Laughs]

Julianne: I love the laugh.

Helen: God. Which of course, obviously I wasn't able to access. But I ended up taking eight weeks unpaid, on top of the 14 weeks that I was offered in disability, which is how it's offered. And then hoping that something would happen that would mean I wouldn't have to go back to work after the end of that eight weeks. Obviously the pandemic happened. So I hope I didn't, you know, manifest it. But I did hope that something would prevent me from going back to the office. What then ended up occurring was that I couldn't cope with actually working while I had a five month old nursing around the clock and not sleeping. So I ended up having to go on short-term disability for the rest of 2020, [00:42:00] which was only available to me because I have an incredibly supportive doctor, who was willing to say, “Yes, you aren't able to cope with this, and I'm going to write that as a diagnosis for you.” But that's not available to people. I'm so, so lucky that I had a doctor—

Julianne: Again, this ties into the healthcare system, too.

Helen: Yes, exactly. And that I was able to continue to pay her the $125 a month to do the paperwork so that they could submit it to this, like, third party who was, you know, facilitating my disability leave. It was incredibly complicated administratively, emotionally. It was really, really hard. But I was never not aware of how lucky I was to be able to access that kind of thing. And it is the structure of working life in this country that makes an individual believe that they are lucky.[00:43:02] Because none of us is lucky, in a broader sense. And we all deserve better. We all should be asking for better. And when we come up against that feeling of, like, “Oh, well, maybe I shouldn't be complaining. Maybe I should be happy with my lot.” We should push past that. That's what I wish more people would do, would just be to push past that uncomfortable feeling that tells you you're being annoying, that tells you you're asking too much.

Julianne: Sit with it.

Helen: Sit with it. And then keep going, keep going. Keep pestering people, keep bothering people. Keep talking about it.

Julianne: Keep talking about it. Keep talking about your experiences. Keep sharing what you were told by people in positions of authority. And because the more people know that, the more outraged they will become on your behalf and with you. Or embarrassed, right? And kind of want to CYA a little bit from an [00:44:02] institutional perspective, cover their asses and say, “Oh, well, we don't want this negative press. So maybe we shouldn't be making some changes." Or "we don't want a lot of people coming together as a collective and signing a letter with, like, 70-some people from a department saying 'this is terrible, what's happening to this person in our department.' "

Helen: Yeah, the union is a better route to go than just being on Twitter. You know, I mean, you can, you can sort of say, like, “UVA is doing this, and this is terrible,” and get a bunch of likes and retweets.

Julianne: I do both! [Laughs]

Helen: Yeah, you can do both. But it’s the sort of, like, larger collection of voices that can and has the capacity to be effective.

Narrator: So that’s our conversation. Huge thanks to Julianne and Helen for sharing their stories. One final note for you listeners: not long after this interview was recorded, Helen actually quit her job. She’s part of that “great resignation” everybody’s talking about. Her supervisor issued a “return to office” order for all employees, with no possibility of working from home. Despite the lobbying of several moms on staff, and the verbal support of other employees who don’t have young children, the supervisor in question refused to budge. So Helen quit. She explained in an email “This was not an easy decision for my family. Financially, we took a huge hit. To me, it was no longer worth the considerable stress to continue working in an underpaid role for someone who valued me so little.”

And now for the episode credits. This episode was recorded by Julianne, and by Piers Gelly. Piers Gelly and Ryan Cales wrote the episode, and Stephen Marrone helped with production. Editing and mixing by Emily Gadek.

The music in this episode is by Guy Blue; you can hear more at

And if you’d like to learn more about United Campus Workers of Virginia, please check out our website,, or say hi online. We’re @ucwva on Twitter, and on Instagram we’re @ucwvirginia.