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#UoRWay: One year on... What's that up your nose?

Mother and toddler sitting together, with toddler wearing computer headset.

In our series of stories on working under lockdown, a colleague describes the challenges of balancing work and childcare while coping with a disability.

A year has now passed since the UK went into the first lockdown in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of us have had to make changes to the way we work and live, both on and off campus. In this series, colleagues from across the University share their stories of working under lockdown over the past 12 months.

Here, we hear from Nicola Lower, Staff Engagement and Communications Officer.


 

To say the past 12 months have been hectic would be putting it lightly!

I'm a member of the University's Corporate Communications team - it's our responsibility to digest and explain complex subjects from inside and outside the University, and to help colleagues and students understand what it all means for them. Keeping up with daily communication needs is already tough, but when much of what you need to say relies on rapidly changing government advice, it becomes a different beast altogether.

Biggest challenges

For me, the first lockdown was the toughest. Like thousands of parents across the country, the closure of nurseries meant that my husband and I had to quickly figure out how to balance working from home with keeping our toddler happy - something that proved to be extremely difficult at times.

We each took it in turns to work ‘shifts' across the day (and night), with one of us working while the other handled childcare. Toddlers are unpredictable little creatures though, and we'd often find our carefully planned schedules flying out the window. The worst times would include my son refusing naps (turning him into an overtired little grump), insisting on playing with things he shouldn't, turning down all food except for biscuits, becoming obsessed with laptop lids and figuring out how locks and keys work...

While my line manager was incredibly understanding and accepting of the situation, it was hard not to feel a constant sense of guilt - usually either because I knew I hadn't been able to complete the work I had set out to do, or because I felt like a terrible mother for being unavailable despite being at home. I always felt like I was letting someone down.

On top of this, I'm partially sighted and have a condition called Stargardt's Macular Dystrophy, which affects the central region of sight. I describe it as having a constant version of the dazzled effect you get when you turn away from a bright light. It can cause a delay in focus, meaning I often need a bit of time to make out what I'm looking at.

In terms of working, I generally find it easier to use a larger screen, assisted by Microsoft's built-in magnification software. For the past 12 months, I've mostly relied on my small laptop screen, which can be difficult given the nature of my sight condition. When faced with a very high workload and changing priorities, it can be difficult to keep up with everything when you just can't see clearly - especially when you've got a two-hour window to fit in as much as you can.

Being a parent with a disability adds an extra level of pressure as there's a constant fear of not being able to act quickly enough if something goes wrong. Your mind races with possibilities and it's easy to become overly paranoid or anxious. I'm sure most parents feel this way, but not being able to see clearly adds an extra weight to it all. 

So when all of this is combined, it takes a lot of effort not to become overwhelmed by anxiety, stress, guilt and uncertainty.

Things have improved since nurseries reopened, but the demand for what we do remains incredibly hard and keeping up with everything is still very tough. I try to not let the stress build up too much and thinking back to the most stressful moments of the first lockdown often helps keep things in perspective.

Unexpected positives

I've experienced many more challenges than the ones mentioned above, but it's only been relatively recently that I've realised some good has come out of all of this. I've learned a lot about acceptance - you can't control everything and sometimes you just have to accept that things are different to how you wish they were.  

Despite the challenges, I'm extremely grateful that I've been able to spend more time with my son than I would have otherwise been able to. I work full-time and often have moments of feeling guilty for not spreading my time more evenly between working and being a parent. There have been moments of sheer brilliance, which never would have happened if my working life hadn't changed so drastically.

I've been bowled over at the genuine sense of togetherness I've seen, both within my own team and across the wider University. I'm grateful to work with colleagues who are understanding, patient and good-humoured - it's really made a difference during the most stressful times. I really hope this sense of togetherness lasts beyond the pandemic.

Life after lockdown

Thinking forward to when this is all over and normality begins again, it turns out I'm clearly a glutton for punishment as I'm now expecting my second child. Above everything, I can't wait to arrange interesting days out - I have a list of all the places I want to go and can't wait to start making plans. Sure, I'll probably be a bit messier than usual and getting out may be trickier, but I can't wait to see more of the outside world than my local park!  


 

Share your story

If you'd like to share your own story, please contact studentcomms@reading.ac.uk

You can also share your thoughts on our Padlet board - say a few words to describe your lockdown experience and read reflections from our staff and student communities. 

If you have been affected by the past year, talk to a friend or take a look at the Student Wellbeing or Staff Wellbeing resources available to you. It's a difficult time and its important to know there is support to help you get through it.

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