Monday, November 28, 2022

Caregivers hope to receive more support

By Aleksandra Sidorova

When Akanksha Misra, assistant professor of gender and women’s studies, moved to Plattsburgh from Seattle, she had to balance full-time teaching, research and breastfeeding “with no helping hand” as her partner was finishing his doctorate dissertation. Those challenges were to be expected. The North Country’s shortage of childcare service providers was not.

Misra said she couldn’t get her youngest child into any daycare, whether a traditional daycare like the Child Care Center at SUNY Plattsburgh, or in-home daycares around town. She also found no flexible childcare option where she can leave her child for a couple of hours instead of a full day.

“I wasn’t told when I was hired, for instance, how big of a problem this is,” Misra said. “I just didn’t know that there are parts of this country that are so underserved.”

A year later, Misra still struggles to find daycare services for her youngest child.

“That is still a problem for us, it’s not an experience I have left behind,” Misra said. “We found a place where we can leave [my child], we’re not very happy — that causes a lot of mental distress when I come to work. And it’s very gendered, so, obviously, you know, as the mom, I feel doubly distressed, right?”

Diana Cathcart, 40, balances work as a clinician for a neuropsychologist up to five days a week as well as several hours at the Global Education Office, graduate studies in clinical mental health and being a single mom to “two elementary-aged humans.” It’s not easy, but she stays positive, determined to show her two children, boys aged 5 and 8, what hard work looks like.

“I think that’s very motivating and that having two sons who look up to their mom and who know how hard she’s working for the betterment of their futures is a very empowering thing,” Cathcart said. “It’s a juggling act, but I think there’s a lot of very motivating factors with regard to that that really are what propels me forward, even if I have so much going on.”

Cathcart’s move from North Carolina to Plattsburgh has worked out for her. She found suitable housing in a “beautiful neighborhood” where her children have found friends. Cathcart said she struggled with finding childcare services throughout the summer, but it became easier once her children started school. Once the semester started in the fall, through a paper ad she posted to Sibley and Ward Halls, Cathcart found three babysitters. 

“It feels to me like a little family, and my kids love all three of them very much, and I honestly would not be functioning as well as I am without their consistent, trustworthy care, so I am very grateful for them,” Cathcart said.

However, that is $70 that Cathcart spends per week to attend a single class.

Recently, one of Cathcart’s children caught a cold, which, after two days, spread to her. To take care of her son and then herself, Cathcart found herself skipping every one of her classes that week.

“I had to email my professors saying, ‘Look, I’m being prevented from completing the content for this week’s coursework, can you work with me here?’” Cathcart said. “And, you know, not all people are like me, who will demand or assert themselves in ways that ensure equity.”

Cathcart said most of her professors have worked with her and honored her requests, but she said that a circumstance such as this — catching a cold — can “knock out” someone with “more limited means” than her, potentially becoming the reason they drop out of their education.

“I can’t complain,” Cathcart said about her situation. “I just can’t.”

The Cardinal Caregivers are a small group of students, faculty and staff that aims to provide support for those who, like Cathcart and Misra, must balance their obligations to SUNY Plattsburgh with their responsibilities as caregivers to their children or other family. 

The idea came to Misra when she was teaching three undergraduate classes in the spring of 2021, while still based in Seattle. Misra said her students were struggling. At least one of them was a mother. At the time, Misra herself was pregnant with her third child.

“[Academic spaces] act as if we don’t have lives,” Misra said. “We don’t have family, we don’t have people to look after.”

Misra contacted Michelle Cromwell, the vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the time, who said the topic was “something that would resonate with a lot of people,” and that it was worth starting a conversation on it. 

The “genesis” of the group was a discussion titled “Working women’s challenges as caregivers and mothers” held March 8, 2021 — International Women’s Day, Misra said. Also part of the conversation was Kirsten Isgro, co-editor of the book “Mothers in Academia” and assistant professor of communication studies. Other people crucial to the Cardinal Caregivers group are assistant professor of communication studies Bridget Haina and teaching department chair Maureen Squires.

“The three of us kind of took the lead to make sure that every semester, we do something, so that we make ourselves visible,” Misra said. “To the administration, of course, but also hopefully to students and faculty and staff that we are here. We are trying to do something.”

In fall 2021, Misra, Haina and Squires sent out a survey “to assess the needs of our campus community when it comes to caregiving.” That semester, Misra was on parental leave, so she could not conduct the survey the way she wanted to. Nonetheless, she gathered up to 40 responses. The recurring themes were mental health, lack of support from the system in terms of mental health services and day cares, as well as a lack of recognition of caregiving responsibilities.

This spring, April 22 — Earth Day — the Cardinal Caregivers hosted a family day where faculty could bring their children to campus and participate in art and reading activities. The event gave the group press coverage: an article in Press-Republican and a photo spread in Cardinal Points.

Provost Anne Herzog helped organize the event when Haina approached her asking for support.

“I am aware of this group and the need for supporting caregivers in our community,” Herzog said via email. “I was happy to provide [support] and contacted the President’s Office to see how that office might connect with the parents and visiting children on the day the planners selected. I am the mother of two adult children, and so I have lived the challenges of juggling home and work as well as feeling the stresses of professional responsibilities when you have sick children or some other challenge at home.”

However, Misra feels that the group is “on the margins.” Administration has offered press and PR services to promote the groups activities, and department chairs have allowed faculty and staff to bring their children to the SUNY Plattsburgh for “one particular day.”

“This language — this anti-care language — is really coded in our policy and documents,” Misra said. “We have to check the HR policy that explicitly says you can only bring children to campus with the permission of your supervisor and if it doesn’t impede your work and stuff, so there’s a very clear written clause.”

Not expanding childcare services for students, faculty and staff can be a detriment to the college, Misra said.

“I think it’s doubly difficult for anyone working for institutions of learning such as this because we are also caretakers for our students in many ways,” Misra said. “We care about our students, right, and so we are constantly torn between our family life, where we are not able to do enough because we have commitments here, and then we come here, and we are not supported enough. And we are constantly told, ‘Oh my god, we’re struggling, the college is struggling financially, and it’s you guys, you, as the faculty, that needs to make sure that our enrollments are high.’ So it’s kind of a lose-lose situation.”

Cathcart had not heard of the Cardinal Caregivers support group before, but sees value in a support group for caregivers, especially those who, like her, are single parents.

“I can say that as a single mom on campus, I currently don’t know any other single moms on campus, although I’m sure they exist,” Cathcart said. “It would be nice to be part of something where I can connect with other single parents who are in a similar position as me, because it can be very isolating and stressful at times.”

Misra noted that the state allocated money for some SUNY campuses to fund childcare services for students and staff. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Oct. 18 a state investment of $10.8 million to be distributed across SUNY campuses to improve childcare services. Of that amount, $7.6 million will go to the six SUNY campuses with the greatest demand for childcare services. SUNY Plattsburgh is not one of them, but will receive about $71,820 from the pie to spend on childcare services, Director of Budget and Financial Reporting Magen Renadette said.

“I think everybody deserves a quality education, and I think that higher [education] institutions should absolutely do everything they possibly can to accommodate all of the people who attend their schools, even if they themselves do not understand from personal experience,” Cathcart said. “You just have to find a way to work with people, even if it presents challenges or inconveniences for you.”

Cathcart suggested “any type of childcare support”: groups of parents or volunteers together to lead an art activity on campus. Engaging with parent groups in Plattsburgh can be useful as well, Cathcart said. She also proposed the possibility of engaging students of various majors to work with children for credit or public service hours, especially those in education programs, one of the largest programs at SUNY Plattsburgh. Cathcart noted that her babysitters are all “grateful” to be gaining experience working with her children.

“I’m sure there’s probably a lot of hoops to jump through with that regard, and it’s not as easy as maybe I’m making it out to be, but I do think there’s a lot to say for providing care or opportunities that people don’t have to pay for necessarily, but then also benefit the college community in ways that support their education, too,” Cathcart said.

Another outlet the Cardinal Caregivers are interested in is hosting support groups for parents and caretakers of elderly family members for them to exchange experiences — a need demonstrated by some responses to Misra’s survey sent out a year ago.

“We’re trying to push mainly for very doable action items, like what can the college and administration do immediately to ensure that we have spaces where, as caregivers, we have mental health support, counseling and also actual support for care, and specifically childcare,” Misra said.

The struggle of caregivers in academia is an intersectional topic — one that Misra will be speaking about with Squires and Haina on Black Solidarity Day Monday, Nov. 7. The session is called “But Who Cares about the Caregivers? Discussing Intersectional Challenges of Mothering and Caregiving in Academia and Forging Future Pathways,” held at 9 a.m. in the Angell College Center’s Cardinal Lounge.

“I think that there is value in bringing people together who are experiencing similar things, because it’s not easy to work and to be a good care provider and also to go to school full- or even part-time,” Cathcart said. “It’s just not easy.”

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