May 6, 2020 made me realize that the strict wall I’d erected between my professional research and my home life had crumbled. I awoke to see “Rape During Civil War” on my nightstand. I opened a drawer for the day’s hoodie and yoga pants and saw atop my dresser a trial transcript of graphic testimony from a civil war torture survivor. My formerly clear desk was now littered with books, drafts of dissertation chapters, and interview notes. And then I turned on the news to reporting of the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. The violence that I had worked so hard to confine to work now permeated every aspect of my life.
The global COVID-19 pandemic forced my work and personal space to become synonymous. In the ~250 square feet of my bedroom, I was expected to complete a dissertation about political violence as well as relax and recharge while thousands across the globe died from an unfamiliar virus and even more flooded streets across the globe to protest the continued injustices and violence directed at Black people.
I don’t know why I remain shocked and disappointed in myself for losing professional focus and motivation. How could I do anything when the world was seemingly falling apart around me with no outlets for my anxiety, frustration, and rage?
I wish that I wasn’t worried about the fieldwork trips not taken, the interviews not conducted, the archives not visited, the dataset not updated, and most importantly, the pages not written. But I’m not yet there.
But just as the pandemic presented a wide array of professional challenges, it also brought tremendous unforeseen opportunities. I channeled that anxiety, frustration, and rage into more public-facing writing and endeavors. These efforts drew on my status as a student of color, an educator, a former national security practitioner, and an emerging scholar. While each piece and appearance introduced me to new audiences, they were ultimately distractions from my pressing academic work. I used these tangential, yet important, endeavors as a means to try to reestablish that separation from my work life and personal life.
I underestimated how much I had internalized societal expectations regarding productivity. I didn’t have to worry about working full-time and watching over small children attending elementary school via Zoom. I didn’t have to worry about my teenager sneaking out to spend time with friends. I didn’t have to care for an elderly parent. For many, I had no excuse for not seizing the moment. As a single woman with no children, the conventional assumption was that I had more time than ever and that this time should be a window of opportunity. But like many others, I was lonely and scared. The spontaneous conversations with colleagues and interactions with my students that once fueled my days evaporated seemingly overnight.
When I transitioned to Philadelphia in August for a fellowship at Perry World House, I made the investment in myself and decided to spend the additional money for housing that allowed me to dedicate a room as an office. I still had to work from home, but at least, I could now “close the door on violence.” I’m fortunate to now be able to access my office on campus and engage with colleagues in socially distanced, mask-adorned fashion. Even with this reset, though, I struggled to reconcile the time I had “wasted.” Even today, the guilt surrounding my perception of time lost remains overwhelming.
I’m struggling mightily to give myself the very grace I’ve encouraged so many others to give themselves throughout this year. I wish that I wasn’t worried about the fieldwork trips not taken, the interviews not conducted, the archives not visited, the dataset not updated, and most importantly, the pages not written. But I’m not yet there.
My biggest professional take-away from this pandemic year is that we have never been able to do it all despite what we may tell ourselves. In many respects, the national security community rewards those who present themselves as the busy, overworked professional. That’s not healthy for anyone. I don’t assume to know what’s best for anyone. But I’m focused on doing my best to reconcile that even if I can’t grab the brass ring, I can still have a darn good carousel ride.
Meg K. Guliford is a Vice-Provost Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in residence at Perry World House.
The Future of National Security Work is a series of articles that examine the experience of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of work once the pandemic has gone. For more in the series, check back here.