Katie Donnelly with her three-year-old son

Grad student mom: This is something I can't fix

Updated 6:59 AM ET, Mon June 29, 2020

This is the next installment in the "Generation Resilient" series. Katie Donnelly is a PhD candidate in sociology and social policy at Princeton University. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)Being a single mom in graduate school before the pandemic was no simple feat. A typical day would begin at 7 a.m., when my 3-year-old would loudly yell, "Mommmyyy!," I would scramble to get him fed, dressed and cajoled into sitting on the potty before dropping him off at daycare. I would then head to my 9 a.m. class, which I was perpetually late to. My work day was then divided between attending lectures and seminars, teaching and working on my research.

I would pick up my son around 5:30 or 6 p.m., have dinner and do our bedtime routine -- bath, pajamas, and several readings of "Little Blue Truck." By 8:30 p.m., if I was lucky (and frequently much later), I would finally have time to myself. I aspired to use this time for something noble like making progress on my dissertation prospectus or reading for fun, but it was more often than not simply used for sleep.
gen resilient katie donnelly
While this balancing act was difficult pre-pandemic, it has become all but impossible as life as we know it has come to a standstill. With most daycares closed, the large chunks of uninterrupted work time I once had have vanished. Working hours are now fragmented by screams, whines and the "PAW Patrol" theme song.
On top of that, this situation has clearly taken a toll on my son. He has developed a marked increase in self-soothing behaviors and asks me questions like, "When will the sickness go away?" and "What is dying?" And it's hardly surprising. Regression, anxiety and depression have afflicted many children as their routines and sense of normalcy have been profoundly destabilized.
I share many of my son's fears -- in addition to my own. I worry about the effects that this pandemic will have on my health and economic security, and that of my loved ones and the broader society. Meanwhile, developing a dissertation prospectus in this environment is like trying to build a sandcastle on a beach enveloped in a hurricane.
In a competitive sociology PhD program filled with overachievers, every minute I can't devote to work can feel like a disadvantage, and the pressure to play catch-up with my peers can be overwhelming. At the same time, in a culture of intensive parenting, every minute I don't spend working on developing my child's vocabulary, fine motor skills or other cognitive milestones can make me feel like a failed mother.