Right from the time that she would take over temporarily for a colleague for six months, as director of the master’s of Arts and Heritage. But then it appeared that she was pregnant and so she found herself in the group that was at risk. “My midwife advised me to stay at home. I follow the COVID-19 rules and I have been wearing a facemask since the summer. It is a matter of solidarity. I don’t want to infect anybody, should I have the virus.”
The chat in the corridor
She misses the informal contact with colleagues, she tells us via Zoom. “You now realise that those chats in the corridor are an important part of work.” Contact with students is different too. “More at a distance. Normally, you would talk informally with each other after a tutorial. Or students would knock on your door if they are having a problem with something. Since March, that all has to be done through Zoom or e-mail and that raises the threshold.” Moreover, it is difficult to assess how a student is doing by looking at a screen, says Sierp. “It is much easier on campus. Now, if I think something is up, I send an e-mail; not to check up on them - they are all adults - but to ask them whether we can be of any assistance. Sometimes, I refer them to the student psychologist or study advisor. Once, I referred someone to a health insurance company. That was an American student who was not insured and feared that he would become bankrupt if he contracted COVID-19.”
“I have an optimistic nature,” she says from her living room in Maastricht. She is not in her study because that is next to her sixteen-month-old son’s bedroom. He is asleep, and should remain that way for a little longer, she laughs. Aside from all the difficulties, she cherishes the extra time that she can spend with him now. “It makes it easier to cope with the tougher issues. As it is, I have adapted my mindset since his birth. I cannot be as productive as before, but got something wonderful in return. I accept that - also because of COVID-19 - I can publish less, but I am worried about how people will view the gap in my CV in a few years’ time. Will they consider that I had two children and therefore had less time for research? And will they take into consideration that COVID-19 adds a great deal to all that?”
Teaching just continues as ‘normal’, says Sierp, but she doesn’t actually get around to doing research. “Work pressure is tremendous, certainly now that childcare has been closed again. This means that I have less time for my work, and when my husband looks after him, my concentration is less anyway.” Added to that is the fact that her son, when childcare is open, can only go there two days a week. “We don’t receive compensation from the government because my husband, half-French, half-Argentinian, lost his job during the first wave. He is a biochemist and worked for a small start-up. After three months, his benefits stopped because for every year that he has worked in the Netherlands – which was three – you are entitled to one month of benefits. For anything else, he will have to apply to the French authorities, say the EU rules, but so far we haven’t heard from the French.” To make matters worse, they no longer receive a subsidy for childcare, because they live off one salary. “The Dutch government works on the basis that one person works and the other looks after the child. But my husband is busy looking for a job, which takes time. Our son is in day care two days a week, he loves it there, we can’t afford more than that. We had expected more than that from the Dutch authorities.” It will be really tough when her husband finds a new job, she explains. “We won’t be given those days back just like that, we are on the waiting list and it is a long one.”
Sierp appreciates the support from the faculty. “Small gestures, such as a bunch of flowers from the board, that is really nice. Also, the solidarity among colleagues is great, certainly during the first wave, but is somewhat less now.” How does she notice that? “Less help is offered; the tone of e-mails has changed. It seems like there is less understanding for the difficulties that especially parents encounter. It has all become ‘more normal’, I think because we have gotten used to the situation.”
How can the UM help?
How can the UM help her? “By putting less focus on the number of publications, so that I don’t get a bad assessment when it turns out in two years’ time that I have achieved less in the field of research, because of parenthood as well as COVID-19.” A wish that lines up seamlessly with the national plan Recognition and Appreciation (‘Erkennen en Waarderen’) of which rector Rianne Letschert is an initiator. Compensation in the form of hours would also be great. “Teaching takes much more time now than is formally apportioned. Compensate us, ensure that next year we have fewer teaching hours and receive more hours for research.”