October 2020. A friend of one of her boys – the eldest is 9, the youngest 6 – came to visit. Husband Erik had dished up a piece of pie for the children. The young girl has just taken her first bite when mama arrives at the door to collect her daughter.
Sarah Stutterheim, born in Canada, lives with her family in Kanne, in Belgium, and after schools have been closed for weeks, the situation is finally becoming “a little more normal”. Adult visitors are allowed, but Stutterheim is careful, “a real goody two shoes.” She lets the mother (who has no symptoms) in. “Besides, you don’t let someone wait outside while her daughter is eating pie.” The mother is there for no more than fifteen minutes. Stutterheim keeps her distance.
After a couple of days, she receives a phone call: the mother has tested positive. Some days later, Stutterheim is sick too. The whole family has to quarantine. “Before, I never would have guessed that you could get COVID-19 from a fork or plate that someone had used, but in this case, it can’t be anything else. I did think, after I tidied away the plate: I must wash my hands. But then again, you are distracted and you don’t do that.”
They were tough days for the family. “I mainly had a headache, like I was hungover. I also felt pressure on my chest. On day four – my husband became ill – I was feeling better. Or so I thought. But unfortunately, I went downhill again. Just try to keep your distance from your children. No, I can’t give hugs, no, I can’t come and help you. That was difficult.” In the end, the children also got it, but their symptoms were mild. “You feel awful, but you have to continue to care for them. You can’t appeal to the grandparents. We watched a lot of TV.”
Even now, the walls are not closing in on her. “I like working from home, but I understand that there are colleagues who have different needs, who do want to go to the office and be amongst other people. Since March, I have been at the faculty twice. We have a back garden, a house where we can retreat to various other rooms, we have each other to chat to and we like being outdoors.”
Stutterheim jogs four times a week. All alone. “My husband likes for us to go together, he is a triathlete, but I feel that he has to hold back for me, ha ha, and besides, I like to be alone from time to time.” She is training for a half-marathon, “you have to have goals, right.” Strangely enough, she doesn’t really have a problem with shortness of breath when she is running. “Maybe my lungs are more open because of the raised heartbeat.” Although she does have to learn what her limits are. “On the odd occasion, I crash when I get home. That is when I have gone too fast.” Recently, she took a week off work to rest up. A sign that she is not back to her old self yet.
She Zooms with Observant from one of her children’s bedrooms. “I am standing; I don’t want to be sitting all day.” It’s not just meetings that she occasionally participates in from the bedroom. She also gives her lectures from there. Sometimes even with slippers on. Private life and work and not separate worlds. And that is okay, she feels. “This is my life; I am a scientist but also a mother.” So, if the boys say hello to a colleague, she doesn’t make a big deal out of that. By the way, she has tried to set up a background in Zoom, a photo of the faculty, for example, but that didn’t work. “See, I look like a zombie. My eyes look really weird.”
The past months have mainly taught her to let go. “I am all about being in control and working methodically, but we have to be flexible now. Schools open, schools closed, in quarantine, not being able to work, postponing deadlines.”
How are things actually with her research? Psychologist Stutterheim is interested in stigmatisation, in how people with a disorder or disease, such as HIV, are discriminated against.
Her list of publications for 2020 nevertheless has quite a few articles. “Great, isn’t it? But those are articles from 2019, they are often in the pipeline for a while before they are published. This year I put a lot of time into supervising PhD candidates. It is often tough for them. I have been working as a researcher for fifteen years, so in a manner of speaking I have earned my credits, but what does it mean for them if their research suffers a delay? When the final date of their contract is looming? What if, for example, they can’t organise intervention groups because of COVID-19? How long will they have to wait? As far as that is concerned, I am in a more luxurious position, delays in projects are not as big a problem.”
What is going on in the world is perturbing, she says, but Stutterheim won’t allow herself to be struck dumb by fear. “I read and hear the news, but I don’t get emotional or scared by it.” She is confident. That optimism again.
Lastly, the difference between the Belgians and the Dutch. “The Belgian government is much more top-down. It is the virologists who make the decisions. When I see that, being a behavioural scientist, I think now and again: ‘Huh? What is happening here?’. Dutch citizens appear to be more critical than the Belgians. That is nice, but because of that things can be more difficult to control.”