Juggling work, studies and parenthood when you’re a medically vulnerable person and there’s a pandemic raging takes skill, spontaneity and efficiency, she tells Ramona Depares.
Amy Camilleri Zahra is a woman whose name is familiar to many. A PhD student – and now assistant lecturer – at the University of Malta and mother to Gianni, a three-year-old bundle of energy and joy.
Amy is also a meningitis survivor. She contracted the virus in February 2006; the infection resulted in the amputation of both legs and loss of function in her kidneys. Fast-forward to fifteen years later, and the young mother is one of the most vocal advocates in terms of disability and women’s rights. She combines this activism with reading for a PhD, being a mother to Gianni and giving lectures at the Faculty for Social Well-Being. Saying that she leads a full life is somewhat of an understatement.
Good Organisational Skills Are Everything
“Between studying, working and family-life, there aren’t many hours left in the day. My husband also has a high-pressure job – he works in financial services – so things can get really hectic at home. Good organisational skills are everything, I can tell you that,” Amy starts off with a chuckle.
Enter COVID-19 in 2020, and things became even more complicated, Amy’s medically vulnerable status due to her immunosuppression made it more difficult to pursue certain activities and even put a pause on Gianni’s planned enrolment to nursery.
“He was due to start attending nursery last year, but I was advised to hold off doing that in order not to run any unnecessary risks to my health. I had 2020 all planned out in terms of work, studies and parenting, but all this went out of the window and my husband and I had to rethink our schedules in order to cope,” she explains ruefully.
I ask Amy about a typical day in her life, but of course no day can be typical with two working parents and a toddler.
“I used to be quite regimental about schedules before Gianni was born. Everyday would be planned to a tee, maximising my time even at University. But when Gianni arrived I had to learn how to keep some leeway. I can plan all I want, but if when I’m going out he suddenly needs a nappy change, it needs to be done, no matter what I had planned for the next half hour,” she explains.
In a way, Amy adds, this has given her the ability to let go of what she jokingly refers to as the “inner control freak” inside her, allowing her to make way for spontaneity in her life. Now that Gianni is a bit older, she continues, she is trying her best to instil a sense of timeliness in him.
“But sadly toddlers don’t get the urgency when you’re trying to make it on time for a meeting,” Amy confides. “I will always try my best to be on time, but I’ve come to accept that it doesn’t depend only on me, and to be more flexible with myself.”
Everyday in the morning, Gianni’s grandparents step in for a number of hours so as to allow Amy a few hours when she can work or study uninterrupted. With most of her lectures taking place between 5 and 8 in the afternoon, this means that Amy’s husband can step in and look after Gianni while she is busy.
“It’s not ideal, but we make it work. Thankfully my husband is very hands-on,” she adds.
A Blessing and a Curse
She describes working from home when you’re a parent as both a blessing and a curse, as the boundaries between both areas become somewhat blurred.
“I find that I need to be even more disciplined than before, or I risk work and study taking over my family and leisure time.”
Does she actually have any leisure time? The question elicits a pause.
“Well, there’s always something at the back of my head that needs doing. I have this thing about needing to always fill my time with something useful. I do try to enjoy leisure time with my toddler. I am the first to admit to being a bit of a workaholic, but I also want to treasure these years. You only get 18 summers with your child, as I read somewhere. When you put it that way, it does put the rest into perspective, right?” she replies.
As for leisure time, the young mother tends to grab the opportunity whenever it’s presented. A typical day will find Amy up at 7AM, when Gianni joins his parents for some cuddle times.
“I take this opportunity to check the news, have a good breakfast, chat a bit before the day catches up with us. After this, my mum or my in-laws step in for child-minding duties, which gives me some time to carry out house chores and start working. By the time Gianni comes back, I prepare a light lunch for both of us,” she describes.
Afternoons bring with them more lectures and, eventually, playtime with crafts and puzzles. Before Amy knows it, it’s time to prepare dinner, shower and maybe catch some reading time before dropping into bed exhausted.
“By the end of the day I just want to sleep. Sometimes I actually force myself to stay up an extra hour just to have a bit more me time, but I’ve learnt that that’s not always a good idea because it can ruin your plans for the next day.”
She explains that normally, Gianni’s bedtime would be around 8PM. However, with reduced activities and outdoor time due to the pandemic, the toddler takes longer to get tired – which in turns means even less couple time and alone time for Amy.
Something that I’m sure will ring true with parents across the island in these challenging times.