Two and a half years of pandemic-driven anxiety and turmoil have turned over the stones of inequality that are pervasive in American life. Haley Miller, the head coach of the Labette Cardinals volleyball program, has seen nearly every one of those stones cast her way.

“My head is all over the place,” Miller said. “I’m trying to just make sure I eat, sleep and breathe when I’m supposed to. My head is a giant pot of boiling water. It’s everywhere.” 

Since the pandemic began, Miller’s volleyball program underwent the longest layoff of any team on campus. The team immediately turned around and completed two full seasons in the spring and fall of 2021.

“It was hard, on me and the girls,” Miller said. “We had the longest preseason — five months as opposed to two to three weeks. Then we had two seasons with a short summer break. I still have kids affected by the pandemic. Slowly, we’re getting back to normal.” 

As the Cardinals endured two seasons within a single year, Miller coped with a difficult pregnancy with her first child, Gatlin.

Pregnancy complications are on the rise in the U.S, according to a report on maternal health published by BlueCross BlueShield. The American Journal of Managed Care found the U.S. ranks the worst in maternal care and mortality compared with 10 other developed nations. 

Twenty weeks into Miller’s pregnancy, she and her now-fiance, Cheslie Cook, discovered that Gatlin would be born with a cleft lip. Within two weeks, they learned he’d also suffer from a cleft palate.

“We had a good chance to figure out our emotions,” Miller said. “It’s hard as a parent to be told your kid won’t be born normal, whatever normal means, so to speak. Gatlin had to stay in the NICU for a month because he was born early.”

Gatlin was born on July 13, 2021. Her six-week maternity leave kept her out of the entire fall preseason and a variety of medical appointments for Gatlin caused her to miss multiple games.

“I got to a moment where I felt overwhelmed,” Miller said. “How was I going to handle coaching, parenting, surgeries, other obstacles with Gatlin?”

Labette Community College does not provide paid maternity leave, so Miller burned vacation and sick days to account for rising expenses.

“That’s what a lot of people have to do in the U.S.,” Miller said. “So many countries offer paid maternity leave. I guess it’s just different for us.”

Despite the added weight of a newborn, Labette volleyball finally started an upward trajectory as it won nine games in the fall compared to one in the spring.

Gatlin’s first surgery to repair his lip was in December. Miller and Cook have held multiple fundraisers over the past year to alleviate costs compounded by inflation — gas prices to travel to Kansas City for care, hotel stays and other necessities.

Miller and Cook both have health insurance, which has helped them avoid being drowned in medical debt — the leading cause of bankruptcy in the country. 

A nationwide baby formula shortage also hit Miller and her new family. A $40 case of formula would last two weeks and the couple called on every connection to find the scarce resource.

“It was scary,” Miller said. “I thought I had a stash stored up. But Amazon was running out of formula completely. We had family in Wichita, Kansas City, Fort Scott and Chanute looking constantly to help build up a stash. It’s still hit-and-miss going to Walmart on what they’ll have.” 

As the world recalibrates from the pandemic — Labette volleyball had its full, normal offseason and will compete this fall — Miller is aware of the challenges ahead.

“As a woman, I feel under attack,” Miller said. “I’m being stripped of my rights. Send me back to where I didn’t have voting privileges or my husband had to speak for me.” 

The overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court earlier this year stripped a constitutional right to abortion, threatening trajectories that saw more women go to college, enter the workforce and fewer teen pregnancies.

While Kansans voted to protect a state constitutional protection to abortion in Tuesday’s primary election, there will undoubtedly be more challenges to abortion rights in Kansas.

“If I were to have another kid, what would that mean? I’ll never know what my rights will be,” Miller said. “There’s a lot going on. It’s scary and heavy times.” 

Recent school shootings that have put added focus on gun violence conversations also reside in Miller’s mind. 

“We live in a world that’s gotten way more cruel than it used to be,” Miller said. “There’s so much negative. There’s shootings in schools. When is that going to happen in Parsons? It’s getting closer and closer.”

Miller’s perspective on guiding a team of young women in their first years of adulthood has evolved.

“We just go one day at a time,” Miller said. “I have 16 females on my team. We try to be as open and honest about real-life situations. Sometimes they have to learn by going through it. But I hope they take heed to what I say and use caution.” 

Autumn gives Miller an oasis as the college volleyball season approaches. 

In the Kansas Jayhawk Conference, there’s been massive coaching turnover in the sport. Highland, one of the conference’s traditional powers, recently forfeited the first month of the season. The turbulence gives credence to the notion that Labette may finally be poised to climb the standings.

“I can bring positive energy to volleyball then be stressed about it two seconds later,” Miller said. “But at least I can control it.” 

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