Clearly, the three best things about being an academic are June, July, and August. I’ve heard many people say that this is why they stay with the lower pay of a college/university career instead of turning to the private sector. For me, it’s a wonderful time because I can work (mostly) from home and not have to tell students “it’s on the syllabus” for three glorious months. But, I just want to make one thing perfectly clear to those outside of the academy (including, but not limited to, friends, family, neighbors, and especially my children): I’m still working. Too many people equate a professor’s summer months of a professor with being “off,” but don’t let the shorts and sunblock confuse you. I may be busier than during the academic year.
Summer is the time when I actually try to write. It’s the time I have to catch up on all the things I ignored during the year, such as my department’s OARs (Outcome Assessment Reports, if you’ve been lucky enough to avoid sitting on that committee). I work on updating my syllabus and classroom examples, so I’m not still showing When Harry Met Sally to illustrate theories on social relationships.
Unfortunately, dealing with work-life balance does not get easier during the summer. I hire babysitters (who also need to understand I’m still working) and work in my home office, but of course, that doesn’t work because I can still hear my children fighting over who has the bigger serving of sliced strawberries. I’ve also tried getting out, but I’m just not able to write at Panera Bread. And if I go back to the office, what’s the point of having the summer off? It’s the principle of the thing. I recognize that I have the luxury of being home when my son finds a cicada and wants to show me its wings or to hear my daughter describe her very first kickball game: “It’s like baseball, you see,” she says, “except you kick this ball.” Summer is the time when boundaries between home and work become porous.
So, when you see me catching up on Homeland in my living room, don’t make assumptions. I may be finally watching a TV drama I’ve only heard people talking about, or I could be developing a class lesson on the representation of terrorism on television. The beauty of academia is that it could be both. Happy summer times!
I’m thinking lately about how some of my classroom discussions remind me of the conversations at my dinner table. In a classroom discussion, being the professor/moderator is often challenging. First, you have the students that digress in conversation (you are trying to talk about the quiz show scandals of early television and they are telling you that Kim Kardashian just had her baby) . Of course, sometimes these digressions are the most interesting part of the conversation. Other times, they just aren’t listening to each other. Then, there are the times when it just gets heated. Last semester my students got into a confrontational conversation about breastfeeding in public (not typically a subject that 20 year olds debate about). Then, you have to decide as a professor how to reinforce great ideas and what to do with ideas that do not connect to the material without publicly insulting someone. How do you teach while also helping to increase confidence levels?
All these questions are part of my typical teaching day so I think you can appreciate that when I get home at night, I would prefer to just read my kindle while eating dinner and ignore the conversation. However, my husband has proclaimed this behavior anti-social and thinks that we need to actually use dinner as a time to engage the children in conversation. I decided to embrace his suggestion and envisioned a Kennedyesque type of dinner conversation (with less grilling but with rousing political conversation- to the extent that an almost 9 year old, 7 year old, and 4 year old can engage in such discussions). Yet, the dinner experience reminds me of classroom conversation on steroids. The children just want to be heard and haven’t learned to listen so there are non-stop fights over whose turn it is to speak. Digressions are common (Jonathan left school early today for lice) and I wonder when I should try to explain the idea of following through but acknowledging that the 4 year old is probably less able to follow the conversation than the 7 year old, yet when the 9 year old digresses, should I be guiding him more? The conversation moves so quickly that we can discuss school lunchroom policies, why clouds form, the social dynamics of little girls (Audrey is not speaking to Cassidy--- FOR NO REASON), and Chinese dissidents- all within the span of 5 minutes!
Perhaps, in both the classroom and the home, the context is more important than the content (if you don’t mind a little McLuhan). Maybe it is more important just that we are engaging in conversations, having discussions and the content is secondary. As my children learn more about the world, they will (hopefully) be able to make more clear connections but meanwhile learning to take turns and listen are important skills. Perhaps, for my college students, the idea of learning when to listen and when to talk and how to accept digressions from classmates respectfully while still articulating a point is an important skill that at times may be more important than the particular point we are discussing. In the meantime, at least I’m up with the current celebrity and classroom gossip.
My daughter did not do so well on her first math tests at school. Neurotic professor mom that I am, I quickly went on Amazon to buy up all the books so I could tutor her in 1st grade math (I even learned what a rectangular prism was-- I swear that wasn’t a shape when I went to school). However, when I started working with her, I realized the material was not the problem. It turns out she was being tested via computer, and she had no idea how to navigate using the mouse. She needed a digital education. As I am a communication professor, my friends made fun of me-- the old “shoemaker’s child never has shoes” phenomenon, they said.
Her lack of technology prowess has not been an accident. It’s too late for her older brother; he’s caught the tech/geek bug. Last year, I read in the New York Times about a Kaiser Foundation study that found that poorer children spend more “wasted” time on games and other technology than more economically advantaged children. While my son luckily does not fall into the “poorer child” category, almost every time I see him, he’s behind a screen. Whether it’s our TV, my husband’s iPad, my laptop, the Wii or his Nintendo DSI (neither of which I bought), or his nana’s iPhone, that kid can unearth a screen wherever he is. I beg him to shut them off. Plead with him to put them away. I make strict limits on his use of technology (no video games on weekdays, no screens before bed, etc.), but he keeps gravitating there.
My son is pretty possessive, which in this case is positive because he doesn’t share his screens with his sisters, so they’ve had to find other things to do. They look at books, put on pretend shows, play outside, and have fun with their puzzles or dolls. In short, they play like I used to when I was a kid, and I love it. Therefore, when they have occasionally whined that they don’t have a chance to play on the Wii or laptop, I just tell them to find another activity. I have assumed that less screen time would foster more imaginative time. Now, I wonder if I’ve perpetuated a digital divide. My son can take his test assessments with no trouble. Am I biased towards an oral/print world? To me, does the screen symbolize less learning?
In my classes, I let my students have laptops and even tolerate their texting to some degree, but I do think most learning is better without those mediations. Perhaps we should add to the conversation about the digital divide a parallel discussion about finding a digital balance.
This has been the week of strep. It’s been passing through our house. The strep, in combination with birthday parties, school performances, homework, the washing machine breaking, and all my final grading has left me exhausted. So, when a student came to me with her long sob story of why she can’t get in her final paper because of all her personal problems/drama, I was just not interested. I mean, I’ve spent the past week cleaning up vomit (did I mention the washing machine is broken?), but you don’t see me refusing to turn in my final grades because of my problems. This made me think, and not for the first time: was I a more empathetic professor before I had kids?
My class and I read the works of Sara Ruddick and discussed the potential essentialism inherent in her notion of maternal thinking. We questioned whether being a mother could make someone more likely to negotiate peace. Now, I wonder if being a mother can also drain you of your extra maternal reserves? Investor Paul Tudor Jones received much criticism for his assertion that mothers can’t be traders because they lack focus. I do not think I lack focus in my job. I think, however, that I have a larger perspective on what really matters. Before I was a mother, I would have sat and listened to the student’s problems and offered all kinds of advice. I probably would have been emailing the student all semester to remind her to stay on top of her work. Now, the students are just one more component of my life triage system, and they don’t always make the top tier. In fact, my own husband often doesn’t make the top tie. Yet, maybe less empathy is a form of “tough love” and encourages personal responsibility that may be better for students.
Perhaps what Jones sees as a lack of focus is really mothers’ ability to multi-task, and by default, forces others to do so as well. Of course, I do not have time to ponder this insight, as I have to get ready for my summer class, locate a size-7 solid yellow shirt for the class show, discuss whether sharks have consciousness with my 8 year old, and most important, find someone to let me borrow their washing machine.
Last night I went to see my son's performing arts program. After an hour watching the band demonstrate their instruments, the staff dealing with a cranky sound system (they had to resort to the whole microphone-next-to-the-boom-box trick), and then the kids getting up to perform their dance routines while my four year old whined for more snacks from my bag (does she think I keep a hot dog stand in there?), I had pretty much traveled to my mental happy place to get through to the end.
When the third graders took the stage, my academic alarm bells went off. The boys' set included "Walk Like a Man," and the girls danced to "Dancing Queen" and "Big Girls Don't Cry." While the audience around me reveled in all the cuteness, I couldn't help but think how the school seemed to find the most gendered songs for the students to perform. Why can't girls cry? Why not boys? Walk like a Man? What does that even mean? It brought me to one of those moments that I find increasingly challenging in my own personal world: the war between my academic self vs. mom self. All my mom self wanted to do was applaud and beat the crush of parents to the front to congratulate my son. However, my academic self wanted to distribute some Judith Butler readings to the crowd and hold an emergency teach-in about gender-neutral programming.
For me, the challenge of academic parenting is balancing my academic training to question and test assumptions with my desire sometimes to simply have a conflict-free experience. I already explained to my son how we would not attend mother-son bowling day because it was exclusionary, but when I tried to suggest to the other mothers that both sons and daughters should be invited, my proposal did not go over that well. Perhaps what I see as my academic conflict faces all people as they set out into the world juggling their personal views with their desire to either fit in. At a faculty meeting, the expression of an opposing view is expected and even welcome, but at a school function (at least the ones I attend) it is greeted as a threat. Do you have challenges balancing your academic and mom selves? Are you welcomed as an academic mom in your community, or are you viewed with suspicion?
It is that time of year again when motherhood takes center stage in honor of Mother's Day. Of course, the holiday is celebrated often in a commercial way. There are flowers to order, cards to mail, jewelry to select, and cakes and candy to buy, all in an effort to celebrate mom. The news media will begin their stories on celebrity moms, heroic moms, and ways to honor your own mom. I can look forward to my sleep-in day of the year, when I won't be awakened until 7:30 a.m.
Just to be clear, I have what I would describe as an egalitarian relationship, but I'm a morning person and my husband is not, so for the psychological well-being of all, I run the mornings. I will receive home-made cards from my children and, like many Americans, will head to the store to buy last-minute Mother's Day cards for my own mother and other mother figures in my life.
I've found that these card offerings fall into a few different categories. There are the sappy ones that have quotes, angels, and flowers. There are the funny ones that laud all the work mothers undertake. Then, there are the apology ones, to be given by fathers and children that poke fun at all the work and worry they supposedly have caused.
My students this year are creating a fourth category. In the course I teach titled Historical and Contemporary Representations of Motherhood, we will create what I've labeled as "Subversive Mother's Day Cards" for our families. In these cards, my students will challenge dominant ideologies of mothers. They will question such subjects as the lack of paid maternity leave in many jobs and the hidden work assumed by mothers. They will praise those who lovingly do what we might call "mother's work" but are not actually mothers. Some cards will be funny and others depressing, but none will gloss over the fact that motherhood is a complex, socially constructed experience that we should be supporting all year long, not just one silly day. But, until that day arrives, Happy Mother's Day!
The other day I was reading to my children the book Ish by Peter Reynolds. It is the story of a boy who becomes frustrated with his artistic ability until he learns that his work does not need to be perfect, just good enough. My children love this book as well as another one like it called The OK Book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, which is about a stick figure OK who informs its readers that it is fine to not be great at everything they do.
What a long way we’ve come from Goodnight Moon, a book meant to relax a child as she shuts down the world. These books seem designed to reassure children as they go out into the world. Or, is it the parents they really target? With the emergence of hyper-competitive, helicopter parenting, a phenomenon that Judith Warner details so well in her book Perfect Madness, are these books, in fact, a response to parents that need reassurance that their kids (and they) will be fine even if they are not perfect?
It was not too long ago that Go the F**K to Sleep by Adam Mansback became a huge hit (and now is slated to become a film). This book, obviously meant for adults, mocks both the Goodnight Moon genre and the perfect parent for whom raising children seems so effortless. How would “ish” parenting look if we all adopted it? Would we end up becoming free-range parents as embraced by people like Lenore Skenazy? Or, as a mom constantly confronting the work-life balance, would it simply allow me to have an all-around excuse (kind of like those free homework passes my son gets to use). At this time of year, when I can’t imagine how I will grade all those papers, write all those reports, advise all those students, and serve on all those committees, my husband and I go into what we’ve labeled “survival mode.” It signifies that shortcuts are permitted. We can have breakfast for dinner, skip folding the laundry, and substitute fruit snacks in place of fresh fruit in the children’s lunchboxes. Wouldn’t it be great if I could have a comparable survival mode for the office? Perhaps Ish and OK are really just stories about how to cope with disappointment. Maybe I’m just reading too far into it from the state of an overworked mom. Either way, I’ve been told it’s OK!
As I was cleaning out the refrigerator the other day, I was reminded of Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift, which describes the extra burden of work that falls to women once they are at home. Then, it occurred to me that, because I was cleaning out the office refrigerator (who leaves vanilla frosting and a stick of margarine in a communal refrigerator anyway?), this work was a part of my first shift, even though it appears nowhere in my job description. This made me wonder whether women face not only extra work at home but also hidden tasks throughout their workday.
I was intrigued by the study from Perspectives in History that reported a marriage advantage for men, but not women, in academia with a faster path towards tenure and promotion. Women faculty spent more time attending to both child-care and instructional activities. Some commenting on the study have offered that women are sometimes less resistant to saying no to service work, including committee assignments. I was intrigued: what type of extra work do women do at the office?
I decided to conduct a completely anecdotal, non-scientific study of colleagues and friends. I have found many women who list among their normal work tasks cleaning up the office, building furniture, and planning baby showers and other parties. Some women were exasperated from “unofficially” advising students who confided personal information to them. One woman watched a male colleague say no to a student’s request for spontaneous advising but felt that if she were to say no, she would be perceived as rude or unhelpful, while her colleague was simply perceived as busy. Was it the woman’s imagination or guilt, or is there a double standard of perception when it comes to the time women versus men devote in the workplace?
Over the weekend, I read the cover article in the New York Times Magazine about Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, academic, and apparently, “the world’s most helpful guy,” who studies theories on altruism. I couldn’t help but wonder how this story would have been different if a woman was the subject of the profile. Are women expected to be helpful in the workplace, while men are praised for being altruistic? Do you feel you take on additional, unacknowledged “work” at the office?
I was working on my laptop (as usual) while my children played around me. They were dressed up in play costumes, started marching and kept referring to each other as Susan and Elizabeth. When they started chanting “Women should vote,” I realized, of course, they were playing 1st wave feminist movement (don’t you love the nerdy games of professors’ children?). I’ve been reading Sheryl Sanderberg’s new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and watching the COO of Facebook on television call it a “sort-of -feminist manifesto” to inspire a new women’s revolution. I began thinking how the children of the future might re-enact her movement.
Sandberg’s book is full of lots of “A-ha” moments, where I (and I’m sure lots of other readers) recognize what she is talking about. I, too, have cried in front of important people at work and been thought of badly for it. Sanderberg thinks this should have been an opportunity for men to show compassion and everyone to build deeper relationships. She acknowledges the work-life balance challenge although she doesn’t like the label because she is concerned that it makes the two areas “diametrically opposed,” arguing that of course, people will choose life over work (although I can’t help but think how I often feel pressure to choose the latter). Sandberg thinks women needs to stop making limiting career choices in anticipation of having a family because that will ultimately hurt them in the workplace. Her ideas here are backed alternatively by engaging anecdotes and academic study.
Ultimately, nothing she says is really new to me, but I’m glad she’s saying them because I agree it should be no big deal that a father is in charge of making kids’ lunches. I’ve always said that a measure of an involved dad is not that he can change a diaper, but that he’s changing enough of them to always know without being asked to buy more (and what size). In the criticisms of her book, most have focused on what they see as her blaming of women (the victims). I have less a problem with this, as I do not think she is trying to fault women but empower them. If you see the book as belonging in the self-help/memoir area, then it’s all good. My problem is the labeling of this as a manifesto or, even worse, a next Feminist Movement. Revolutions cannot happen by women being told that they need to “lean in” more. The women my daughters were pretending to be recognized that real change happens by dealing with the inherent laws and structures in society that are the basis of inequality. It is not enough to acknowledge that society should have better child-care arrangements. This disturbing map from the New York Times illustrates how behind the U.S. is on these issues. Sandberg may be trying here to tackle gender inequality, but I’m just not convinced you can be “revolutionary-ish.” Generalized anecdotes may lead women, and some men, to say “A-ha,” but what we really need society to say is “no more.”
The other day, my kids were watching The Cat in the Hat Knows a lot about That, a television show on PBS loosely based on the adventures in the books written by Dr. Seuss. At the beginning of most episodes, the children in the program ask their moms if they can go on an adventure and then head off after receiving consent. This morning my son remarked that he does not understand why the show wastes time with the children asking for permission since their parents always say yes anyway. Then, my daughter remarked that the mother is so busy trying to get her work done that this is why she sends her off. I looked up from my laptop (where I, of course, was working while they watched this show) and remarked, well your mommy is not too busy, right? And they both just said, sometimes.
As an academic who works from home often, I perceive my time here as allowing myself to be a presence in the household while getting work done. But, what if the work/home ideal I’ve tried to achieve is actually just perceived by the children as my being here but not attentive? Melissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, received much attention last week with her decision to return her company’s telecommuters back to the office in order to enhance creativity. Many saw this as a betrayal to her workers, some of whom chose the company because of this flexibility. Others were angry that Mayer, one of the first pregnant CEO’s to take over a high profile Fortune 500 company, as a betrayal to juggling moms all over. Still others, are especially angry about what they see as her personal hypocrisy. Rumor has it she is setting up a nursery next door to her office for her own baby. Although, that last critique I’m less troubled by. I think Mayer will get her own just punishment with the nursery office set-up. Quite frankly, when my children were that age (and who am I kidding, even now) the only time I got to eat my lunch in peace was the 15 minutes in my office where I was also catching up on the reading for the class I was about to teach (I call that my “me” time).
We see here a conflation of telecommuting with the work-life balance. Telecommuting is not necessarily the answer to the work-life balance. It is simply one piece of the puzzle. Corporations should take a look at academia. We’ve been doing the telecommuting thing before it had that name. We frequently work from home and summers (which start in June) are sacrosanct (there is no faster way to work up a faculty than schedule some mandatory workshop day in July). Yet, as my children have illustrated to me- just because you work from home does not mean that you automatically achieve work-life balance. I have a friend whose job allowed her (after much paperwork, justification, and overall fuss) to telecommute two days a week. Her kids were in school and she was at home working and it was all great until she had another baby. Then, she realized that she could not work at home while taking care of her baby and even having the baby at home with someone else caring for him was a distraction (are you listening Mayer before you put the finishing touches on your nursery?). Yet, she did not want to give up her hard-earned telecommuting rights (she might never get them back) so she had to change her arrangement and ultimately found a solution that works for her. She found a nanny share arrangement where the baby spends half the week at the other mom’s home with the other baby and nanny and his home on the other days. Another mother (a lawyer) told me that she needed the daycare because she wanted the house to herself a couple of days a week so she could get her work done in total peace and quiet (and some bonus laundry time as well).
While we can have outrage over Mayer’s blanket decision, the discussion should focus less on her personal decisions in her company but on acknowledging that solving work-life balance is about more than simply being allowed to work from home. That may be first step but figuring out what to do with your children is still a hurdle. It needs to be about flexibility, about both fathers and mothers, and about access to and support for childcare and daycare that arrangements that make everyone comfortable. I wish I had answers but the best step to finding solutions is to broaden the questions we ask. Now, I’m off to eat my lunch in my office (in peace!).