When I saw the piece on "the other 'F' word" in this week's Chronicle, I have to admit it took me a while before I felt like reading it. Really? I thought, are we still talking about families and the academy? Aren't we done yet?
Apparently not. The piece takes on a number of different issues having to do with family "situations" in the academy, from when one reveals one has a family (read: children) during the job search process to how to dodge another faculty member's overindulgence in family (read: cute kid) stories. I have to confess, the worst of these stories sound exaggerated to me — apparently I have been fortunate to work in a place where, for the most part, one's family life is accepted and accommodated when necessary, but not overindulged. I rarely worry that I can't mention my kids in certain contexts; and, as far as I can tell, those of us with children have yet to burden our childless colleagues with the least desirable class times. We currently hold our regular departmental meetings at what I consider to be a family-unfriendly hour, but it works for the majority of our department so I manage.
It is true, as I wrote in my essay for Mama, PhD, that there were a few times along my tenure path when I felt as if what some folks in my department were hoping for in me as a "head on a stick," a disembodied inteligence that could meet classes and write books without the messiness of a body, let alone a family life. But those days are long over—and, even at the time, it was so clear that I could not, would not, "perform childlessness," that the issue really didn't last too long. Indeed, my favorite memory from my job search was the dinner I had with several potential colleagues the first night I was in town for my campus visit. The talk turned to children because one of the dinner party had just had her first, and I remember expressing my surprise at how quickly she seeemed to have gotten back to work, how seamlessly. Somewhere in there I must have revealed that I, too, had gotten back to work since having a child — I either forgot, or declined, to hide my family status. I then turned to a male colleague who had quiet for a few minutes, and asked him if he had children. "Yes," he said, "we have five." (Pause.) "My wife doesn't work." "With five children?" I responded, "oh, yes, she does!" "Bless you," he said. "I find most people don't recognize it as work."
That moment of solidarity with a potential senior colleague made the whole visit easier. I felt that we understood each other, that I could work with people who recognized child-rearing as work just as much as the day jobs we were all engaged in — the one I desperately wanted. I realize not everyone has it so good — and there have certainly been moments when I felt crunched, unbalanced, misunderstood. So, sure, let's keep talking about families—and one could certainly do worse than to follow the advice in the essay (yes, I did finally read it). No one should "appear family phobic" or "overplay the family card" — in any job, not just in the academy. We should also continue to work for parental leaves in places where they're not yet commonplace, to advocate for family-friendly policies for staff and students as well as faculty, and to recognize that sometimes "family friendly" means accommodating someone who is caring for a sick spouse or an aging parent, not just someone who's juggling childcare responsibilities. And then, maybe, we could just get over it for a little while and do our jobs. Would that be OK?