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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: Parenting in the News
June 16, 2008 - 9:43pm

This past week there've been several articles about balancing work and family that interested me. Scott Jaschik reported on the Irvine study that analyzed academic women's "quiet desperation" in Inside Higher Ed last Thursday. The same day, a pseudonymous writer in the Chronicle of Higher Ed wrote about being unable to talk about her children in a job interview. Then on Sunday Lisa Belkin's cover story on shared parenting appeared in the New York Times Magazine. The three pieces focus on different elements of the work-family balance dilemma. Jaschik's piece reports on an academic study that corroborates, yet again, anecdotal evidence that women academics feel disproportionately burdened by service work, underappreciated for their contributions, and unable to develop workable solutions to their work-family balance problems. The piece by "Na'ema Suleiman" in the Chronicle corroborates the study with further anecdotes and analysis, while Belkin's piece suggests that equal parenting is still largely a myth, though one that some couples are pursuing more succesfully than others. Taken together, they paint a pretty bleak picture for academics and other professionals (none of the pieces focuses on working-class families, an omission Belkin notes in a follow-up blog). But buried within them is one important truth: as Jaschik notes, structural changes, not individual ones, are the only way to address the imbalances academic (and other) women note. Belkin's piece corroborates this insight by detailing the difficulties some parents (especially fathers) had securing family-friendly work schedules: the ones who were best able to share their parenting equally were the ones who were able to find work that accommodated their needs. While the article focused on the solutions that the parents had come up with (charts, checklists, schedules, and the like), they were truly secondary to the work schedules that the parents, with the help of their employers, had come up with.

This is a place, of course, where the academy can truly shine. As Rebecca Steinitz's piece in Mama, PhD, "A Great Place to Have a Baby," notes, the academy has great potential as a family-friendly workplace. We can often schedule our on-site hours to coincide with children's school hours, for example; on-site daycare centers can offer employment to students in education or psychology programs as well as caring for faculty and staff children; an occasional child-care crisis can usually be accommodated with a rescheduled class or meeting (or a good supply of paper and pencils and some room in a corner of a classroom). That so far the academy has not yet answered the challenge leaves many women--and men, I'm sure -- feeling alienated, frustrated, and stymied, as well as making it harder for the many academic parents to achieve the kind of equal care for their children that they may desire. In my own family, we've come close: while I doubt that we've ever achieved a 50-50 day or even week, over time we've shared parenting and housekeeping in an ever-shifting rotation that -- usually -- works for us all. One way that's happened, I have to admit, is that I came into my career as one of the "perennially chatty people" referenced in "Suleiman"'s piece: I freely disclosed my parenting status on my campus visit (one of my recommenders had, I later learned, mentioned it in my recommendation letter as well); I requested -- and received -- schedules that allowed me to do school or day-care drop-offs and pick-ups as necessary (and within reason, since my husband was able, for many years, to cover the majority of them); I have pictures of my kids--and pieces of their artwork -- on the walls of my office. I even shifted the focus of my academic work to fall more in line with my parenting. But we can't all do that, and the informal accommodations I have been able to negotiate won't work for everyone, whether because they are temperamentally more taciturn, or their departments are less welcoming, or their own parenting status is less conventional (gay parents and single parents, especially single parents by choice, may have a particularly difficult time of it).

As usual, I don't have solutions, just questions: how can we make our positions more family-friendly? What would family-friendly mean to you? Why haven't we made this a priority yet? The parents in Belkin's piece are creative, thoughtful people -- much like the academics I know. Why aren't we leading the way?



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