Fatherhood and Academic Life
It was never my plan to write my dissertation with toys, diapers and other paraphernalia from three kids stacked on my desk. But here I am, writing this sentence with a three-month old strapped to my chest, a 20-month-old running around with a pair of toy golf clubs on the verge of breaking nearly everything in our apartment, and a three-and-a-half year old judging my sentence structure.
Four years ago I was working for an international public relations firm in Chicago. My wife was pregnant. I was a certified red-blooded American male. Sure, I wasn't comfortable using power tools, but at least I was providing for my family. For some reason I got the crazy notion that instead of staying in a job I hated, I would follow my dream and apply to a Ph.D. program. In theater. With a new baby.
The general consensus is that if you want to be ABD forever, have a baby in graduate school. If you want to finish, put it off (and, if you want tenure, put it off again). The choice is pretty clear: You can have a career or a family.
I live in constant flux between academic and parent. This sentence took me 45 minutes to write because Nils wants to play "Hi-Ho Cheerio," and I've already stalled him with "just let Daddy finish this thought" five times. I try to work during nap times, living in constant fear of my children waking up before I'm finished reading four articles on gendered performance, a book on auto-ethnography, lesson planning for two classes, grading 17 screenplays, and trying to teach myself simultaneously how to fold a fitted sheet and how to cook asiago-stuffed chicken breasts.
It's impossible sometimes to simply check e-mail, or go to a production meeting because I can't get a babysitter. I've had to choose between attending auditions for my play Nights on the Couch and staying home with my oldest son who needed some one-on-one time. And I wanted to spend the time with him. So I did. That time. Other times I've picked academe. I didn't realize how hard it would be. These are the things that make you feel guilty even though you aren't really doing anything wrong.
I've brought my children to classes and meetings when I've had to, although I do my absolute best not to do this and "take advantage." Of course this is a risky proposition. But babysitters decide not to show up sometimes, even if you have a class that you're supposed to teach or a presentation to give that's worth 50 percent of your grade. Sometimes you tell babysitters not to come because you're dead broke and can't pay them. So you pack up the car, stuff some diapers and toys in between theory books and bring the kids to campus. Does class go smoothly when neither I nor my kids can distinguish between Daddy and Teacher? Do I clearly articulate the political theater of the 19th century when I'm holding a kid in each arm? But that's what I have to do sometimes.
The experience of juggling an academic life with parenthood has been mostly limited to the female perspective. There are obvious reasons for this, namely the fact that the woman is the one who gives birth. There are so many physical, emotional and mental challenges for women that I cannot even begin to imagine and am thankful that I do not have to face. Likewise, while the tenure system is generally unfair to parents, it is punishing for mothers who often have to put off their families indefinitely to meet the demands of the academy or face unfair choices should they decide to have a baby. It's a job structure that systematically excludes mothers.
But where does that leave us fathers? Fathers who, due to their "flexible" academic schedule, are the primary caregivers? Fathers on a graduate stipend? Who are trying to juggle teaching two classes, taking three more, attending conferences, maintaining some semblance of their creative professional life, sitting on committees, running an improv program, trying to negotiate the various personalities of their committee members while at the same time seeing their wife more than once a week, while balancing the needs of three small children who don't care about any of that stuff? What if I'm the one staying home?
Let me say that I am not diminishing the daunting task of motherhood in the academy. I know my path is easier. Rather this is an attempt to give voice to my child-rearing experience and role as a father in the academy. I might not be the one doing the heavy lifting, but that doesn't mean the birth of a child isn't the definitive moment of my life. Why isn't my story just as valid as my wife's? Why isn't my parental juggling act worth watching? Why is it if I say "I can't go to the meeting because I have to pick up Nils from preschool" it isn't as culturally accepted as a woman picking up her child from school?
As a man it's socially acceptable for me to have a family, as long as my wife and children are seen as the beneficiaries of my hard work, and not a distraction or competing interest. It is assumed that a family is a distraction for a woman (which is wildly unfair), but if it is a distraction for a man it's assumed he must have some sort of testosterone deficiency. For a man success at work is culturally more important than success at home, but what if circumstances dictate that I must be successful at home because that is my work?
My story isn't groundbreaking or particularly unique. There are hundreds of male graduate students and young professors with children, many acting as the primary caregiver. Yet all we hear about this group is, as Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden demonstrate in "Do Babies Matter? The Effect of Family Formation on the Lifelong Careers of Academic Men and Women," that having early babies seems to help men, that we achieve tenure at slightly higher rate. Boy, I hope that's true. Did having "early babies" help me get a job? Maybe. But I also think it totally diminishes my role as a father.
I'm not denying the harsh reality that academic life often makes a woman chose between career and family, I'm arguing that it isn't exclusive to women. I do the laundry. I do the cooking. My wife does clean the bathrooms because I just can't do it. We both get up with the kids in the middle of the night. I sleep occasionally at best. So am I still 20 percent more likely to get tenure because I'm a man with a child?
I don't mean to imply that I'm going it alone. My wife is phenomenal. My parents and in-laws have been incredibly supportive and helpful. Throughout my graduate career my colleagues and professors have been nothing short of astonishingly supportive. They've gone out of their way to accommodate me. Yet at the same time I don't want to be accommodated. I don't want to be treated as if I need special circumstances that differ from my colleagues. Of course having three young kids at home is trying, and of course I want that trial to be acknowledged. It's frustrating when a single, childless colleague quips, "Whenever I feel overwhelmed I just think of you and it calms me down a little ... don't be offended by that. It's a compliment. I don't know how you manage." Here is the secret: I don't. That's how. Sometimes I have to be a crappy father. Sometimes I have to be a crappy student. Sometimes I have to be a crappy teacher, a crappy husband, a crappy person.
I don't want to feel like I need to be accommodated because I have a family. I don't want to be less than my colleagues who can focus their full attention on academic life. Or get a free pass because "Matt has kids." I want to feel like having a family and being a graduate student is O.K. I want to tell people that having three kids made my graduate life fulfilling and helped keep me balanced and sane. I want to say that having a reason bigger than graduate school to finish grad school helped me immeasurably. Having three kids depend on me helps focus me. Nap time became sacred to all of us: they sleep and I tirelessly work (wishing I were asleep). Having three kids helped put everything in perspective. Yes, I want to be successful in academe, but my kids need me to be their father.
While there have been incremental improvements in the system such as (unpaid) yearlong leaves during the probationary tenure period for new parents, those who take off time or stop the tenure clock are often scorned in various indirect ways by administrators and colleagues alike. Changing policies is a start, like offering paid paternal leave, but changing the cultural stigma of a stay-at-home dad or working father is something that runs much deeper.
Matt Fotis is an assistant professor of theater at Albright College in Reading, Pa. and author of the full-length one-person performance script, My Fragile Family Tree: Stories of Fathers & Sons.
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