As we grew our family over the last several years, my wife and I worked hard to seek out advice on parenting in academe. We identified peers and mentors who seemed to be managing things well. We read essays about balancing and succeeding with children in graduate school. And we pondered strategies and warnings about the realities of family and the teaching life. The result is a delightful balance of kiddos and exciting, demanding jobs, whereby we both sacrifice daily to ensure that our mate, our children and our careers enjoy our full attentiveness.
I am discovering something amazing along the way: the moving reality that kids and academic life complement and enrich each other in lovely, unexpected ways.
Personal essays about the joys of academic life with kids are hard to come by, but Erin L. Thompson strikes gold when she emphasizes how “kids can help you be a better professor.” Without cheapening the vital role that essays about the struggles of parenting in academe can play for readers, I think it can be just as healthy to reflect on the surprising joys and insights when your life mingles diapers and revisions, or time-outs and faculty meetings.
Everyone’s experience differs with regards to children, so I proffer my thoughts as one person’s reality. Here, then, is how the balance of kids and academe has shaped me.
It relaxes me. Our firstborn turned our hectic academic lives upside down in the best of ways. Suddenly this little one mattered most. The frustrations of late assignments, miscommunication and slow progress still mattered (and matter), but they became minuscule complaints compared to the weight and joy of our new responsibility. Like falling in love (and it’s just like that), everything else became bearable. And the victories in our work became even more joyful, for now we were working to make the world better for him. These discoveries have produced a deep calm that enables us to swallow the frustration while marveling at the profound things in life.
It invigorates purpose. As I write, my eyes keep flicking to the left corner of my desk where sits a forest (literally, all those wooden frames) of pictures and artwork. That corner of my desk is my reason for being here. I could call many other things my impetuses -- I hope, for instance, that my writing, the resources I produce and my faculty mentoring will contribute to positive learning. But academic life has a funny way of inspiring these things in us and then doing what it can to smother them through overwork, bureaucracy and selfishness. Cutting through all of that, every day is a chance to make things a bit better for that corner of my desk. Realizing this redeems my work for me every day.
It deepens my questions. Living with inquisitive younglings brings amazing new observations into your life while altering the ways you approach questions yourself. My eldest son’s first fully formed question was a sarcastic “Papa, what are you doooiiinng?” An excellent question we should all ask ourselves, with equal vigor. The questions and statements that open my day -- “It’s morning!” “You go work today?” “We play choo-choo trains?” -- are utterly simple, and utterly beguiled by the existence of the world. While I walk into workdays full of adult complexity, rabbit holes and tasks both menial and fulfilling, those morning glories keep me from getting too lost or cynical.
My scholarly questions have also grown as I see the world through young eyes. As a graduate student, I sought a toehold in my field through specialization: “How does printed front matter channel Reformation theology?” Now, with daily reminders about the status of a world into which my kids are charging, my questions target deeper structural problems and seek to refine the nature of inquiry itself: “How can we ask better questions in literary criticism?” Children are not the only inspiration for such developments, but they are mine.
It makes me a better facilitator. If raising a toddler is about forbearance, it’s also about bear imitations and creative palaver. It has loosened my willingness to make a fool of myself in order to encourage a laugh or get my little one to subscribe to an idea. (You know, little things like sleeping or not screaming in public.) Those skills are vital for any teacher-scholar in the classroom, at staff meetings or when running workshops. My patience and sense of humor have grown, as have my abilities to reformulate questions for students and understand that faculty members, like all of us, learned how to learn a certain way and replicate that for their students.
It makes me a better writer. Deepening and broadening your thinking can significantly improve writing, but children improve it in far more mundane ways: they reduce the hours in your day. As a parent I have precious few hours possessing all the right arrangements for writing -- quiet, alertness, a shield from other needs or responsibilities. That typically means writing early in the morning, late at night, on the occasional lunch break and over holidays.
The restriction on hours can do wonders for productivity and has reminded me how quickly I can enter “writing mode” when I have just an hour a day. My writing productivity has tripled since having kids, much of which I ascribe to a tighter schedule. It has also made my writing more emotional, in the sense that my intellectual endeavors now enfold an emotional component. Ideas are no longer intellectual units but amalgams with intellectual and emotional range drawn from the future society and education I imagine for my kids. They inherit my words and world, and if it all isn’t ultimately a love letter to them, I have missed my mark.
It makes me more compassionate. To have children is to grapple, every day, with the fact you cannot protect them. You discover instantly as a parent all the ways your child could suffer, bringing the possibilities of hurt and addiction into your house and heart. All these things grow your empathy and compassion, for they remind you that everyone around you is a child, and many are parents. Your students are children. The people who will read your work have hurt in their lives that a parent, somewhere, wishes they could fix. How can my writing, my teaching and my daily interactions offer space for the ways that hurt has changed people? Can I help them to heal in the ways that I hope my kids will always be whole?
Being a teacher-scholar with kids makes every day an unfolding poem: dense, illuminating, playful and meaningful only as the end can speak to the beginning. The best poems end by returning to their opening propositions with new light and unexpected depths. Just so, I begin and end the day with my kids, and thus they frame all my work in the academy. It is a strange joy to return home to my son asking the same question from this morning, after I’ve spent my day writing articles and offering resources purporting to answer questions. Maybe some questions are not meant to be answered but rather practiced and massaged, played and lived with. Like T. S. Eliot’s lovely words, I arrive where I started and know it again for the first time.
I would like to end my piece as Thompson ended hers: by encouraging you to fall into your support network. It is vitally important to recognize that this balance is simply not possible for some. Children can come with disabilities that require far more intense commitments, commutes and childcare schedules will vary, and marital relationships can suffer.
As we enter the new year, I hope that you can find the time to engage with your spouse, partner or support network. Regardless of your marital status, only your constellation of love, support and belief can comprehend your decisions and their repercussions. I pray every blessing of clarity, patience and honesty for you in the coming weeks.