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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs: Crazy
July 23, 2008 - 4:51am

It happened again. In a casual conversation a woman academic I just met said to me “That’s great that you’re at home. I was just not born to stay home with kids; I’d go crazy."

Well-intentioned, maybe, but this comment (which I’ve received a lot since being primary caretaker for my two kids) drives me crazy. Behind this comment is the absolutely false implication that I don’t need the mental stimulation that a “traditional” academic needs. Let me be clear, because this is a misunderstanding that keeps coming up: I was not “ born to stay home with children." I doubt any academic with an advanced degree was “born to stay home with kids," or we wouldn’t be so awash in the angst that goes with kid/career balancing decisions.

I bristle when I hear people decouple parenting from intellectual pursuit or insist that full-time parents can be classified only as a parent. Like academia, parenthood is all about flexibility – there are so many ways to combine the passions you were born with (or at least have cultivated over your lifetime) into your parenting. Especially as a trained scholar you can make it what you want. No one would assume that a full-time traditional academic with children was not interested in or capable of parenting. But it’s often assumed that a full-time parent with a Ph.D. is not intellectually interested or capable. Maybe this is partly due to the societal entrapment of receiving validation from external rewards to achievement. It is hard to feel one is accomplishing anything when there are few clear career objectives to attain, such as tenure, merit raises or a Nobel prize (or even a salary, for that matter).

You don’t have be “born to stay home with children” to find full-time parenting satisfying. The full-time parent Ph.D.s I know have committed to this non-traditional route, not with an attitude that parenting will be a mind-numbing time during which they will have little intellectual stimulation, but by throwing their energies into finding ways to creatively incorporate their intellectual passions into their full-time child raising. There is a freedom that comes with the ability to explore your interests for your own enjoyment (not because you’re teaching a class on it; not because you’ve got to produce something for a grant), and to ignite other little minds by doing what you love. There is no rule against teaching your child evolutionary theory, charting the stars, reading the classics, studying your child’s development (Piaget did it!), whatever turns you on.

Although I hear a lot of academics remark they just “couldn’t possibly” parent their children full time without “going crazy," I think, in fact, this is not true. If they chose to (and I’m not saying they should choose to, I am just hypothesizing about it) many (most?) certainly could find very creative ways to be intellectually fulfilled. Only the boring get bored.


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