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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career
August 10, 2009 - 10:08pm

My piece last week struck a nerve, it seems, among some childless academics and with at least one person who didn’t comment as a teacher, but as someone working a more nine to five position. The big divide, as this commenter noted, is not really between the parents and those without children, but between folks with flexible work schedules and those without. Susan O’Doherty’s post today brings up the same issue: what of the administrative assistant whose maternity leave is too brief, whose work hours can’t adjust for her to take care of a sick child?

I’ve been thinking about these issues for a while, in part because at my home institution our office of Common Ground -- the university’s diversity initiative -- has made a point of helping me think about them. The staff/faculty divide is large, but in some ways we have seen it narrow in recent years, as (for example) our parental leave policies are brought in line with each other, opportunities for flex-time for staff increase, and (small but significant) we remove the identifying “F” or “S” from our parking stickers. (Since no parking lots are reserved for only faculty or only staff, the distinction was meaningless.)

In my summer program, most of the academic staff are also students. They are in our classes and on our excursions, and they are often doing two jobs at once — trying to learn from the excursion even as they manage the distribution of entry tickets, for example. They have both fixed and flexible hours, like many administrative staff people, and I’ve marveled at their ability to juggle their workloads — the skill will serve them well when they leave the academy and move on. Their jobs, in turn, like mine, are made easier by the college scouts — the workers who serve our food and clean our rooms. These young men and women may also be students, but they wear uniforms to work and their time is strictly regulated. I wonder what policies govern their work hours. And I am reminded of Dorothy Sayers’ novel Gaudy Night, in which an Oxford college is terrorized by anonymous letters and then by increasingly dangerous and violent attacks.

As it happens, (spoiler alert!) a scout named Annie turns out to be the criminal, motivated by anger at her scholarly husband’s perceived mistreatment by the college, and particularly by the academic women who rely on her services yet don’t even know her name. Sayers lumps the woman’s perhaps legitimate class anger in with her misplaced loyalty to her husband, making for somewhat uncomfortable reading these days. Now, when I think of the novel, I remember that our privilege often rests on others’ far less pleasant working conditions, and I thank the scout who serves me lunch and hope that a contemporary Annie would not find herself quite so oppressed.

I know we have a ways to go. Staff and faculty jobs are different and the demands on our time vary widely. But the more we think about our common ground — the ways in which our work complements each other, the significant contributions we both make — he more we can work on sensible policies that benefit us all.


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