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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: Academe and Parenthood -- Commenting on the Comments
May 27, 2008 - 5:33am

I've probably spent more time than I should over this Memorial Day weekend at the IHE site, reading and re-reading Scott Jaschik's piece, "Does Academe Hinder Parenthood?" and, especially, the comments on the piece. (Almost 30 of them, at last count.) Jaschik's piece confirmed my sense, derived purely from "anecdata," that academics--and academic women, especially--tend to have smaller families than other professionals. I came by my sense from watching the stroller brigades at the afternoon pickup at my children's elementary school, and from talking to other parents about their families. Jaschik's piece has harder data, derived from two recent studies, but it boils down to the same thing: as one commenter put it, "the academic environment [can be] cold to mothers."

Of course, as several commenters noted, there may be data that the studies aren't getting at. For example, are people who don't want children, or don't want many children, disproportionately drawn to academe? Perhaps. But what struck me most about the comments was a set of assumptions about parenthood and family life, unveiled in several different comments, that seem to run like this:
1. children are the sole responsibility of the women who bear them;
2. "having children" is a responsibility that ends when said children enter school;
3. academic work should be so all-consuming that academics not only shouldn't have children, but probably shouldn't miss them.
I hasten to add that there were many comments counter to these, heart-breaking comments about the difficulties of managing career and family, upbeat comments about managing career and family, smart questions and thoughtful replies. I focus on the three assumptions above, however, because when they are distilled as they were in the comments they seem to me to represent widespread assumptions that underpin many of our policies; unless we change the assumptions, the policies are unlikely to change, either.

So to the commenter who wrote: "When a woman has a child it is her problem, and no one else's," I want to ask: first, who said the child is a problem? Thinking of children as problems to be solved may be a useful academic exercise, but it's wrong. And to the commenter's other point about the woman's responsibility: as a feminist, I agree that the decision to carry a child to term -- or not -- is largely if not exclusively the mother's; once the child's in the world, though, s/he becomes the responsibility of many more than just that one woman, whether you like it or not. What about that child's other parent (if present)? What about the rest of the family? What about the school system that will educate that child, who might eventually end up as your student? The fact that Hillary Clinton appropriated the phrase "it takes a village to raise a child" may have tainted it for some, but I still think it's relevant today. I would also, as at least one other commenter suggested, extend the notion of caregiving to elderly parents or other relatives as well: it is in all our interests that families be supported in their caregiving efforts. Exhausted caregivers do not make for good teachers, scholars, or workers; well-supported caregivers, however, certainly do.

And to the commenters arguing about whether having children might make one more sympathetic to college students -- and especially the one who questioned how that might be, given that college students aren't children -- I ask: what am I supposed to call my 18-year-old daughter, herself about to enter college, if not my "child"? She's no longer a spitting-up baby, of course, but the experience of raising her to this point has indeed given me some new insight into some of the experiences of my entering students. That is not to say, of course, that only parents can be sympathetic to college students, or even that parenthood necessarily engenders sympathy: but to conflate "child-rearing" with "child-bearing" is a terrible mistake, one that allows us somehow to stop thinking about supporting families once we've put a maternity leave policy in place. Last I checked, I was still responsible for my school-age children.

And, finally, to "Viper" and "Science Prof," who--in "Viper"'s words -- seem to believe that "it would be far better if the C19th ideal of the academic as a non-married person or one who enters into a union with a partner with both deciding not to have children would be followed," I can only say: I don't agree. One of the great joys of academic life for me has been the portability of my work: I may work an occasional 80-100 hour week, but much of that work can be done at home, or in a coffee shop, or even (gasp!) on the playground. Yes, I've graded papers in all those places, or made notes for articles, or prepped my classes, or even written. This means that my children have seen my work, seen it as an integral part of my life rather than (or perhaps, to be truthful, in addition to) something that takes me away from them. Not only that, they've improved my work, giving me insights into my research (currently on children's fantasy literature) that I could not have reached without them. Parenthood has made me a better (if, occasionally, slower) academic; I can't, alas, claim that being an academic has made me a better parent, but it has made me the parent that I am. The academy may not be friendly to parents, but we -- academics and parents alike -- are a stubborn and an inventive bunch. Surely we can figure out ways to improve our lot rather than simply turning back the clock.


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