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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: Parents' Weekend from the other side
October 19, 2009 - 8:20pm

When we dropped Mariah off at college this fall we didn't really think we'd see her before Thanksgiving. The drive, for one thing, is punishing: 550 miles, most of it on I-95, and however much googlemaps says you can make it in 8.5 hours, we've never done it in less than ten. Ten and a half, really. My schedule's unusually busy this semester and a weekend away seemed an impossiblity. And, with Parents' Weekend only six weeks after the beginning of school, we wondered how much there would be to talk about anyway. With e-mail, facebook, and cellphones, wouldn't we feel up to date?

Well, no. And so it was that we piled into the car on a Friday morning (Nick didn't have school, making it even easier for us to travel together) and headed north. Ten and a half hours later we pulled up to a darkened dorm: the campus was without power following an accident in town, and students were sitting in the darkened hallways, holding flashlights, welcoming parents.

We bundled Mariah up and headed off to dinner almost immediately — I did, however, spare a thought for the poor administrator who had to deal with a power outage on Parents' Weekend. And that was the first of many times over the weekend that I felt a certain double consciousness: both parent and professor were fully engaged with the events of the weekend.

As a professor, I'm rarely all that aware of Parents' Weekend on our campus. Occasionally an advisee has brought his or her parents by to say hello; sometimes I've run into a student with parents in tow and have stopped to chat. But most often I simply register the additional folks walking around the campus and then go on with my own business.

This time it was different. I was the one in tow. Of course, because we arrived late on Friday, we missed the opportunity to drop in on a class or to meet any professors. And we skipped the public lectures on Saturday, preferring to spend our time with Mariah. So that was another moment of double consciousness: someone, I realize, spent a lot of time planning events, organizing lectures, making sure rooms were reserved — I hope it was worth it, since we didn't see a bit of it.

We did, however, make it to an outdoor arts event to watch a variety of student performances. And here was the real source of double consciousness: as a parent, I was (and am) delighted that Mariah is singing, that she's found an extra-curricular activity that engages her so fully. As a professor, I often encourage my students to do the same, knowing that my own academic work is enriched by the completely unrelated hobbies and leisure activities I try to maintain. But I was struck by the difference between my advice — which tends to imagine, oh, a couple of hours a week spent on some kind of enrichment — and the reality. With three rehearsals a week, more in weeks with big gigs, and frequent performances on and off-campus, singing probably takes up as much time as any one class Mariah is taking — maybe more.

Since she's doing fine in her classes I am still all for her participation. It's offered her a sense of belonging that can be hard to find as a first year student, and it allows her to continue with an activity that has always brought her joy. Indeed, it's probably going to enhance her academic experience — her fellow singers are a diverse group, and they talk about their studies as well as their music. She's already started to consider new areas of interest based on their conversations.

So I need, I think, to recalibrate my sense of what my students do with their days. I know intellectually that they have other classes than mine, that they have jobs and interests and friends and families—but I still expect my class to come first with them, at least in the hours when I see them. My daughter — who talked with us as much about the exciting new concepts she's learning in her classes as she did about her singing group—is able to juggle her coursework and her outside activities, but it is clear that it's a juggling act, that her coursework won't always come first. I imagine it's the same for my students. Indeed, she may — as another friend said — end up "majoring in a capella." She'll take great classes, study abroad, work, and earn a degree, but music may indeed be the cornerstone of her college career. And that is not only fine, it's terrific: college is, after all, about developing the whole person, and if music is what makes her feel whole, it can only improve the rest of her experience.

None of this is earth-shattering, I know. But it's one thing to know that our students have rich and interesting lives outside our classes, and it's another to get the experience of it at a very close second-hand. And it's always salutary, I think, for me (perhaps for other professors as well) to remember that they're not always the center of the academic universe.

We had a long drive home on Sunday and the double-consciousness faded the further we got from New England, the closer to home. But as I face my students this week, and especially my advisees, I'll keep hold of that double-consciousness if I can, and remember that something beyond my class may be unifying their experience for them.


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