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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: The Myth of Indispensability
July 7, 2008 - 8:58pm

One of the nice things about blogging is the sense it can provide of participating in an ongoing conversation. After blogging about parenting in the news, for example, I read this interesting post by an academic who has a very different kind of position than mine. I think sometimes I forget that not all academics have the same kind of job; even within my university, for example, among tenured professors, one can find folks who teach every day and folks who teach once or twice a week; folks who teach 75 students a semester and folks who teach 25; folks who co-author most of their work and folks who never do, etc. So how much greater might the differences be between academic positions at widely disparate institutions?

The biggest difference I saw between my position and Wendy's of Outside Providence is that, as she notes in her post, most of her teaching is in required courses which are taught by everyone in her department. That's huge, it seems to me: it means that anyone in her department should, theoretically, be able to sub for anyone else. In my department, I'm the lone Victorianist as well as the lone children's lit specialist; when I am teaching courses in those areas (as I will be in the fall), there's no one on staff who can sub for me. In a department like Wendy's, then, one could miss a day or even a week of classes without one's students losing ground; the very thought is unimaginable to me, and makes the whole idea of leave time (whether to care for a newborn, a sick child, or an aging parent) that much harder. Perhaps this is why we don't have clear and consistent leave policies; most of us negotiate individually because we feel that our positions are unique.

I think many of us in the academy feel this way -- that we are both unique and indispensable. Unlike our colleagues in K-12 teaching, whose daily lesson plans make it possible -- if not easy -- for a substitute to step in--or those in higher ed who are covering one of many sections of a service course, we specialists are indispensable, or so we tell ourselves. And perhaps mothers are more prone to this mental trap -- for it is, truly, a mental trap -- than most people, having felt ourselves to be indispensable to our children for 9, or 12, or 18 years months (or however long it is).

The truth is, we are not indispensable. We know this at our core when we serve on hiring committees and see how many people apply for the advertised job; we know it when we miss a deadline, or a class, and the sky does not fall; we know it as our children grow to need us less and less (and in case you've forgotten, as I sometimes do, that is the goal of parenting, after all…). While it's true that no one in my department shares my specialties, surely someone could pitch in and teach a class on, say, "The Lady of Shalott" or Great Expectations in a pinch. Indeed, having someone come in who's not as well-prepared as I should be might put the onus on the students for a bit. I met someone a while ago who, at the end of a difficult pregnancy, discovered that her Milton seminar students could indeed teach themselves for the last week or two of the course. Similarly, when I leave for a weekend conference, I am reminded yet again that my family is perfectly capable of feeding and clothing themselves.

It's good to remember that we're not alone in our jobs, even when we feel that we are. I'm fortunate enough not to be parenting alone, and I don't really teach alone, either -- my students and my colleagues are part of my work, whether they know it or not. I don't anticipate asking them to step in and cover for me any time soon, but it's good to remember that I could if I had to. Now, about those clear and consistent leave policies… (By the way, I'm testing my theory by taking next week off from the blog. Feel free to talk amongst yourselves while I'm gone.)


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