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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: What do you need?
May 6, 2008 - 8:15am

A month or two ago I received an email asking me to fill out a survey. I usually delete these, but this one was from a colleague, noting that the university had contracted with a consultant to
administer the survey, which was on balancing work and family life. I clicked right over to it; this is one of my hot-button issues, after all, as I figure it is for most working parents.

Half-way into the survey, as I found myself again and again clicking "not applicable" or some version thereof, I realized that I no longer fit the common stereotype of the working parent. One of my children is about to graduate from high school this year; the other is finishing up elementary school. I no longer need a lactation room, on-site daycare, or reduced work hours to be with an infant. I don't need a referral to a good nanny, or a preschool that's open in the summer, or help installing a carseat. On the other end of the spectrum covered by the survey, I also don't need help caring for aging parents; my own very active parents live 500 miles away and are so far taking care of themselves, thank you very much.

And yet this morning as I sent off the deposit for my daughter's college of choice, and a registration form for my son's summer camp (one of five we're piecing together for this summer), I felt a brief twinge of nostalgia for the days when I did need the lactation room and the daycare center (not, of course, that I had them then). Those days, it seems to me now, were relatively simple. I knew what my children's needs were, for the most part, and I did my best to meet them. I knew (with a little less clarity) what the demands of my career were, too, and I did my best to meet them, earning tenure with the requisite number of articles, courses taught, service

At mid-career the picture isn't as clear. The service obligations ramped up right after tenure -- as everyone said they would -- at the same time that the children, now in elementary and middle school, needed after-school care and summer camps to fill in the hours previously covered by daycare. There was a new project to begin researching, and children whose conversation I now found so intriguing, so important, really, that I couldn't just ask them to come back later, when I was less busy; later, when I could be interrupted. "Later" doesn't really work either for research or for the existential questions of teenagerhood, I find.

I appreciated that the survey had an option that read something like "I don't need this, but we should have it," and I checked it over and over again for the lactation room, the onsite daycare, the flexible scheduling, the help with caring for aged parents. But when it came to asking for what I really needed, I was stymied. Sure, after-school programs on campus would be nice for my younger child, as would summer programs (he's doing two weeks of summer camp on campus
already). There was some help available for the college application process with my daughter, though we ended up going it mostly alone. Could we have used more? Maybe. But the real demands of this period of parenting, as of this period in a career, seem to me more amorphous, less easily solved with one-size-fits-all programs and policies. Mostly right now I just feel as if I have to be paying very close attention, at all times, to everything -- which means, no doubt, that something will inevitably give. Is just recognizing that enough?


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