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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: Whose Responsibility?
August 3, 2009 - 9:09pm

Traveling and teaching in England this summer I've had a remarkable release from childcare responsibilities. Part of it is that my kids are older now — my 19-year-old daughter requires almost no additional care (though she's happy to have someone else buy her lunch!), while my son, who just turned 12, can certainly stay home alone for an hour or two without anxiety. Part of it is that my husband is along with me, and has no other formal responsibilities of his own, so he is picking up all the slack. But a significant part of it is that the program in which I'm teaching accommodates families so well. I teach in the mornings, and am free (to plan, grade, and do my own work—but on my own schedule) most afternoons. While I do have occasional dinner obligations, I am free to bring the kids on a variety of excursions and outings that would otherwise be almost impossible for me to manage. And no one has been asked to accommodate me -- this is just the way things are.

There's been a conversation among some academic bloggers about accommodating parents' schedules, and while I haven't followed all of it, the contours of it are familiar. Those of us with children want to get our teaching done before school pick-up time; those without kids are (understandably) resentful that they are asked to take less desirable teaching times in order to accommodate the parents. Some people would rather not have meetings across the lunch hour; parents often prefer it as it allows them to get home a little earlier than, say, a late afternoon meeting (such as my own department usually holds).

Both sides, of course, have a point. Some of us may have gone into academe expecting a kind of flexibility that late afternoon classtimes and meetings don't actually represent. Others got used to a flexible schedule in graduate school and haven't quite come to terms with the nine-to-fiveness of academic work. Yet others vigorously protect their most productive research hours and want to make sure their teaching times don't conflict with research — if this group ends up “forced” into less desirable teaching slots because of the childcare needs of others, they may be frustrated and angry that their needs are not considered as important as those of parents.

Frankly I'm glad to hear that parental needs are being considered in some people's schedules. I haven't actually seen, in my own experience, that it's so widespread as to call for comment or complaint from the childless — though perhaps I've been blind to it, focused on my own needs as I've been. I've tried to arrange my own teaching schedules around school pick-up times on occasion, but I've also arranged for after-school childcare or made other arrangements so that I could take the times the department needed. I resent paying for childcare so that I can go to a meeting, but I'll do it when the occasion demands. And I understand that some of my childless colleagues may have their own needs — care for an aging parent, for example, or a sick friend; a standing research meeting or a monthly writing group — that might also need to be accommodated on occasion.

What I'd really like to see is an atmosphere of trust and colleagiality that allows us to work these things out reasonably. If a chair sees that one colleague has had a plum teaching schedule several semesters ina row — and someone else hasn't — it might be time to change things around. On-campus childcare, after-school transportation, and flexiblity in the workplace (the last of which I have this summer) would also help. From my current vantage point, it seems that the time of needing accommodation is relatively short — I'm probably about halfway through my career, and I've really not needed it for a few years already. So maybe if we take the long view we can see that we'll all need help now and then, and the more we trust that we're all doing our jobs, the more we'll be willing to bend a little.


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