The Mother-Scholars' Work-Life Integration

The discrete (or not so discrete) roles of the academic and mother

September 19, 2016

Work-life balance in academia is a common topic for academic articles, books, and in particular for those who are mothering and managing academic work (see here, here, and here, and here, and here and here…you get the point, just search for “balance academia” and add in mother and the links are almost limitless). In the last few years, the idea of balancing, keeping these two parts of our worlds equally in sync has changed into considering the ways in which these aspects can be integrated (see here and here) and even how it’s time to move beyond integration into how “identity and status is defined at work” (Williams, Berdahl, & Vandello, 2016).

Why, after so many years, is the idea of balancing (or integrating) still a big topic in general, and in particular for those of us who are also mothers? and how do we address this topic individually and structurally?

This essay is the first in a series to try to unpack why we’re still interested in work-life balance/work-life integration in academia, the structure of our roles as mother-scholars, the individual techniques and practices used, and the structural aspects that promote (or hinder) development. Ultimately, I hope to help us see that when women working in academia become mothers, we grow literally and figuratively, and have a choice to “coalesce” our identities of mother and scholar (Matias, 2011). We can remain in our positions, we can continue our work, we can develop further, and ultimately, we are here to stay and to enhance the world around us (see The Motherscholar Project for the growing presence of motherscholars from around the world and to join the movement).

The structure of academia puts professors in a fairly unique work situation because of the longitudinal nature of thinking and the applications of teaching, research, and service. This multifaceted long-term thinking becomes a part of who we are: thinking about and applying for grants and conferences that are at least a year out, conducting research that often continues for many years, and spending as many hours planning new courses for upcoming semesters as it takes to take the course. All of this combines with ensuring we tailor our research agenda properly for both our personal goals and the future job market. With teaching, students change frequently and topics have a tendency to change (teaching intro to one class this semester, then advanced the next, adding in hybrid teaching another semester) all while advising students at various stages of their program.

For mother-scholars, we encounter additional jobs, roles, and challenges especially in societies where the ideal is placed on intensive mothering.  The logic follows then that if women are to be good mothers by being with their children 100% of the time. This is problematic. This is what Shelley Correll might call a motherhood penalty. When men become fathers, if they leave the office, it is generally assumed they are taking care of work. Likewise, for childless women, if they leave the office, they are assumed to be working. Yet once women have children, it is assumed that if out of the office, the mother-scholar is not working, and instead taking care of children (see Mason, Wolfinger, & Golden, 2013, for research/discussion on Do babies matter? Gender and family in the Ivory Tower).

So why, after having children, is it assumed women are less focused on work? In reality, research shows an integration of work and life, not a minimization of either. As Yvette Lapayese explained in her extensive set of interviews with mother-scholars across the United States,  “Mother-scholars ultimately turn a critical eye toward binaries by intellectualizing private spaces and maternalizing the public sphere”(Lapayese, 2012, p. xiv). Simply put, this means that those of us who are both mothers and also scholars (often working in academic environments) do not completely compartmentalize each aspect of our lives. While the idea of compartmentalizing sounds nice - to be at work and completely ignore all thoughts of home - the reality tends to be different. Similarly, compartmentalizing teaching to only the hours in which we are in the classroom may sound appealing, but again unlikely and could be detrimental.

Structurally, academia requires an evolving division of activities that tend to demand attention beyond a typical “work day.” Even with teaching, there are complex, dynamic aspects that lead to an inconsistent daily routine. For instance, teaching schedules change regularly needing consistent development and update of courses, new students are admitted and require new attention/support as their needs evolve as they move through their programs of study. And teaching is just a third of faculty requirements! Research is one of those wonderful things about being a faculty member, but like teaching, it varies from week to week, and requires a great amount of future thinking/planning and often travel. 

I mention these dynamic challenges not to suggest that academia is unmanageable or a trying profession, but instead to articulate the juggling and balance inherent in the lives of academics. The academic life allows, and often encourages, a profoundly personal interest and passion for teaching, research, and service. Female academics, like academics of color, are often sought out for informal advising, mentoring and support. Being supportive can be incredibly rewarding, but since it is not calculated within most work hours/promotion clocks, mother-scholars have one additional work aspect within their day-to-day schedule that goes officially unrecognized. It’s time to acknowledge the women, the mother-scholars. For all those that came before me and shared their experiences and support, I see you and thank you. I hope one day I can provide for others what you have provided for me.

Isn’t it time to support work-life integration and ultimately a new definition of success that encourages motherscholars, and everyone, to get a life?

(A few side notes:  (1) not all cultures separate work and life into different categories, or into the binary of work and life; (2) I focus on mothers here as we tend to be the primary caretakers of children; mothering however can also take place by others including fathers or alloparents such as grandparents; (3) women of color have additional challenges to face socioculturally that like mothers working to move through the academic pipeline, can be inhibited by various sets of biases, definitions of a “good worker,” and structural policies.)



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