At the beginning of every semester, I discuss my attendance policy with my students. I explain they can have two absences for any reason; after that, points are deducted no matter the cause. I tell them that I don’t need, or even want, to know why they were absent because I prefer not to be put in a position where I have to judge the quality of their reasons. However, I’ve begun to rethink my policy.
At the office, I constantly wrestle with what I think of as my “invisibility of motherhood” issue. On the one hand, I want to be an example of someone who can balance it all. I can have kids while not having them interfere with my career.
Of course, that’s ridiculous, because as productive as I am, I’m less productive than I would be if I did not have children. They are always in my head. While advising a student, I’m thinking about who can relieve my babysitter if I stay late. Sitting in a committee meeting, I’m worrying whether my son is spending too much time on Minecraft. As I teach a class, I’m remembering how my youngest daughter gave me her toy duck to take with me that morning so that I remember her while I’m at work. I try not to let any of this out of my head at work unless I’m in a specific conversation with a colleague as a friend.
On the other hand, I don’t want to pretend that they don’t impact my work. As a scholar who studies the social representation of motherhood, I want to do my part to raise the issue of work-life balance. So, when I’m asked to schedule a meeting, I don’t pretend I have a doctor’s appointment (as I know some others have); I’m honest and say I need to attend my daughter’s play. My children can be heard in the background during my conference calls from home; while I acknowledge it, I try not to apologize for it.
Last week, someone offered me unsolicited advice about an email I had sent in which I had cited childcare as my reason for not being available for a meeting. She thought that I should have left out my reason and simply stated that I was unavailable. When I pushed back, arguing that not addressing conflicts of work-life balance only exacerbates the problem, she responded that my email simply stressed her out. It made her think of her own childcare needs, which she was already juggling in her head.
This exchange has raised all sorts of questions for me. When I tell students not to trouble me with what I perceive as their personal life excuses, am I asking them to begin to make invisible the first stages of their work-life balance? Am I right to acknowledge childcare (or eldercare, or other personal life issues we are balancing) in my everyday work life, or should they remain concealed?