Academia and Parenthood… Again

Harry b and Ingrid at Crooked Timber have been discussing how difficult it is to combine motherhood and academia. I'm a tad burnt out on the subject and can't bring myself to join the debate. I've found the obstacles insurmountable. But if you're still fresh on the topic, go to CT for the discussion.

Let me just say that my latest rant is that a number of male academics are using their paternity leave time to publish, while their wives or daycare watch the kid. This gives them a leg up over women in the tenure review process; women actually use their maternity leave to mind the kid. 

40 Thoughts on “Academia and Parenthood… Again

  1. Thanks for the link, Laura.
    You’re absolutely right about this (though I don’t know of anything more than anecdotal evidence). A very good reason, in my opinion, to make such measures sex-specific. Would that be legal any more?
    (The same is true, by the way, of halting the tenure clock for a year, which is a common mechanism)

  2. Would it be legal to halt the tenure clock for women for 1 year and nine months (i.e. tensure clock stops while you are pregnant and for 1 year after the birth/adoption of a kid)?

  3. We can’t make it sex-specific, and we shouldn’t. But, we can make it tied to child-bearing. This won’t make everyone happy, ’cause most people think that it’s child-raising and not child-bearing that effects ones work product. Paid maternity leave in some universities is already tied to short-term disability insurance, and thus is only available to people who actually give birth (neither for fathers nor for adoptive parents). So discriminating on the basis of childbirth is OK.
    Don’t know how this would interact with some universities attempts at “mandatory” tenure extensions (i.e. the ones where your tenure clock is stopped automatically, on the theory that you can always go up earlier for tenure).
    It’s struck me that this question is a bit like time extensions on tests — the tenure clock extension is supposed to renormalize the time-base for doing the work required for tenure, because the amount of work you do in/a period of time is used to judge how good you are. But, extra time can help the unproductive as well as those with short term time constraints, screwing up the equations.

  4. “But, we can make it tied to child-bearing.”
    That’s what I was trying to say, put more clearly.

  5. I continue to have problems with this whole discussion of parenting and academia. My latest thought: the problem isn’t really teaching. Nor is it service.
    The problem is the writing/research. Being in a job that focuses on teaching and service is not antithetical to parenthood. I’m doing it, and so are a lot of people I know.
    Being in a job that focuses on research is.
    RAF said on CT that he had to give up “ambition” to make his work-life balance work. But ambition for what? Ambition to write/research.
    How to people who write full-time do it? Do they do it? I remember reading (maybe?) Alice Walker writing about reading Buchi Emecheta, how her books read as if she were writing while taking care of children. Woolf, of course, talked about a room of one’s own. Melville hated that he had to work instead of get paid to write the Great American Novel.
    More later.

  6. Wendy,
    RAF said on CT that he had to give up “ambition” to make his work-life balance work. But ambition for what? Ambition to write/research.
    If I recall the conversation with Dan (and you were there too, Laura, though you might have been talking with someone else) correctly, then I think you have my meaning mostly correct. Except that–and perhaps this isn’t a very large exception, but it is a meaningful one, I think–I still do what I consider to be a pretty legitimate amount of writing/research, only it’s not the kind of writing and research that would have helped me achieve tenure at the University of Wisconsin or or Miami University (two places that I was very nearly hired at during my job-hunting years). So I think that the more direct implication I had in saying that I gave up on my “ambition” was that I gave up my ambition to work at the sort of institution whose pay and perks and reputation (all of which I used to crave) came along with research and writing expectations that, in my view, being a decent father to a growing family simply made impossible. Something had to give, and at one point or another along the way I made the choice I did. It’s possible that if Wisconsin or Miami had fallen into my lap earlier then I might have forced myself onto a different path, and perhaps I and my daughters would have flourished just fine, or perhaps I would have hated myself for it later. Knowing me as I’ve come to know myself, though, it’s probably a good thing such jobs didn’t come my way, because I very likely would have been crushed by expectations that I fundamentally couldn’t accept.

  7. I’ve been teaching 2 classes for 2-1/2 years and writing/conducting research for several years now. With all my childcare responsibilities and that stuff, I’ve been working killer hours. And it’s still not enough. Sure, I have a nice looking CV now, but I just can’t compete with the guys who work 7 days a week. It’s a tough job market out there right now. There are many 25 jobs in the whole country for what I do. These schools are always going to chose the unencumbered guys. And, really, I can’t apply for those anyway, since we can’t move.
    I don’t see any fixes to the paternity leave problem. Maybe the guys should have to demonstrate care taking. They should have to tested by a panel of women on on their ability to pack a diaper bag and mix a bottle of formula.
    But it’s really more about the norms of academia and the tight job market. Guys are abusing the paternity leave policy, because they are under huge amounts of pressure to get tenure and because family life isn’t valued by academia. I’ve been written off more than once time by people who never looked at my CV. I’ve had people say to me, “you aren’t planning on having any more kids, are you?” And I don’t even want to talk about the dirty looks I got when I showed up to a job interview 8 months pregnant.
    On a different job interview, I was taken into a room and interviewed by the faculty individually. One woman didn’t ask me any questions. She just told me all the reason that her job sucked. She said that she couldn’t help her son with his homework, because she had to teach. Instead, her illiterate nanny was struggling to help him with it. She said flat out that her job was bad for women and then walked out of the room.

  8. I think it depends on the research, and the service. I agree about teaching. My teaching is scheduled during perfectly sensible daytime hours, and I have a fair amount of control over those hours. My research (in the humanities) is very flexible in terms of my ability to schedule it when I want (having children has certainly slowed me down when they’ve been little, as one still is, and if I’d borne and breastfed them it would have slowed me down more). But service demands (of which I have increasingly many) are much less family friendly.
    As to writing, I treat my writing like an office job. Start when the kids go to school/daycare, break when necessary, and stop when I get the kids. Tasks that do not require prolonged and concentrated thought do not get done when there are kids either around or about to be around.

  9. Start when the kids go to school/daycare, break when necessary, and stop when I get the kids. Tasks that do not require prolonged and concentrated thought do not get done when there are kids either around or about to be around.
    This is why Melissa always makes me leave the house to go the office for writing whenever I’ve foolishly gotten trapped by a deadline or whatever, and absolutely have to get something done. Having the spouse sitting there on the computer while the kids play around is not only terribly annoying to the one left playing guardian, not only probably makes for a slapdash writing job when all is said and done, but also sets a lousy precedent in the childrens’ thinking: Dad can’t help, he’s working, Mom’s in charge.
    Clearly there’s some Woolfish point which could be made here.

  10. Actually, I have it the other way around. My wife works a lot at home (and I can’t send her to the office) so while I am doing stuff with the kids, trying to manage the toddler etc, she is working away, feeling slightly guilty and, every now and then, either distracting and being distracted by the kids or interjecting her own preferred discipline into a situation not shaped by her. I have recently started insisting that she at least work in a different part of the house from the one we are in!

  11. Don’t know why I keep showing up under my full name. Hope I’m back to Harry b now.

  12. I do think that there’s a larger issue here: how (some) academics abuse parental leave policies. There are two women at my institution who’ve taken the maximum and, in both cases, are paying for childcare during some of that time so that they have time to write. (FWIW, one is pre-tenure and one post-.)
    I’m not trying to say that these aren’t the exceptions — but I do think that there’s a more general problem here, about what we think “leave” means, how we’re expected (or expect ourselves) to use it, and so on. The piece work issue is gendered, but it is also a piece work issue.

  13. The woman who told me that teaching interfered with her kid’s homework time was at a grad program for school administrators. She had to teach a lot of night classes. And she was divorced. So, her problems were more complicated that other academics.
    Steve gets so annoyed with me working on weekends, while he’s on daddy duty that he just takes the kids for long hikes to get away from me.
    I remember the lunch, but not your chat w/Dan. I was probably talking to the other guy at that point, Russell. Ambition is a tough thing to give up. If I walk away from academia, I’ll probably not be able to talk to other academics for a year, because of jealousy.

  14. My husband took an awful hit to his research productivity when our two kids were little even though I was at home. We were also doing a faculty-in-residence gig for four years, which generated lots of meetings and one or two evening events every week. Nowadays, the kids are 6 and nearly 4, and we aren’t in residence, so he’s got at least 40 hours a week available to devote to work Monday-Friday. Half the time, that’s enough. Currently, I think the biggest enemy of his productivity is administrative duties–hiring committee, graduate admissions, etc. It’s all very important, but it’s a big time suck.
    At least around here, a lot of mature male professors have time-consuming hobbies: horses, golf, fly fishing, amateur astronomy, etc. It’s not like everybody who’s not a parent has their nose to the grindstone 24/7.

  15. “who’s not a mom”

  16. I saw that post at CT and like you, didn’t want to jump in, but I’m glad to see the conversation moved over here. It’s still depressing and I have to admit that I thought to myself the other day that there’s no way I could have pursued a real t-t position with a husband who was also t-t and kids. Had our timelines been more in sync, I might have ended up on that track and I seriously doubt that we would have had kids in that case. Which is sad. And I honestly know that both of us would have felt that something was missing if we didn’t have kids. As it is, I’m frustrated by my lack of a clear career path: do I work part-time, write, research, be an entrepreneur? I’m trying to figure out the best balance. I don’t want to put in the crazy hours that Laura has in order to have a shot at a full-time academic job. Part of me is so pissed at academia, not just for this issue but for many other reasons, that I don’t want to go anywhere near it.

  17. I see similarities between academia and Hollywood, including the exploitation of underpaid workers desperate for a chance at an elite status and the marginalization of women, who risk their ambitions if they become mothers. Maybe the kind of institution I work in is like a soap opera, whereas you guys are all hoping for an HBO drama. ;)
    Hope my comment above was clear. I was typing while my students were writing in class, and they finished a little earlier than I expected.

  18. Miranda on February 3, 2009 at 8:00 pm said:

    Work at a teaching college! Seriously, I just got tenure last year with only 4 peer-reviewed journal articles. And they thought I was a major scholar. You don’t need to have a book. However, we have a 4-4 load, so teaching is really all they can expect us to do.

  19. I work at the kind of place where people can and do have kids and tenure and do research. It’s not Wisconsin or Harvard or any sort of R1, but it’s also not a CC. We teach 2-3. It’s true that research takes the biggest hit with kids but I’d hate to suggest that the balance isn’t workable, because I think it is. I’d still like some of the work I do to be more valued (some of my research, and even more of my writing, is not really recognized), but that’s a separate issue, one that has to do with my own choices as much as with the system.
    As for abusing leaves, I’m on the other side of this issue. I wish men would actually take paternity leave (even if they abuse it a little) because if they don’t it looks worse for women who do, I think. To me the stories about men (or women) abusing parental leave read like welfare queen stories, a way of dismissing the whole policy when a few (if any) abuse it. Am I wrong here?
    BTW my research took a bigger hit when my kids were older. I’m just saying, it’s not the bearing of kids, it’s the raising of them, that really changes your life balance. Or that’s what my experience has been.
    BTW I like Wendy’s analogy about Hollywood. There are lots of options, it’s not all the HBO drama!

  20. Laura,
    Ambition is a tough thing to give up. If I walk away from academia, I’ll probably not be able to talk to other academics for a year, because of jealousy.
    Well, you probably have more ambition than I, which makes sense, because you’re manifestly a more capable person than I. I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve overcome jealousy though; I still feel it, and still have to bite back a bitter snark when I talk to a colleague that I think got lucky breaks that I didn’t. When I step back and look at the whole picture, I honestly don’t covet some of the jobs friends of mine have landed, but in the midst of things, it’s hard not be jealous of those who have been able to grab some of the high-profile fruits of academia.
    I like what Miranda and Wendy and Libby all have to say. I’ve found a nice “soap opera” niche which fits me well at a small, by no means prestigious, liberal arts college where I teach 4-4 (plus not infrequent overload classes), and research expectations are minimal. I still manage to do writing here and there, and over time it adds up to an offbeat article or a review every once in a while. My work seems to be appreciated and–more importantly–I like it, feeling like that, since it wasn’t a publish-or-perish thing, it was more a labor of love.

  21. A philosopher I know (not my husband) has calculated that on average, philosophers get tenure with 1.25 publications per year at job. He calculated counting graduate school publications, but not years in graduate school, so the actual number of publications per year at tenure track job is actually lower. I don’t know if the math is correct.

  22. RAF wrote “I still manage to do writing here and there…”
    Quit being too modest. Your last post was 2000 words (minus the block quotes).

  23. Don’t mind me, I’m just bitter because I have to make slides today.

  24. Amy P — that sounds right to me. But, and this is a big but, the density of thinking in a philosophy paper is much greater than in most other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. (Note to people in other disciplines who are wanting to be offended, I said density, not quality).
    Libby — I agree that it is better for men to take patenrity leaves. But better still if they use them for the purpose for which they are intended, no? Since you raised the general issue, I’m curious: do you think it is better for women if men make it very visible that they spend a great deal of time with their kids, bring them to the office, to meetings, etc. I have always done this, not especially to make a point, but really for convenience given that I do spend a lot of time looking after them; and I’ve hoped that my doing so would make it easier for anyone else, male or female, to do so without fearing any kind of repercussions (examples: I taught one session of a graduate seminar with my first child, aged 7 months, on my arm having her nap, because my childminder was sick at the last minute, by which time I, and the class, were fully prepared; I took my second one to a faculty meeting making a hiring decision when she was 2, for the same reason — only after having gotten permission from all my colleagues mark you, and my second is, and was already known by them to be, a remarkably easy child).
    Russell: I am very vividly aware of the role that luck has played in my own case — the luck of having the right supervisor, of hitting on the right topic, of getting a good job in a university where expectations were very clear and colleagues made great efforts to help me meet those expectations, of having a spouse who has pulled me into what turns out to be a very rich field and constantly provides me with new insight (and that’s the least of the luck I had in finding her).
    One of the very destructive myths of academia (and philosophy especially) is that there are these solo brilliant people doing “their own” work and shining through, when in fact even the people who seem most like that are entirely dependent on all sorts of support and luck. Having had so much luck and support, often from people who are less lucky, it seems crazy not to make the most of it, but also wicked to take any credit.

  25. Of course it’s better if the dads taking paternity leave actually use it for such, as with the moms. I just don’t want to lose the benefit b/c of perceived “frauds.” And I have never yet known a man in my dept. to take a paternity leave (really, not even a week), despite the fact that there have been at least 6 babies born to the men in my dept while I’ve been here.
    And,yes, I think it’s better for everyone if dads (and moms) bring their kids in every now and then. I’d love it if the dads weren’t lauded for their great “babysitting” when they do so, too, but I’ll take what I can get. Both my kids attended more than one class over the years–usually when school was closed for them but not me.

  26. MH,
    Quit being too modest. Your last post was 2000 words.
    True, but it’s not like those words are going into the tenure file or anything. Blogging–especially blogging my kind of elephantiasis posts–isn’t a good use of my time by any professional measurement, not when I presumably could be writing research articles or whatever. Thankfully, my institution’s research expectations aren’t high.
    Don’t mind me, I’m just bitter because I have to make slides today.
    Powerpoint slides? I’ve still managed to avoid them. I don’t know for how much longer–our grad school and night school are now requiring faculty to demonstrate proficiency in Powerpoint as part of their evaluations, and it’ll probably come to the undergraduate college sooner or later–but I intend to hold out until the end.

  27. learner on February 4, 2009 at 5:53 pm said:

    Cross-posted at CT:
    Let’s flip the logic of only allowing non-parents to be in the academy. Because dividing society into parents and non-parents means that children can only be raised by one portion of this divided society.
    There would no longer be any students who could say “One of my parents (or perhaps both) are professors.”
    I think that would be sad, since it is often a joy to have children of academics in one’s classroom.
    Also, aren’t many members of the current academy the children of academics? It’s a state of affairs that perhaps has it’s downside, and if it were eliminated something would fill the vacuum. But I’m not sure if the vacuum would necessarily be filled by something better.

  28. My dad’s a retired sort-of academic. But he became one after I did. In fact, he started working at one college the day after I stopped working there.

  29. RAF, I’m staff so I don’t teach or have much by the way of university service. But, I do have a boss, who has a need for grant money, so PowerPoint away.

  30. One of the commonalities of those who have made it is that they have spouses with flexible jobs or no job at all. My husband leaves the house at 7, comes home at 7 (if he’s lucky), and can never take off days if the kids get sick. So, I’m a single mom. And because I have a special needs kid, I don’t have access to daycare or other basics. Special needs kids can’t be taken to class or to office meetings. And they just need more patience. (The school bus came five minutes early this morning and it screwed up the routine. That means the whole day is trashed. Ugh.)

  31. I don’t understand why having a child in care during a portion of parental/maternity leave would be viewed as scamming the system. Maybe people are thinking about 6 week leaves or something like that? I get a semester off from teaching duties, and for my first child I also took that much time off from research. My brain just wasn’t really working for that period of time, quite honestly. For my second (who I just had 2 weeks ago) I can see working on some research tasks beginning in a few weeks, since I have some papers/thinking that can be done in small chunks of time.
    However, since I had my babies in the late winter/spring, I really had the spring and summer available to me without service and teaching duties. Both kids started/will start daycare around 4 months old, so I can get back to work. Maybe that doesn’t count as scamming the system, since that is about the length of the semester off, but I wouldn’t have thought I was doing something wrong if I put them in care earlier than that. I’m just managing my life – balancing needing/wanting help taking care of the kids (my wife was a full participant in caretaking but has been either a full-time student or employed, so took a couple of weeks off both times, but isn’t eligible for any parental leave since she can’t legally adopt children I give birth to in our state), needing/wanting to get back to some semblance of my work life, etc.

  32. I can’t believe I haven’t thought of this before, but when I lived in NYC in the late 90s, one of my best friends was a tenure-track English professor who had two kids while she was on the tenure track. And her husband worked in the financial sector much like your husband (I know he worked for Goldman Sachs at one point; he has a PhD in economics and does some sort of analysis stuff). Her oldest is 10 now. Her youngest, born after tenure, has had some medical problems. She has had nannies to watch her children. Things weren’t easy, and much venting was done over lunch. But she had (some) supportive colleagues. Others were assholes, but the supportive ones were enough to help her survive/persevere.
    Maybe it’s not helpful to hear of women who did it, but maybe it is.

  33. Wendy’s comment feeds into something I have been thinking, which relates to the responsibilities of senior colleagues (and is, I imagine, career-neutral, in other words not exclusive to academia). This is a case in which it may just take one or two senior people to be openly supportive to the junior person in question, and covertly (to them) determined to shut down certain lines of conversation and thought among colleagues.

  34. Harry, that friend worked at the same uni I did (I was full-time staff and part-time teaching), and I think the role of the Women’s Studies program was crucial. It was an active, vibrant community of both women and men (mainly women, though). Some were childless but there wasn’t an underlying tension over sharing responsibilities. There was loyalty towards each other, and everyone knew they had each other’s backs. We also used to get the best turnout at program events.

  35. “Maybe it’s not helpful to hear of women who did it, but maybe it is.”
    I think it is helpful, but only if you also know *how* they did it. What series of supports help them navigate through the barriers? “She had nannies” needs more elaboration, as does “supportive colleagues”. What were those supports?
    But, I think saying that it simply can’t be done is a disservice to others, as is saying that it can be done.
    (I’m not complaining Wendy, ’cause you’re not expected to know).

  36. Actually, I pretty much do know.
    First, she had a nanny that she pretty much paid full-time. Her nanny was an immigrant, but they paid her well and legally. The hours were not 9 to 5, but they were clear with her about their needs. She sometimes had to negotiate the nanny’s needs, too.
    She didn’t really “do research” on a regular schedule for several years, but she did do a week-long seminar in her field every year. She partnered with some colleagues on publications. I think she usually wrote in the summer.
    The expectations for research were there, but they were not exceedingly high. She turned her diss into a book and co-edited another one with a colleague. Her work is good, but she’s not a Big Name Scholar.
    She had family nearby, but I never heard of them watching her children.
    Her husband worked long hours, but if need be, he could take off time, though only for emergencies.
    Support in the institution, hm. The chair had hired her, and he basically made it seem that he wanted it to work. There were other parents in the department, male and female. There were others at the university who had asserted their rights as parents to be accommodated, and that helped set the tone.
    The dean was a man, but I never heard major complaints about him. The provost was a woman who had risen from a woman-centered discipline to become provost.
    It of course goes without saying that my friend was smart and likable and hard-working. She always made it work, though it was hard.
    I may be idealizing the situation, but I can tell you now that she has tenure, served as department chair, has 3 kids, and last I heard her husband was working some place highly regarded. She is also, as of the last time I spoke with her, still sane. :)
    It comes down to this:
    1. We need decent affordable child care.
    2. We need to support each other as colleagues.
    3. We need not to hold each other and ourselves to too-high standards of publishing during the early years in academia.
    4. We need to be willing to slow the tenure clock, not to be so rigid.

  37. I like your check list, Wendy. I would add some others.
    When we were in the city and I was looking at full time, I needed a nanny or a good daycare and a pre-school for 2 kids under 5. The care cost more than my take home pay (minus taxes and transportation). And that was before Ian was diagnosed. He needed a full time aide at his pre-school that cost us an extra $1000 a month for 3 afternoons a week. So, decent, affordable child care is important. Decent salaries are also important.
    Are schools going to do any of these things? Nah. There are too many candidates begging for jobs that don’t have other responsibilities. Your friend also had the advantage of being in a Woman’s studies department and she had her second kid after she had tenure. Things are much rougher in the social sciences and sciences where women are the minority.

  38. Laura, in my friend’s situation, her salary was paying for her nanny. She didn’t have to work to support the family, but she had ambition and the desire to work and teach.
    If her husband weren’t in Finance working 12 hour days, maybe he’d have a more flexible job which means they could share more of the home-based work.
    Also, I hate to be nitpicky, but her tenure line was in English, not WMST, and it was 2 kids she had before tenure and the third after.
    I’m starting to feel weird talking about her. :)

  39. Actually at some places women in the sciences may have it (right now) a tiny bit easier b/c their departments are realizing they need to play catch-up to get some women tenured, etc. Not so sure about social sciences; I think it varies by discipline and by specific institution and dept. I’ve had some colleagues very well supported, others not so much. And I hate that we end up sort of leaving it to chance like that–I want robust (but flexible) public and institutional policies so that it’s not all about one supportive chair or one bad dean or one flexible spouse.
    But true enough, Laura, on your earlier point–my spouse has been Gumby-like in his flexibility. (That is, he sacrificed his career; good thing he wasn’t in love with it.) I’ve known others, though, with much less flexible spouses, like the story Wendy told, above, and they made it work, too. Again, those were cases w/supportive colleagues and/or departments. So I still want better policies.

  40. Ailurophile on February 9, 2009 at 9:27 am said:

    I know I’m late to the discussion, but I can’t resist putting in my $.02:
    From my vantage point as a non-academic who is getting her Master’s and thus seeing profs up close and personal – the biggest problem is far and away the tight, tight job market. Colleges can pick and choose for all but a few disciplines, and the market is especially saturated for fields that are heavily female(English, humanities). Candidates have to grovel, beg, plead and convince for jobs. Schools don’t HAVE to give concessions such as flexibility to get and keep workers, because the market is that flooded.
    I’ve posted before that aspiring to be a professor is like aspiring to be a ballerina. Wendy’s comparison to Hollywood is apt. And with Hollywood, ballet, the arts in general, people tend to know how slim their chances of making a living at their craft really are. PhD candidates aren’t really informed how glutted the job market is and how hard it is to find a tenure-track job in most fields.
    I wonder if the problem is only going to be solved by a baby boomer die-off.

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