Today’s post was contributed by DrEvoEco, a tenured professor at a public research institution west of the Mississippi.
As a scientist, a woman and a feminist, I always thought that the US should have a better family leave policy, and when I had my first child I was appalled that I really would have to return to work after about 6 weeks. I was the higher earning partner in my marriage, and taking 6 additional weeks unpaid didn’t seem tenable. Furthermore, I was pre-tenure, and even if we could have made it work financially, it did not seem like a good way for me to go about keeping my job*.
So, we planned ahead and found an excellent daycare. After some time home together, I finished out my leave, and then my husband took over, plus there were holidays, so all in all the baby didn’t start daycare until about 3 months old. Oof was that hard. So so hard. I didn’t know how I could bear such goodbyes every morning of every workday.
However, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Our daycare providers were professionals who took my baby’s development and health and happiness seriously, and who taught me so much. It was in many ways like having the extended family that used to commonly contribute to childcare. My daughter had more people to love and to love her, and she thrived.
I did, too. I taught well, and was productive enough to get tenure. As we all know, combining academics with having a family is not trivial to say the least, but it is also true that academia is one of the most flexible lines of work. I was able to spend lots of great time with my baby, and get my work done. It wasn’t easy, but it was possible, and even good.
I was awarded a nice grant for networking right after my daughter was born. When she was 8 months old, we held our first meeting and I had the pleasure of getting to work closely with an international group of scientists in my field. Most were men, and most were from Europe. Over the next few years, we continued to meet. One meeting took place when I was 7 months pregnant with baby number two. With my wonderful husband in tow with number one (then almost three years old), I lugged my big belly to a meeting in Prague. I remember distinctly multiple men commenting to me that it was unusual to have a woman as a leader of such a group, and particularly a woman with not just one child, but with another on the way!
I started paying more attention, then, to the atmosphere for women in science in Europe, particularly in Germany, Switzerland and France. After getting tenure, I spent a year in France on sabbatical, and got to see all of it closer up. From what I observed in Germany and Switzerland, it seemed that access to luxuriously long paid family leave was not unequivocally good. Women scientists were judged if they did not take the maximum leave allowed to them. What kind of mother were they to not spend every waking moment possible with their child? Indeed, multiple people seemed to think that I was an indifferent mother because my daughters had spent substantial time in daycare before the age of three. Women I met who had “made it” in academia in Europe seldom had children. Early career women scientists were vocal about their plans to never have children. In contrast, a few others told me directly that they were getting their PhD because they loved the work, but that they had no plans to be professional scientists, because they wanted families, and to them, the two were perfectly incompatible.
Not reproducing is a valid choice, but I think that many of the women without kids might not have felt that they actually had a choice. They knew the penalty they would have to pay. To be a scientist meant just that, being a scientist. To be a mother would mean taking 42 weeks paid leave at a minimum, and likely over 2 years of leave to be with their children. That is a long time to be away from academia. Not an impossibly long time, but a very real barrier. Being a mother and not taking the maximum allowed time was, at least when I was there, considered a cold and heartless thing to do.
I was flabbergasted. I had always lamented that I had not had more family leave, yet it seemed to me that for those who had leave there were other problems to deal with. While having only 6 weeks paid leave is absurdly short, at least within my local scientific and academic circles, I have not felt judged for having my daughters in daycare. It was a fact of life, and besides, I firmly believe that daycare has been good for my daughters and for me. Daycare is not a necessary evil – quality daycare is a mind-expending and heart-expanding experience for children**. Daycare rocks.
Clearly, to encourage equality in academia in the US and elsewhere, we need equal leave for mothers and their non-birth partners, and the partners need to actually take that leave. Also, we absolutely must find a way to subsidize daycare costs for graduate students and postdocs to put good daycare within reach. But another critical part of making it possible for women to stay in academia is embracing the wonderful things that quality daycare provides, and not judging families who have children in daycare, with or without leave to spare.
* To exacerbate that feeling was a statement made by a full professor after I had been on the job for two weeks. He opined that he hoped I was not planning to have children, because children would prevent me from doing cutting-edge science and getting tenure. Sigh.
** There is a lot of good research on the effects of time in daycare. As a scientist, I’ve tried to keep up with it, but surely have a very incomplete knowledge of this area so far outside my own field. What I have found focuses mostly on evaluating possible negatives associated with daycare, looking at a string of interrelated factors. Crime as an adult is associated with ‘externalizing behaviors,’ and some report that being associated with time in daycare (in Switzerland, interestingly), but most find no relationship. Instead, there is an association with insensitive maternal (which I read to be primary care taker) care and externalizing behavior, regardless of time spent in daycare. Lemay et al. (2012) provide a good overview, as well as a quantitative evaluation of internalizing and externalizing behaviors in relation to daycare and family status (vulnerable vs. non-vulnerable children). So, basically, results may vary, but high quality daycare generally helps, or has neutral effects on kids, and certainly helps parents!