Oftentimes, when we discuss mixing motherhood with an academic career (or a professional careers more generally), our discussion and anxiety center on pregnancy and babies. “What will happen if I get pregnant during my PhD?” “If I wait until after tenure to have children, will it be too late?” I think this baby-centric view of academic motherhood comes from the clear physiological demands of parenting an infant (the sleep deprivation! the leaky breasts!) and is compounded by the absolutely abominable lack of paid leave and support for new mothers in the US. But children don’t magically start taking care of themselves as age 1… or 2… or 3… or… even though their mothers are back in the classroom and lab pretending to have it all together and maybe even trying to make up for “lost time” or “low productivity” during their child’s infancy.
It would be nice if we did a better job of acknowledging that big kids take time too, and that even as our children grow older there’s still a strong time demand on parents. In our family, the tween* goes to after-school care, and so in theory is taken care from the beginning to the school day to the end of the workday. But between doctor, dentist, and orthodontist appointments, snow days, early release days, etc., hardly a week goes by where the stereotypical work week proceeds without some disruption. In 2016, so far, we’ve managed a grand total of one work-week where both parents went to the office for five full days**. And that’s before we add in soccer, piano lessons, and more that are the hallmarks of middle class American family life.
Not only is there the time associated with getting big kids to and from their various activities (and waiting for them to do them), but there’s also the time required to get things scheduled, paid for, etc. I was on the phone with the tween’s after-school care center no less than 4 times today trying to sort out a billing snafu. And I finally got around to setting up a long-overdue specialist doctor’s appointment for the tween when a letter came home from the school with standardized testing days and imploring us to not have any doctors’ appointments on those dates. All of this takes time to manage. And they take brain power and mental RAM that can’t then be devoted to thinking big thoughts about our academic subject matter.
In many heterosexual families, the burden of all of this family management disproportionately falls to women. For the single mother, it’s all on her shoulders. There’s a brilliant essay by Brigid Schulte on why time is a feminist issue that uses the term “time confetti” to describe what working mothers are left with when we get done taking care of everyone else’s needs. Erin Wunker extends this explicitly to academia, where we aim to think critically and then model equitable change.
In the midst of the crazy running around and grading papers during the big kid’s swim lesson, it’s easy to delude ourselves into thinking that we are managing it all and that we are giving our kids what they need. But sometimes we get a reminder that we are not. For me, recently, it was a note home from the teacher saying that the tween hadn’t turned in spelling homework in months. Had it really been that long? I knew she’d been forgetting it sometimes… but months? I was counting on a kid who is not even in the double digits to be managing her own professional life. I’d post-hoc justified not paying attention to her homework with the rationalization that she was learning responsibility by suffering the consequences of not turning it in. I still believe that, but the teacher’s note also made me realize I was abdicating my own responsibility to make sure my child had the time and structure she needs to be successful at school. So I am in the process of making some changes in my work week, to carve out more time to spend with the tween to help her build the sort of homework habits that she serve her well for the rest of her academic career. And my time confetti just got a bit smaller.
Last, but far from least, I like spending time with my big kid. She’s neat, she has interesting things to say, and she wants to spend time with me. In fact, she’s desperate for mother-daughter times*** and I want to give those to her, while she’s still willing to be seen with me in public.
This essay isn’t a complaint – I love my big kid to the moon and back and my number one job is to raise her into adulthood. And there’s nothing in my situation that’s unique to academia. In fact I benefit from the flexible schedule that will allow me to accommodate her needs without having to take sick time or risk my job. I can work later into the night**** to make up for taking the tween to the orthodontist on a Tuesday morning.
But…I wish my previous sentence didn’t say “later into the night.” I wish that the vaunted flexibility of academia didn’t come with an expectation that graduate students, faculty, and professors can be loaded with more and more teaching, research, and service expectations and a “death by a thousand paper cuts” administrative tasks that can easily exceed what can reasonably be accomplished in a 40-45 hour work week. My teaching load has gone up this year, and I’m already working two+ hours most evenings to try to keep up. I’m barely treading water. When I add in trying to compensate for the work day time lost to parenting, I very quickly begin to exceed my ability to work later in the evening. I lose time for self-care and I lose time for sleep. And I fall further and further behind, particularly on my research and writing.*****
So when we talk about academia and motherhood, I wish we’d acknowledge that children continue to demand – and deserve – our time long past infancy and that mothers are making this time at some cost to our own health and professional success. I won’t argue that mothers deserve some sort of special breaks in the system, but rather that the current academic system is built to promote overwork and exploit our time and energy far beyond the hours for which we are compensated.****** A better system is one in which workloads and expectations are distributed more reasonably for everyone and that when a new demand is placed on our time, something else is taken off to compensate.
In the system I dream of, we can work hard all day and then go home and not work in the evenings, spending time with our families, friends, or hobbies. We could make sure our kids’ homework is done, not be lost in a pile of our own grading. Or, when we take advantage of academia’s flexibility to spend workday quality time at the pediatrician’s office or school musical, only then do we have to open our laptops in the evening to compensate.
More reasonable academic workloads and expectations won’t solve time confetti for mothers and they won’t make my tween practice piano without my nagging, but they will make for happier healthier kids, mothers, and the academic community at large. In academia, we are encouraged to critically think through difficult problems, then fine solutions. My solution: first, we talk about all stages of parenting; then we fix expectations so that parents (and everyone) can keep up; then we close our laptops and get a good night’s sleep.
*I dislike that word, but she likes it, so sigh.
** Though in fairness, the continual daycare illnesses brought home by the baby have been a major factor here too.
*** See again, the baby.
****Baby willing, but usually he is not.
*****But I’m not working 80 hours and I won’t pretend I am. See Meg Duffy for more on why the myth of the 80 hour week is dangerous and silly.
******And let’s not even discuss the 3 months of unpaid work that faculty on 9-month contracts do.