Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent, Part II: Parenting on the Job


A few weeks ago I published Part 1 of a two-part post entitled “Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent, Part I: Grad School Babies.” This post covered the presentations and discussions that took place during a workshop that I chaired at this year’s  Console-ing Passions: A Conference on Television, Audio, Video, New Media, and Feminism, hosted by Suffolk University, entitled “Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent.” This post discussed the challenges and rewards of having a child while still in graduate school. I was pleased to see how many people engaged in this conversation — in the comments section of this blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter. I often feel self conscious whenever I link up my roles as parent and professor since acknowledging that one role might impact the other implies a weakness. It makes me a less desirable employee than my child-free counterpart. Thus, the first rule of being an academic parent is don’t talk about being an academic parent.  I also worry about alienating ,or at least annoying, my child-free friends and colleagues with posts like these — I don’t want anyone to “un-baby” my blog. Wait, you’re doing it right now, aren’t you? Okay fine. Here’s a picture of a kitten:

In all seriousness, I think these conversations are important for all academics to have, even those who never plan to have children. We all need to work together, after all, and we need to find ways to accomodate each other and create policies that help us all to be the best scholars, teachers, and yes, committee-members, we can be. As my lovely colleague, Anna Froula put it:

“I want the colleagues I work with to be happy at work (so they’ll keep working with me), so it’s a quality of life issue.  The reason I defer to [colleagues with children when] scheduling meetings is because, simply put, you have more humans in your family that depend on you to balance work and home life.  My time is more flexible because I don’t have kids. If one of us had an ill parent or some other pressing issue to deal with, it would be the same thing.  We should want to take care of each other so we can enjoy working together and do so efficiently.”

Like Anna, I want us all to enjoy working together. To that end,  this post will replace all cute baby pictures with cute animal pictures. But be warned: my Facebook page remains fully babyfied.

*****

“The ‘Child Friendly’ Department: Definitions and Expectations”

In this post I’ll be summarizing the portions of the workshop that covered parenting after graduate school. In many ways, the life of a college instructor is ideally suited to the rhythms of parenting.  We have the option to take our summers “off” (though for me, “taking the summer off” means I don’t teach but I do continue to research, write, and work on my fall syllabi and course plans). Most teaching schedules are confined to a Tuesday/Thursday or Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule, which allows parents to work from home at least one or two days per week (unless they hold an administrative position). And most college courses are over by 4:00 pm or 5:00 pm, which allows parents to be home when their kids are finished with school for the day. Pretty sweet, right? Well, maybe not. In their article, “Care, Career, and Academe: Heeding the Calls of a New Professoriate,” Nikki C. Townsley and Kristin J. Broadfoot argue that “…short-term flexibility obfuscates the long term inflexibility of academia for faculty committed to both work and family.” Here are some examples:

* women who get TT job before having kids were less likely to become mothers or get married and were more likely to be divorced or separated.

* female academics were found to hold the highest rate of childlessness amongst professional women at 43%.

* the tenure track model supports a progressive, linear and seamless career model  in that many TT jobs expect professors to teach full course loads, be on several committees and publish at least one book in the 1st 5 years on the job.

* in fact, TT job expectations are built on presumption that professor has a full-time home-based caregiver  and homemaker. The university is not structured to accommodate dual career families.

These statistics beg the question: is being an academic parent harder for women than it is for men? In “Does it Take a Department to Raise a Child?” Bonnie J. Dow writes that lack of support for pre-tenure parenting negatively affects careers of female junior faculty more than male junior faculty. Here are some of her findings:

*12-14 years after obtaining PhD,  males on the tenure track in the humanities & social sciences with “early babies” (babies born in the first 5 years after finishing the PhD) receive tenure at rate of 78%.

* 58% of women in same position receive tenure.

*women with “late babies” (babies born more than 5 years after the PhD) received tenure at a rate of 71%.

*47% of women reported great deal of tension and stress over parenting/work conflict versus 27% of men.

Dow’s findings indicate that many female professors are unable to fulfill the requirements of tenure while parenting a young child. The later women wait to have a baby, the better their chances for tenure. But male parents don’t face the same problems. They have an easier time having successful academic careers while having families. Indeed, Dow’s article mirrors many of the points made by Anne-Marie Slaughter in her hotly contested piece in The Atlantic from earlier this summer. In her article, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” Slaughter argues that women have a harder time being mother-workers than men do. I know there was a lot of blowback on this piece but Slaughter makes a lot of great points. For example, she writes:

“If women feel deeply that turning down a promotion that would involve more travel, for instance, is the right thing to do, then they will continue to do that. Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier.”

As I mentioned in my last post, graduate student mothers are told to hide the fact that they are mothers when going on the job market. As if being a parent is a liability.  Academia needs to find a way to better bring together work and family.

Before we move on, though, why don’t we all enjoy a puppy picture?

Ahhhhhh.

Now I’d like to discuss some of the feedback I collected through my survey. First, a quick note on this survey. Although I did obtain IRB approval in order to conduct this survey and share the results publicly, I quickly discovered that I had no idea how to design a survey. I had an especially difficult time crafting multi-part questions. For example, I wanted to know how many of my respondents (which included tenure track faculty, fixed term faculty,  independent scholars, and graduate students) were offered the option to stop their tenure clock after the birth of a child, who took that option and why. The data that resulted from my questions is confusing since the question was targeted only at those people on the tenure track, followed by those who had the option to stop the clock, followed by those who actually took that option. But I did get some useful data. In partIcular, I was intrigued by the responses to my question “What is your definition of a child friendly department?” I read through all of the responses and was able to sort these responses into 5 broad categories, which I will list below (along with some representative responses).

How Do Your Colleagues Define a “Child Friendly” Department?

1. Openness and Acceptance

“I would define it as a place where children are accepted and discussed as a normal thing, where I don’t have to feel like I might be looked down upon for having children, where I can speak freely about them without reservation. You know, like you’d talk about your dogs. No one is worried that they shouldn’t mention owning dogs because they might be judged or it might affect their academic work. Yet I feel like it’s easier to talk about pets than children.”

“Faculty, staff and graduate students would also not feel uncomfortable even *mentioning* children, which can happen among academics.”

“…parents feel comfortable revealing work/family conflict to chair in an effort to resolve them If possible”

“A department that accepts parenting as an appropriate activity for a professor and makes reasonable accommodations for it.”

“One that understands and accomodates faculty with children such that within reason, parents are allowed to be the kind of parents they would like to be. “

2. Flexibility… for Everyone, not Just Parents

“Rather than child friendly, perhaps family friendly or life friendly–a place which recognizes that humans have obligations to other humans that sometimes interrupt the ordinarily scheduled activities of a career. That said, I do think all department members should be thoughtful and respectful of their colleagues, recognizing that obligations come in lots of shapes and sizes–some of which are easier to talk about than others.”

“A department that recognizes that faculty AND staff are humans with human needs and issues including the care of children [and/or ill family members or elderly parents] with willingness to flexibly schedule committee meetings or to understand the need for occasional help arranging coverage of classes in emergencies (as with conferences and other professional demands) and to offer suggestions for newcomers on how to find effective childcare.”

“A ‘child friendly’ department alternates the times at which meetings and events (readings, workshops, etc.) are scheduled, so that not *everything* happens during a parent’s ‘second shift’ at home.”

“One that understands not to schedule events after 4:30 in the afternoon. One that understands that if you do schedule a lot of nightly events, then you won’t go. And one that makes public statements supporting why parents with young children are less able to participate in extracurricular events.”

3. Where Parents Aren’t Penalized for Being Parents

“A child friendly department is one that …promotes/recognizes employees based on their JOB performance, and doesn’t penalize or overlook employees based on their maternal obligations.”

“…a general respect for my decision to have children, where it is not looked at as a problem, or a road block on my tenure track.”

“A department that doesn’t force people to choose between a career and a family.”

“One that makes it easy for me to be an academic and a parent at the same time. As a grad student, I can’t afford day care, and I live away from my family, which means that since I have the more flexible schedule between me and my non-academic partner, I am the full-time caretake of my kids, as well as a full-time student, part-time teacher, union steward, committee member, etc. I don’t have the luxury of separating these out.”

“Provides parents with the same opportunities as non-parents. Does not give parents or non-parents an advantage over each other.”

4. Clearly Defined (& Fair) Parental Leave Policies, Including the Option to Stop Tenure Clock

“Gives teaching and graduate assistants maternity leave…”

“A department that provides parental leaves for both partners and in the case of a single parent a longer leave or reduced load including the leave. In addition, if a faculty member elects to stop the tenure clock then at the time of assessment one should not look at when s/he received his/her Ph.D.”

In “Why Maternity Leave is Important,” Meredith Melnick cites a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) that found: “Women with 3-month-old infants who worked full time reported feeling greater rates of depression, stress, poor health and overall family stress than mothers who were able to stay home (either because they didn’t have a job or because they were on maternity leave).” These results suggest that the transition back into employment immediately after childbirth is difficult for the average family. Mothers in particular get stressed and depressed when they must return to work too soon after the birth or adoption of a child. And a stressed/depressed mother has a negative impact on her children. Melnick quotes NBER researchers, Pinka Chatterji, Sara Markowitz and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, who found that “Numerous studies show that clinical depression in mothers as well as self-reported depressive symptoms, anxiety, and psychological distress, are important risk factors for adverse emotional and cognitive outcomes in their children, particularly during the first few years of life.” Despite the results of studies that demonstrate the necessity of some kind of paid parental leave for new parents, the U.S. is one of two developed economies in the world that do not provide some form of universal paid maternity leave (the other is Australia). This is the same country that produces senators like Rep. Todd Akin,  the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri, who believes the female body contains “biological defenses” that prevent it from getting pregnant during a “legitimate rape.” In other words, women shouldn’t abort their babies and they can’t take off work to care for them either. But I digress…

In terms of the folks I surveyed, 23% took an unpaid parental leave, 32% took a paid leave and 28% took no kind of leave after the birth/adoption of a child. Of those who did not take any time off, 15% said their departments did not offer paid leave, 9% worried it would affect their ability to keep their jobs, 6% worried it would impact their ability to get tenure, 12% (who were men) said that men do not normally take leave in their departments and 9% said they didn’t take leave because they didn’t want to. In general, it seems that the length of parental leaves (if they are offered at all) vary wildly from school to school. I was lucky to get a paid maternity leave of one full semester after the birth of my son. Since he was born, my university’s policy has been shortened from a full semester (15 weeks) to 12 weeks. I don’t see how this change saves the university much money (do we save money by having a professor teach 4 weeks of a 15 week course?) and since I am currently on my university’s Faculty Welfare Committee, I plan to address this change when we meet again this fall.

 5. Your Question is Illogical! 

4 of my 180 respondents responded to the question “How do you define a child friendly department” with something along the lines of “Girl, you crazy!”

“Why do we need a definition? An employee’s job is to work. Their outside responsibilities belong outside of the work environment. University employees are employees just like in a business. Business does not allow exceptions for parents with children-schedules or maternity leaves. Only in this environment would the employees be pandered to in this way.”

“I don’t have one. Why would other adults do favors for my children? My colleagues interact with me and I am not a child.”

“One of the problems to be considered when exploring the idea of ‘child friendly’ is a perceived disconnect between faculty expectations and the ‘real-world’ workplace. To put this another way, the public is unlikely to be supportive of expressions of concern about the absence of a child friendly culture when they have to do without it in their lives. Nor is the legislature likely to be supportive.”

These comments are not representative of the vast pool of responses I received, but I found them worth reporting because they address something important that academics need to consider: do we expect too much? After all, a parent working in a top law firm can’t expect meetings to be scheduled around her daycare schedule and an ER doctor can’t refuse to work nights because he wants to be able to put his baby to bed.

Bonnie J. Dow argues that lack of institutional support for colleagues with children ends up hurting the entire department: “…as long as family-friendly departments enable academic parents to rely on their colleagues’ informal support, they simultaneously enable institutions to forestall developing the structural solutions that would make that support less necessary.” She claims that when a faculty member agrees to cover a class after a colleague gives birth “…the unintended consequence of such short-term fixes is that institutions continue to rely upon them as ad hoc and interpersonal solutions to a structural problem.” Likewise, academic parents must be careful not to take advantage of colleagues. Dow offers 5 rules that academic parents should follow in a good faith effort to not take advantage of their child-free colleagues:

 1. Don’t bring kids to the office

2. Don’t bring kids to meetings

3. Arrange for child care for meetings (NOT JUST TEACHING)

4. Department couples are not interchangeable—you both need to be present

5.  Colleagues are not required to accommodate your parenting philosophy

I’m not sure that I agree with all of Dow’s suggestions. If your child is ill and you must get to campus to meet with a student, you might have to bring your kid with you, and that doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal. But Dow’s overarching point seems to be: remember that you are part of a department. Meetings, job candidate dinners, and the like, are all part of your work obligations and you should therefore have childcare available for those events. When you stop pulling your weight, your weight doesn’t vanish. It just appears in someone else’s “to do” pile. Colleagues should keep my precarious schedule in mind (if you want me to attend a weekly meeting, then try to schedule it during my kid’s day care hours) but my needs do not trump their needs. At some point every member of a given department is going to have a personal situation conflict with duties at work. As colleagues we need to be able to take up each other’s slack when needed and within reason.

How can we do this? Jason Mittell offered some great suggestions during our worksop. As chair of his department he has instituted and/or supported the following policies to make life easier for the humans who work there (and the humans who depend on them) :

* Make kids visible. By acknowledging that we’re parents & not trying to hide it in the workplace, we all can be more sensitive to various demands & conflicts that can emerge. This means both talking about our kids and making a welcome environment for them to be in the office when necessary.

* Fewer meetings. Whenever possible, we try to deal with things via email or ad-hoc rather than have frequent regular meetings, recognizing that the more flexible our schedules are, the better. Not all faculty members feel this is preferable, but to me, at least, it helps ensure that time spent in the office is more focused on what I need it to be, rather than the formalities of meetings.

* Sensitive scheduling of meetings. When we do have meetings, we try to schedule them during regular hours that coincide with school/daycare coverage (i.e. never later than 4:30, ideally on Friday afternoon or other times when nobody teaches).

* Sensitive scheduling of class times. For faculty with kids, we try to let them schedule the timing that works best for them. This includes screenings, which we allow to be scheduled concurrently to allow us to only be out one night each week.

* No “face time” expectations. For some faculty, there is frequently a culture of “face time,” where being around the office is an expectation & you’re judged by your presence. I’ve tried to push back against this, emphasizing that as long as you’re getting your work done & students/colleagues know how to get in touch with you, it doesn’t matter where you’re doing it. For staff, it’s a bit more complicated (and I’d love to hear ways to make things work better in this regard), but in general I hope that people feel our department is one where being away from your desk isn’t seen as a problem.

* Embrace flextime & telecommuting. When kids are sick, have events or appointments, or otherwise draw you away from the office, it’s not a big deal to work from home or shift your normal hours around, as long as students & colleagues who need to know are in the loop.

* Engage the conversation. When I shared this list with my colleagues, half of them expressed their appreciation that I had raised the issue. As one said, “I knew that the department embraced these ideas, but having them spelled out in an email from the chair makes it feel more validated and legitimate.”

Don’t you all wish Jason was your department chair?

*****

In the comments section I would love for readers to share their experiences — both good and bad — with being a post-grad academic parent. What policies have been the most helpful to you and why? What changes were you able to make to your department or university’s policies regarding parental leave, the tenure clock, on-site daycare centers, and/or scheduling needs? What changes were you unable to make? And for those academics without children — how have colleagues with children impacted your work life? How have you tried to accomodate them and, just as important, how have they tried to accomodate you? Keep in mind that if you feel uncomfortable having this conversation in a public forum (these are sensitive issues), you can feel free to use an alias. I won’t out you.

Works Cited

Dow, Bonnie J. “Does it Take a Department to Raise a Child?”  Women’s Studies in Communication  31.2 (2008): 158-165.

Melnick, Meredith. “Study: Why Maternity Leave is Important.” Time 21 July 2011. <http://healthland.time.com/2011/07/21/study-why-maternity-leave-is-important/&gt;.

Slaughter, Anne-Marie. “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” The Atlantic July/August 2012. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/&gt;.

Townsley, Nikki C. & Kristin J. Broadfoot. “Care, Career, and Academe: Heeding the Calls of a New Professoriate.” Women’s Studies in Communication  31.2 (2008): 133-143.

7 thoughts on “Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent, Part II: Parenting on the Job

  1. It sounds well and good to say “arrange for childcare during meetings,” but that’s difficult to do when a lot of meetings are scheduled one to three days in advance. This happens all the time in my department – during our regularly scheduled department meeting, it is decided that a particular issue requires more attention, so there will be a break-out meeting later in the week. And what if you can’t afford a private nanny? Children who attend daycare cannot go when they are sick – this just gets all the other children sick. But you can’t predict when kids get sick and schedule backup care reliably.

    Child-free tenured professors are catered to all the time in my department – they live in different states and only want to come in two days a week, or they have vacation plans when we might like to have meetings or retreats (ptui!) to work on particular projects. It’s only fair to give faculty parents similar consideration.

    • I think it is unreasonable to expect faculty members with young children to arrange for childcare for a last minute meeting, after they had already arranged for sitters for a meeting earlier in the week. Sometimes you just can’t arrange for childcare that quickly. My son’s daycare is closed for 3 days this week and we knew about this for weeks. Yet, it has been ridiculously difficult getting sitters for him so that I can teach my classes this week. We ran through all of our sitter contacts and then had to go on Facebook and see if any other local parents had recommendations.

  2. Family-friendly needs to go beyond maternity. I have a special needs child and i feel like some of my colleagues cannot believe a 5 year old is this intensive.

    • I would imagine that this is a problem extending well beyond academia. Most folks–myself included–have no idea what parenting a special needs child would be like.Tell your colleagues to back off!

      And I hope you get tenure soon!

  3. Great post! A couple more things to add to my points above:

    At Console-ing Passions, I started by highlighting how much one’s contexts matter in these issues. For me, the fact that I’m in a very small town, at a very small institution but with very large resources, makes a huge difference. The institution is very family-friendly overall, with generous parental leaves (for faculty – not great for staff), regular family events, and an emphasis on community that includes employee families. Middlebury has gotten grants to support innovations in faculty work/life balance, so it’s on many people’s minds. While I have made some concerted efforts to make my department family-friendly, we were starting from a much better place than most institutions we heard about. (So no, you don’t really want me as your department chair – I don’t want to be my own department chair!)

    Another important aspect to this conversation is that it needs to focus on parenting rather than just mothering, but also acknowledge that for the majority of families that have two opposite-sex parents (academic and otherwise), parenting obligations & challenges are usually weighted more toward mothers. As a father, I think it’s important to be a visible and active parent, but I’ve never had to deal with pumping in awkward places, recovering from childbirth, or other biological (and cultural) travails of motherhood. And there is still the double standard often that a father with his kids at work is often seen as positively “involved,” while a mother is viewed as “distracted.” So how do we frame the issues in ways that highlight how gender differences matter, but not in a normative or prescriptive way, while still respecting the diversity of family situations and choices? (I think the Slaughter article you referenced hits on this point well, but I know many disagree.)

    • Hi Jason
      So do you think the policies used in your department would not work (be accepted) in a bigger institution in a bigger city? And how do your colleagues without kids feel about these policies?

      • I think that different institutions & locations present different challenges & logistics. The fact that all of my colleagues live no more than a 10-minute no-traffic drive from campus makes it different from people who have hour-plus commutes. Being in a small town means that most faculty spouses who aren’t academics are under-employed (either less stressful/responsible jobs and/or part-time than they’d probably be in a bigger city), meaning that they can be more involved or take the lead in parenting. All of these things matter in ways that’s hard to know without direct first-hand comparisons.

        As for my colleagues, I feel that these are less “policies” than “practices” (maybe I should make them more explicit?), and those without young children generally seem fine with things – a couple want more meetings & care more about face time, but it’s not seemingly a big deal to find a happy balance. Of course, I cannot speak for them.

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