I know that I should not write this post. I know that I shouldn't. So let it be stated for the record that in spite of the fact that this post will surely be misread and will surely be a mistake, I'm writing it anyway.
Dean Dad wrote a post today on academe and parenting, inspired by this article in Inside Higher Ed. Now, let me just state first, and I'll put this in bold just so it's clear, I agree that balancing the demands of children (esp. small ones) with a professorial life is not easy, that it this profession is not terribly family-friendly and that this is not positive. But the thing that I was thinking about, as all posts of this variety get me thinking, is how irritating I find the discourse that privileges the hardships of people raising children above all other hardships, and the discourse that assumes that no personal responsibility (with the possible exception of caring for an ailing parent) competes with the significance of child-rearing.
No, having kids isn't a "choice" like taking up knitting or whatever else. Not saying it is. Not saying that my selfish desires compete with the needs of children in the world. What I am saying is that all people have personal responsibilities and we should value them all and respect them all equally. I want kids someday, and I hope to work in an environment that accommodates that choice on my part. That said, I do think that if I have kids that it is a choice, and people shouldn't have to schedule meetings around my kid's soccer practice. Unless I'd also be willing to schedule meetings around my child-free colleagues' afternoon pottery class of course. Because guess what? To me, those two things are equal. The problem as I see it is that most people don't value those things as equal. The kid activity gets viewed as a "responsibility" - and it gets characterized that it's the child-free person's ethical duty to support the soccer aspirations of the youth of America by having a meeting late Friday afternoon instead of at 3 PM on a Tuesday - while the grown-up person activity gets viewed as "leisure," and thus as expendable.
The reality, as I see it, is that this profession fucks with people's personal lives whether they've got kids or not. It threatens to take up all one's time, sucking out any energy one might have for any "life" beyond the job. It fucks with one's social networks through the national job market, and it fucks with one's finances with the low pay and debt from grad school. One thing that this affects is when and whether people have kids. It also affects things like when one can buy a home, when one begins saving for retirement, when one sees family and close friends, etc. Now, there are trade-offs, and I am not moaning about how horrible professors have it. But yes, there are structural facts that make it very difficult for professors - single, married, gay, straight, child-having, child-free, whatever - to have a personal life that is separate from the job and that is valued in terms of material resources by employers.
Let me tell you my reality, as a single person without kids, living in an area that is far from the people to whom I am closest. There is no sharing of household chores or bill-paying. All of that is on me to do. I have to keep a stock of various medicines in my house because if I come down with some sort of ailment, I don't have anyone who could go to the drugstore for me. I have to schedule all appointments for myself and for the Man-Kitty, and I have to be responsible for making those appointments, transportation, etc. The business of day-to-day living, which I would share if I were in a long-term, cohabiting relationship, is all on me. I'm not saying that those responsibilities or realities are identical to having a kid, but yes, they are responsibilities, and they are, indeed, actually urgent and concrete and meaningful. I am not talking about wanting the job to accommodate my desire to take dance classes or something. And I've got to find a way to balance all of that with a job that doesn't acknowledge that a life of the mind can only take place once material needs are taken care of. So why don't I have kids? Dude, I don't have time to get laid, let alone the wherewithal to get myself knocked up right now. It's all I can do to keep my apartment clean. That's not a "choice" that is "selfish" on my part, nor do I have this luxurious life because I don't have kids. The reality is that my personal life blows and this profession makes that possible (at least) and causes a lot of it (at most).
But so that's my manifesto on that portion of things. Now some random thoughts related to some of what I've been reading in DD's comments. People keep saying that high school teachers or people in other professions (long-haul truckers, I believe somebody mentioned) must have it tougher than academics or at least as hard. I would note that most people who teach high school live where they grew up, and have large support networks of family and friends, which most tenure-track academics do not, because of the nature of the job market, have. Second, I would note that if one teaches high school one actually has paid sick time, and one can call in sick and the school will get a sub for the day. While technically it is possible for me to call in sick, there are no subs, and it is totally frowned upon to cancel class more than like one time in a semester. Third, I would note that at least for women, being an elementary or secondary teacher doesn't carry the stigma in the dating world that being a woman with a PhD does, and also one can work for a full ten years doing things like saving money and buying a house before having a child at say, 32. That makes a huge difference in terms of resources for having children. I could say more, but the point is, my best friend from high school is a high school English teacher, and she's far closer to being in a financial and lifestyle position to have a child than I am.
I don't write this post to discount the fact that this profession - that the industry of higher education - is inhospitable to families and children. It is. But I've got to say that I resent the implication that people without children somehow don't face the burden of the profession's broader inhospitability to people in general. Make this industry more hospitable to people and workers first, I say. By extension, people who have children and family obligations will have an easier time of it. But by focusing only on those with small children, we leave a lot out, and we set up a battle between people who really should be allies.
One final note: I've been thinking about who has children in my department. The only people who have children are people who a) were not in the first generation of their family to attend college, b) if they are women, they are "trailing spouses" whose careers have taken a backseat to their husband's careers. That's the reality I see, and that's the model for "family" that seems to be available, not only in my department but also in other departments with which I'm familiar. So yes, children are people, and we have an ethical responsibility to support the people who bring them into the world. But I think women and people who come from un-money-ed and uneducated backgrounds are people, too. And perhaps because I don't have children myself at this point, I'm more interested in worrying about that latter category of people within the academy first. But then, I'm probably just a selfish, frigid bitch. Otherwise I'd be a mother, right?
3 years ago