Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Academic Life vs. Personal Life

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?

44 comments:

Anastasia said...

I wish the discourse didn't devolve so easily into a competition over who has it hardest.

My reaction usually stems from the fact that people do get lost in the conversation. Children are set beside pets, beside hobbies, besides television, beside bill-paying and house-cleaning as distractions, obligations, responsibilities, time constraints and I swear to God I want to scream THEY ARE MOTHER FUCKING PEOPLE. HUMAN FUCKING BEINGS. My kids are not a fucking hobby. They are not pets. They are not abstract obligations. They are human beings who are entirely dependent on me and my husband for their entire well-being. I don't take care of them, they die--actually or metaphorically. Period. The stakes are high and there aren't a lot of good analogies for that dependency and I think it's worth preserving the sense of difference.

I actually don't think this profession is any worse than any other when it comes to relationships. I really don't. It fucking sucks, I'll tell you that. And I agree with everything you're saying about it being tough on relationships and that is true for people who have kids or who don't, who are gay, straight, married, divorced, have pets, don't have pets whatever. I just don't think we're very good as a culture at making space for relationships.

That bleeds into all sorts of professions, where people are paid too little for too much work. Or they're paid handsomely for turning over all of their waking hours to their company for no job security, which is the case for PH's employer. My point is I don't think academia is worse. It might even be better. I don't know why academics have fewer children but I suspect it has less to do with pay, flexibility of scheduling, or working conditions than the conversation at dean dad's implies.

k8 said...

Exactly! Life isn't necessarily easy b/c we are single. As someone who took time off before coming back to school for the phd, I am constantly thinking about the fact that I am losing retirement savings time and how this will affect my professional life once I get that first academic job. Not having someone to share the day-to-day responsibilities is wearing.

And, this will get me in trouble, but I also sometimes think about the fact that those married with children are technically making more than me because, ultimately, they receive more in benefits. I know, bad attitude on my part, but it is true.

k8 said...

I should add that I am all for family-friendly work conditions in all occupations. Maybe we can cut down on meetings altogether. ;-)

Dr. Crazy said...

K8 - That's what I'm talking about! Cutting down on meetings for all! Huzzah! And I'll admit to sharing your thoughts that will get you in trouble from time to time in my darker moments, though most of the time I do work very hard not to, as my mother would say, "spend my time measuring with a yardstick" (and no, I'm not entirely sure what that's supposed to mean) :)

Anastasia: I agree with you that the responsibility to children is NOT AT ALL the same as responsibilities to pets, etc. I don't want to appear to be minimizing the responsibility that children are, or to minimize the need to accommodate things like parents who have sick kids or child-care emergencies (which I see as being above and beyond, and yes, which have to do with keeping children *alive*). The only time I get annoyed is when something like volunteering to go on a field trip with a kid is seen as more meaningful than an equally voluntary activity that a singleton might have. Yes, that's a nice thing to do for one's kid, and I'd want to support that, but if and only if it's regarded as what it is: a significant and yet non-essential activity, which could be seen as parallel to a person without a child volunteering to do something with their church, say, or with some other organization. Your kid won't die if you don't volunteer to go on that field trip. I won't die if I don't volunteer with my church. Sure, it would be nice to do both. What I'd like is if the workplace accommodated all those things, which is why I think that it's useful to think about making the academy more people-friendly, as then everybody would get the benefit, if that makes sense. I could do my thing, the parent could do theirs. It wouldn't be a competition.

life_of_a_fool said...

I agree with anastasia that setting up the conversation as a competition of "who has it worse" is a big problem, whether that's between single people or (partnered) parents or across occupations. The actual conversation often just ends there, with a lot of resentment on all sides.

I am more sensitive and willing to accommodate parents who need to care for their kids than someone engaging in a hobby (including my own). I've never felt unduly burdened by someone else's parenting needs. I resent that this often times, still, impacts women more than men (though obviously many men are actively involved in parenting).

However, I also sometimes feel burdened by being the only person in my household (though luckily only being responsible for one person) who brings in a paycheck, pays bills, takes care of household things, etc. etc. And I dislike when others suggest that I "just don't get it" or am selfish or somehow less than because I don't have kids.

And I really appreciate that I have a department chair who is willing to accommodate my desire to not teach at 8 am, AND someone else's child care needs. I would be more resentful if I were expected to "fill in" for a parent, which basically puts the burden on single or childless people, rather than the institution. (luckily, I've never felt in that position).

Also: I agree with your distinction between necessary child care activities and nice, but non-essential, "extras." Though, honestly, I've had more experience with people using non-child related "extras" as excuses as to why they can't do something work-related - which annoys me.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, and Anastasia: I'd say that pay does come into it, not in the sense of yearly salary but in the sense of opportunity cost of spending 6-10 years out of the regular workforce. The reality is that I have friends who make less than I do but who have been working for 12 years, and so they are in a better position to have children than I am right now, in spite of the fact that I make 15-20K more than they do. They don't have the loans, they own their homes, they have some savings. I agree, though, that flexibility of scheduling isn't really the issue (except if we think that academics are for whatever reason less likely to be comfortable with sticking their kids in daycare 50 hours a week, or except if by talking about that we're also talking about the fact that people don't have support networks to provide some childcare - like a grandmother who can watch the kids if they are sick, for example), nor is the very general "working conditions" issue (in terms of the bringing work home issue).

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I think your point about the cultural and economic differences between a professor and a high school teacher are really important. Sure, high school teachers work REALLY hard, but they're doing so under different circumstances than faculty usually do.

And I wouldn't discount the fact that teaching elementary school or even high school is an appropriately feminine, nurturing thing to do - whereas being a college professor is not. That is, I think that the cultural perceptions of intellectual work as masculine shouldn't be left out of the calculations for why fewer academics have kids.

Though I also agree with Anastasia that I think there are make academia more flexible than some other professions, and that having fewer kids isn't just about the economic factors.

vague said...

Interesting post! As another singleton (or, as I call myself occasionally, childless slut) in academia, and one who is new to the full-time work after just finishing my PhD, I completely feel what you are saying.

Sometimes I honestly long for a relationship or family just so that I could share some of the daily business with someone else -- having someone else who could run out to pick up meds when I'm sick would be a dream I tell you.

It's also a bit of a thorn in the side that -- at least so far as I have observed, at my school -- the people getting hired for my position (not tenure track) are almost all singletons like me, and the ones hired for the assistant professorships are mostly married with children. One fellow instructor at my school revealed that she was not considered for the tenure track job she applied for (also at our institution) because they chose candidates for the campus visit who had families (even with fewer or less-prestigious publications). The reasoning was that candidates with families would be more likely to stay in our small town long term, whereas singletons tend to leave, seeking out jobs in bigger cities. They told her this outright. (I mean, is that even legal?)

[NOT saying that is universally true, or that the reason any person anywhere gets hired has to do with their relationship status. Just anecdotal, I guess.]

I've gone off the topic a bit with that hiring rant, but nonetheless it's easy to see where you're coming from.

No one wants it to turn into a battle of whose life is harder, but beginning to see that any lifestyle (a choice or not) has its own pitfalls and merits and scheduling conflicts, well, that would be a great start.

Shimmy said...

Thanks for such a great post. I also wish that the discourse didn't devolve into "who has it harder." Often it does, though. Like most of the child-free folks in my department, I recognize the extra flexibility we must (ethically/morally) grant to colleagues who are parents. But my experience in my dual role as an administrator and faculty member reflects what you've said: too often, the extra flexibility we must grant to parents doesn't come back to those of us who are not parents. As you wrote: "What I am saying is that all people have personal responsibilities and we should value them all and respect them all equally. [ . . .] 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." As an administrator, I have to, at some level, see those two things -- child's soccer practice, child-free colleague's pottery class -- as equal.

I also think, ethically, as a person, I have to see them as equal; but even if I didn't, it's not fair as a manger/administrator for me to see one faculty member's life outside the department as more important than another faculty member's life outside the department.

This said, I'm still struck by a tone I felt from the original IHE article, and from DD's post, that this is somehow an unfortunate thing that folks in academia choose to not have children. It can be unfortunate, absolutely. But, as I'd mentioned in my comment on his blog, this choice might also just be a pragmatic, positive reaction to the less-than-kid-friendly environment of academia. It's tough to be a parent in this profession, so, well, if I don't want to re-think being in this profession, then I'll re-think whether or not I want to be a parent. Obviously, it's not an easy either/or question -- it's complex once you ask the question that way. But I think it can be beneficial to do so.

Sybil Vane said...

None of us really thnks a child's participation in team sports during daylight hours and her parent's presence at those games occasionally is actually analagous to an adult's scheduling of pottery class during working hours, right? I'm sure we are all steeped int he historical construction of childhood as a sentimentalized period, but that doesn't mean we can step out of it. I wouldn't dream of asking a colleague to schedule a meeting around my yoga practice. But if my child has a game or performance I have to be at, I will ask for that accommodation (and people, in my experience, do not do this weekly. They do it rarely). The needs and desires of all human are important, obviously. But whether a kid has a mom at her season-ending soccer game and whether an adult, who is herself equipped with many more adaptive faculties than a child, gets to go to pottery on Tuesday or has to wait until Saturday, are nto really good comparisons.

Further, the optional nature of these parental responsibilties is overdone. Many schools and programs have rules about parental attendance/volunteerism. They have these because many people's professions make it difficult for them to have personal lives and they therefore need incentive. So when I have to decide whether to ask for accomodation because it is my turn to volunteer at the preschool co-op, I have to decide between seeming irresponsible to you, my colleague, or to the preschool administrator. Since I know many of us in academe lament the profession's devaluation of personal lives, I should chose you and know that you are sympathetic, right?

BrightStar said...

I work closely with a group of colleagues, two of whom have children, two are married without children, and the rest of us are single, and we schedule meetings as best we can to honor everyone's schedules and commitments -- whether the commitments are about children or working out or visits from out-of-town significant others. I know I shouldn't take this for granted. I appreciate it, and there is an explicit discourse among my colleagues about how all of our personal situations are valuable, and we do welcome babies and toddlers at our meetings, too (sometimes something comes up, either with the child or with the need for a last minute meeting), as well as meetings by speaker phone for people who end up out of town (ahem, me). This is a group that has a LOT of meetings.

In terms of meetings outside of this group, I would not have the same flexibility, but I don't have as many meetings outside of this group, so its the one that matters the most when it comes to these issues. I'm just saying that with smaller groups, these sort of considerations are possible. I think that is what people should work toward -- a balance between honoring a range of commitments, with an understanding that this is not always possible, but the first attempt to schedule a meeting can take a range of constraints into account.

Speaking as someone who does not have children, I feel like academia is somewhat relatively family friendly, but I am afraid I am going to get skewered for this. You see, I was a middle school teacher for several years before I went to grad school full time and now I am a professor. As a school teacher, we would not get as much time off for maternity leave. My friends on faculty where I work get a semester of administered leave. That looks luxurious to a middle school teacher (perhaps it looks luxurious to people at other universities or colleges, though, too?). Also, you can stop the tenure clock for this life event. There are very few other ways to stop the tenure clock, and many other life events that are, granted, not the same as bringing a life into the world, but also likely to affect progress toward tenure. Plus, there is some flexible time in academia that doesn't exist in other professions (yet time is still finite, I realize, and flexible time sometimes makes things harder, not easier). The point about starting a career as a teacher earlier in life is a significant one, though.

I don't know, having children just seems impossibly difficult all around, which is why I haven't tried to have any. I barely can keep myself together, much less be responsible for anyone else.

Regarding how I was perceived as a female middle school teacher and how I am perceived now as a professor by others, I can definitely tell the difference. People (think they) understand the job of a middle school teacher. They give you all of these (somewhat condescending) comments about what an important job it is to be a teacher. You don't get those same comments as a professor. Back home, people have no clue what this life is like. (I'm a first generation Ph.D.)

For me, the biggest obstacle to family is the challenge of being so far away from those you love and the lack of easy move-ability. As a teacher, I felt like I could go anywhere. Now? Not so much. The times I have tried to find a job near my significant other or in a city where we both wanted to live (or when he has tried similarly) have failed. It's pretty hard to have a life together, you know? I would not have that problem as a teacher.

Regarding scheduling meetings again, my philosophy has always been, state your availability with reasonable ranges of options, and I will do my best to choose a meeting that accommodates as many schedules as possible. I don't need to know WHY you are busy, just whether or not you are available. Explanations and justifications are not needed. (The problem is when someone gives you too few options to work with.)

Your post shed a lot of additional light on why professors might be less likely to have kids. Interesting points!

Maggie said...

I think this is a great post. (And I just made the point about "extended network of family" in a comment at DD's before coming over here.)

In general, I think that academia --and most other professions-- was designed and operates on the assumption that the professional WILL HAVE a stay at home spouse. It's an assumption that flies in the face of contemporary reality, but there it is. I don't think anything about parenting in academia will get any easier until "the system" recognizes that this underlying assumption is no longer valid.

Arbitrista said...

I think there is a tremendous personal cost to a lot of professions right now - particularly professions that are, um, "professional." It's not just academia. But it is funny about academia, not just in terms of children, but in terms of relationships period. Given the nature of the job market, how do 2 people who met in grad school stay together? Unless they are willing to live apart, the only practical option is for one person to forego their academic career. It's just cruel. I gave up mine for Brazen Hussy, but then I wasn't really enthused by the academic life anyway. But if academia had been my life's ambition, it would have been a huge problem. I can't imagine how many other couples have faced the same problem.

Baruch Grazer said...

My comment relates, not to the academic workplace, but to my experience of Ph.D. coursework and exams. When I began that work, we had no children. I noticed quickly that students with children were cut a measure of slack, with congratulatory remarks about how they "put family first." Those of us without children were cut no such slack; the implication was that families with children were the _real_ families, and that responsibilities to partners didn't really count in the same way.

Interestingly, my wife works with mostly single women, and has the opposite experience: women with children are treated as an odd, bothersome, "special needs" group.

PhDLadybug said...

Thank you for the great post. I totally agree with what you are saying. I'm married but that means we have to think about both of us before I or my husband picks up a job. And for my experience (and this might apply to academics with and without families) we are required to work for extended periods of time, we carry home work (grading, preparation and other things) and we work on week-ends. That makes it more difficult for everybody in our personal lives.
On a more personal basis, when I was in grad school, I had a friend with two children always saying that well, I was single (at the time) and free. Yes but I had to pay my bills while she was in grad school supported by her well off husband, and it was driving me crazy to hear comments like that. We all have different responsibilities and what is important for me might not be for someone else, but no discrimination should linger on either side....

medieval woman said...

Dr. C - loved this post - it's all been said already in the comments, but I really liked it. Particularly the part about this profession not being *people* friendly.

Susan said...

I think Maggie is totally right about the stay at home spouse: and it's a result of the fact that we're moved places away from our families.

I also want to highlight in that way elder care. For many of us, part of our lives is concern for aging parents. Given our mobility, that often involves things long distance. So we may not have children, but we may have parents.

Artistic Soul said...

Long time lurker - lazy commenter here. :o) I had to hop in on this though since it is an issue near to my heart. I am one of only a few members of my department who is childless. When I got here, the environment was very family friendly - which actually aided in my decision to move here, since if I want to have a family someday, I know I will be accommodated (someone earlier mentioned the entire semester maternity leave thing, and the stop the tenure clock - both of which my university does).

The only trouble I had coming into this environment is not the LACK of respect of my private time, but my own personal view of what was important. I think family is important, so often I would let things slide and not talk to my chair about things that were bothering. For example, I enjoy teaching night classes - and I really don't mind them. But it got to a point where it was ASSUMED I would teach night classes (and more than one in a semester in several instances) rather than being ASKED if that's what I wanted. The justification for this was that other people had families they needed to go home to at night, and since I didn't mind, it should be okay. However, my partner got a job that involves a long commute and regular work hours. Me teaching 2-3 night classes a week made it impossible for me to have MY version of family.

Fortunately for me, I finally spoke with my chair about it and she was very supportive. I am always asked prior to scheduling classes now about what times would work best given my obligations and partner's work schedule. I'm also happy that the conversation I had with her didn't just benefit me -- she now does this for all faculty members, so the other single folks in the department are feeling much better as well. I don't think anyone MEANT for it to come off that our lives were not important, I just think there are cultural assumptions on BOTH sides that make it hard for people in both positions to balance work/family dynamics.

Maggie said...

Something about artistic soul's comment got me thinking:

I think one of the other things that bothers me about this discussion in general is that not having kids or an elderly parent to care for somehow often equates to not having a family, or not having *relationships* that are important to maintain.

Right now I am married, and I think my "family" of two should be considered just as important as a family that includes children. When I was single, my *friends* were for all intents and purposes my family (living far away from biological family, after all).

In other words: people need *relationships* in order to be sustained and fulfilled and whole... not just children. And treating "children" as the equivalent of "family" or "relationships" just rubs me the wrong way.

gwinne said...

The real problem, as Joan Williams says much better than I ever could, is the problem of the academic as "ideal worker" who is available 24/7 for the job. I'll be the first to say it's difficult to be a parent and an academic--I'm a single mom--but I can recognize that the issue is ultimately a problem of the nature of the workplace, and the heteronormative assumptions behind it. And that's not good for anyone, including my male colleagues. What I don't see, though, is how one person's childcare needs creates a problem for her colleagues. Maybe my department is much more flexible than I thought, but generally when we schedule meetings people mention their availability and we work around that, without asking questions. For some of us, it's child care, for others it's doctors appointments, being overly protective of research time, yoga classes, etc...

Andrea Turpin said...

Great post! You really nailed it for me. And your commenters have actually made me feel a little less angry. I just hope that the academy can become a bit more *people* friendly, all-inclusive.

MommyProf said...

I think Susan's point deserves magnification and applies to singletons as well. I have kids and I know several people at the Uni who have kids also, and none of them live near their families. There are elementary and high schools everywhere at which one might work, making it a lot easier to stay near supportive family than for most academics, who have to move where the job it. Crazy doesn't have nearby family to go get her medicine when she is sick. I don't have nearby family to watch the offspring when they are. Everybody loses because of this aspect of academia.

JaneB said...

An interesting post - and an issue that causes all sorts of ongoing niggles and irritations for folks on all sides of the situation. I have a colleague who is a single parent and it creates problems for me. The kid is great, and as I'm childless and the children whose lives I am an ongoing part of (niece, Godson) all live a significant amount of travel time away from me, I've really enjoyed the chance to be part of the kid's life. But that doesn't mean I'm willing to 'entertain' said child in my office during work hours because my colleague needs to go somewhere - especially as child is very bright, demanding, and destructive (who knew that the felt tips of whiteboard pens can be pushed back into the pen body, or that when you do that a great splodge of the ink comes out? Or that these splodges will permanently stain my good linen trousers, despite the 'non-permanent' label?). Do I get these unexpected child care duties in emergencies (which happen at some point every school vacation or whenever the child is ill) because I know them socially, am female, or am bad at saying no?

A key point is that it's hard for everyone to balance life with work in academia, and that when we've moved away from family (incidentally, one of colleague's parents lives within five minutes of colleague so colleague is unusually lucky in this regard) everything is harder - letting in the meter reader, arranging for parcel deliveries, getting medicines - everything! It becomes an argument about who has it hardest because some people are seen as being given special priviledges which they then take an unfair advantage of. Children are human beings with rights. Going to the OCCASIONAL play or end of term event, having a crisis due to a child's illness, these things are absolutely to be accomodated by a humane employer. But so are childless people's crises, surely?

I have two examples from my current job, one good, one bad. We often have field days at weekends in my discipline, and I live in a fairly 'backward' part of the country where a great many services like banks, post-offices, doctor's offices, dentists, dry cleaners aren't open on Sundays and many open short hours on Saturdays with no late (i.e. after 4-5pm) or early (i.e. before 9am) opening hours in the week. A few years ago, I was scheduled to work for three Saturdays in a row, and had to discuss with a colleague whether a fourth trip should happen on a Saturday or a Sunday (if Saturday it would make four in a row when I wasn't free). Because it was term time and my timetable was a mess there was no way I could get a free day in the week in lieu. My colleague was baffled when I suggested that Sunday would be good because I really needed a Saturday to do chores - his reply was "can't your wife do that sort of thing?". It had to be gently pointed out that as a single female I didn't have a wife... and the guy was in his early 50s, not dotage. Needless to say I had to work a fourth Saturday because surely I could manage this stuff somehow.

The good example was more recent - my cat became unexpectedly ill and deteriorated fast (she died within 2 weeks of becoming symptomatic, probably of an aggressive brain tumour) and several colleagues made no problem about moving some meetings and covering a couple of things to allow me to do things like get to vets appointments or reduce the hours I needed to be in the office so I could work from home and keep an eye on Madam the Mog.

Dr. Crazy said...

Hello, all. First, let me just say that I've been reading everybody's comments with interest, and I've been *so pleasantly surprised* at the discussion that has resulted. What I love is that people with kids, partnered and single, people without kids, partnered and single, have really engaged with what I wrote here. This thread has not become a debate about who has it harder, but rather it's become a sounding board for the different specific situations that people encounter in their professional lives. That's so *refreshing* when so much of the time that's not what a comment thread to this sort of post would look like.

Some people's workplaces clearly do better at handling this stuff than others - a full semester of maternity leave, for example (as opposed to what we've got at my place, where a colleague junior to me got a lot of flak for wanting to take the *legal* amount of time she had coming to her after her first child - they got a sub, and then she came in six weeks after the semester began, and as you might imagine, her evals. were atrocious and then she got reamed for having low eval numbers - while at the same time colleagues senior to me with teenagers get "perks" like having meetings scheduled around every one of their kids' practices -and yes, I mean practices, not "big games" not "major events" - so that we appear to be "family friendly").

What this brings home to me is the necessity for higher education *as an industry* to institutionalize practices that value the personal needs of their workers, not just to *be nice* or something but rather to facilitate *everyone's* productivity. If things are done on an ad hoc, institution by institution, department by department basis, peoples' experiences differ *radically*. The outcome is that people who are assholes (and yes, it's possible for people to be assholes even if they are parents, just like they were assholes before procreating), depending on the context, can take advantage of their ability to work the system, and the result can be that those who pay for their accommodation paint all people of that identity with the same brush. It becomes a big battle, because without the *institution* taking responsibility for making potential conflicts workable, instead individuals either "get theirs" or "pick up the slack."

You know, some of these problems shouldn't be that difficult to solve. Clearly (to me) *every* institution should award a semester of maternity leave. If both parents work at the institution, they should have the option of dividing that leave if it's feasible. That's what would be best for the students, the parents, and for the colleagues of the parents. As for "things that come up" - all workers should have a certain amount of "personal time" that they can take (and I'd argue that there should be a distribution of personal time alongside sick time).

One of the things that is tricky about academia is the self-scheduled nature of it. But if a department had a policy where all people got, say, 5 get-out-of-jail-reschedule-that-meeting vetoes (without the need to explain why) per year, say, wouldn't that cover everybody's needs? And wouldn't it make not-yet-tenured faculty less reluctant to express a conflict? (Because, I'll admit, my lot has improved greatly the longer I've been here because I'm much more secure in my job and thus much more willing to protect my time. Prior to that, I would cave to demands of tenured people and feel *huge* underlying resentment, both because I felt like my personal life didn't "count" in their eyes and because I didn't have the power within the institution to make that personal life count.)

I suppose my point is that I think to make institutions more "people-friendly" (if not ideally people-friendly) wouldn't necessarily require very much. I think that some of these things would be easy fixes, and they would make parents and non-parents alike happier (and thus more productive and more engaged) within their institutions. The issue is that making such changes would go against "how things have been done" and it would disrupt some power centers (whether those are amongst those who don't accommodate family needs or whether those are amongst those who accommodate family needs above all else). What I'm interested in, and what nearly all of the commenters here seem to be interested in as well, is in addressing the systemic issues in a profession that requires people to have a long period of time out of the regular workforce, to move far from their support networks, and to serve in a long "apprenticeship" period with low pay before they have job security (although that security is ultimately the bomb, once one achieves it) during their child-bearing years. We, the majority of us, at any rate, *are* allies and not antagonists. And that is so awesome for me to see.

Maria said...

dr. crazy, I actually wish I hadn't read this post before going to bed. The comments have been very interesting, actually... but I wanted to add yet another perspective here...See, I have my primary comp on Friday, and I fly out tomorrow night, and I'm 8 months pregnant and sleepy and in the middle of a hideous set of braxton hicks contractions (wahwahwah..) I'm being serious and not serious, and I am hoping that my response won't be too hormonally affected -- because all of the above is true, but I'm trying to be my normal, sweet self. :)

What I would like to say is that I agree that I hate when the conversation turns to the who has it worse thing... but also, I think that it's important to put like things together: for most parents and non parents alike, I think that grown-up person activity does 'get viewed as "leisure," and thus as expendable.' But I believe that this is true across the board. Parents, particularly the single parents I know, just seem to have less of this. I don't know if I would put my child's future extracurricular activities above someone else's grown-up activity time, and try to determine which deserves its own affordances by faculties, meetings, etc. But, I do know that it's one thing to be responsible to get oneself to the doctor, yoga class, work, school, whatever -- and it's another to be not only responsible for yourself, but also for the life of another (whether this means life or death of another, which is certainly the case with children; or the stuff their lives are made of).

At the risk of being incidiary: I don't think that children and spouses or children and friends can be compared either, no matter how much it feels like one's friends are one's family... They are adults, who can, for the most part, take care of their own physical, social, emotional needs.

I guess what it comes down to is that maybe it's not nice for me to say that my child's personal needs are more important than someone else's personal needs -- in my role as a mother, I *need* and am required by that role, to place my child's personal needs high on the priority list. I'm not always going to balance things perfectly, and I'm not always going to make the right decision. I might not always remember how meaningful something is to someone without children when I'm so wrapped up in my child and his/her needs. But I think that because my life will be changing with the arrival of my son or daughter, so will my perspective on what's meaningful.

I get the frustration of single, unchildrened folks. I also get the frustration from the mother's side of things -- beginning to anyway.

Example: I was told to go on medical leave because I was pregnant. I got my back up, "I'm not ill, I'm expecting a child." However, now as I sit here waiting for another contraction to pass before going to sleep to the sound of a librivox recording of uncle tom's cabin.... I'm thinking, you know, that woman who I thought was just being a child-hating grad coordinator... well, she might have been on to something.

We do need our institutions to be more people-friendly. Canada has something with our maternity leave policies that's pretty darned good -- and my institution has great grad student policies on top of that too. We can all take a couple of semesters off for whatever reason, with permission. Across the board. Medical leave, maternity leave, personal leave...whatever.

IN the end my comment boils down to my wish that we didn't have to explain ourselves when we want to be excused from such activities. Why do we all feel like we have to say why we can't make a meeting?

-less meetings for all. we all hate them, and they all get in our way.


[apologies for the length of this comment, and an aside: I'm coming from a single-mother-to-be position, first in my family to get an advanced degree, and you know what -- there are very few of us around. Most of the folks I know with kids, who are successful academics, who seem to have "the balance just right" are moneyed, married, white, and men. I think that's a problem.]

Addy N. said...

Great discussion! I'm going to add something controversial here: I think I have it WAY easier than people in most other professions when it comes to having a family. My husband and I are in the same department and are able to schedule our classes so that we teach opposite days (one of us MWF, the other TR). That way, if our daughter gets sick, one of us can always stay home. Sometimes this involves missing or rescheduling meetings, but it always works out. Every time I stay home with my daughter when she's si
ck, I wonder how others manage it!

We also take her on conference trips (at our own expense) any time we both are attending the same conference- we take day trips and turn it into a mini-vacation to make up for her boredom at the meetings.

I think the points that everyone raised about "traditional" gender roles are really the bigger issue. I don't know that academia is necessarily worse than other jobs- at least in my experience. Of course, I might just be riding high on the wave of having recently been tenured and I'm now seeing the world through my rose-colored glasses!

Dr. Crazy said...

Maria, you wrote:

"IN the end my comment boils down to my wish that we didn't have to explain ourselves when we want to be excused from such activities. Why do we all feel like we have to say why we can't make a meeting?"

I entirely agree with you. In fact, this is my policy with students in my classes, and it works out just fine. Everybody gets an equal amount of time, and if special circumstances come up beyond that (which are serious - whether related to kids or parents or friends or whatever), we figure it out. I think the thing that's so fucked up about the profession is that it doesn't extend that *adult* courtesy to me or my colleagues that I extend to my students.

Example: I had a student whose boyfriend died in a freak accident on a four-wheeler. He wasn't her kid, he wasn't her spouse. But was it a huge deal to her? YES. Did I find a way to accommodate the situation? YES. Was this person technically my students' "family"? No. But this happening was as meaningful as a kid getting sick, as a parent being ill. My point is that people outside of a parent-child relationship have significant things in their lives. Those things need to be accommodated.

I wish all the best for you, for your baby, and for your family. And I hope that you're not having horrible contractions anymore! Take care, and know that I got what you were talking about when you spoke about people potentially making mistakes and thinking things are central when they're not necessarily central, etc. It's not that there's no room for error in any of this: it's that there should be equal room for error for all.

Edward Carson said...

I agree with the vast majority of what you are saying. As a high school teacher at an independent school in Houston, I am one who travels a great deal, have presented various conference papers and served on national exam and conference committees, I say life for all in education is a challenge. Many independent schools conduct national searches for candidates. So, mobility for high school teachers who desire to teach at some of the best schools is important.

My debt from under and grad school makes me wonder why I rejected a job offer with a publishing firm in the Northwest. Then, I realized that I (we) have a great deal of flexibility that many others do not have; I get a sabbatical to travel and write in two more years. That is great.

As for children, that I do not have; my female colleagues seem to have to deal with this alone; I often ask them if they have a partner. My lone lesbian friend contends that two women bringing up a child in the education profession is far better than a female having to depend on a husband. Why? Men assume it is the females job.

I like your blog. Great topics!

Dance said...

My department has a standard weekly faculty meeting time, that we are expected to keep clear, although there is not always a meeting. Although I have a small department (~12), with few parents of young children, it seems to me that setting aside reserved time means that scheduling issues, where one person or their conflict gets valued over another's, rarely come up in the first place.

Artistic Soul said...

Just wanted to jump back in here to highlight what I thought was an important addition that's come through more clearly since my last comment -- the institutional assumption that your personal/sick leave time in any given contract year should somehow correspond with your "summer time off". I would say I've had more problems with this than rescheduling meetings and the like with my colleagues -- generally, I find the department to be fairly accomodating as it is the central unit for the employee. But administration is often another matter entirely.

Here it is not explicitly stated, but strongly, strongly implied that one is never to miss a class session for ANY reason. Should one miss a class, you are "encouraged" to find a substitute for the day. As a result, our administrative assistant often has additional duties to meet our classes when a faculty member is sick or needs to schedule something personal that cannot be scheduled at any other time. I had some medical issues earlier this year, and needed to see a variety of specialists, often being unable to choose the times they had appointment availability. This conflicted with some of my teaching schedule, so she met my class and walked them through in-class activities I needed to design in advance to "justify" my not meeting the class.

In general, the department is pretty supportive about helping people cover these things, but we are all wary that it may get back to an administrator that we did not hold class on a particular day for whatever reason (even pre-assigned "days off" to work outside of class on long projects, or canceled classes due to conference presentations/travel are suspect and often need to be justified). Thus, the assumption that during the semester you aren't supposed to need any sick/personal leave is simply unrealistic. I've noticed that because of this underlying structure, I often will run on adrenaline most of the semester, and often become quite ill the minute my grades are turned in -- it's like my immune system is training itself not to get sick during the "wrong" time.

Just something else to think about in this discussion I guess...I've really enjoyed reading all of the perspectives so far.

LD said...

I'm not sure that pottery classes= children

Dr. Crazy said...

No, pottery classes do not equal children. I never said that. I said that pottery classes might equal soccer practice. Those two activities seem equivalent to me. But thanks for being such a careful reader, LD. I know that the many people participating in this lively and interesting discussion really benefited from your comment.

rachel said...

The comparison is actually more spurious than you make it sound (though more subtle than ld allows, obviously). It's not a matter of supporting the "soccer aspirations of the youth of America" so much as it is a matter of accommodating the parental desire (and sometimes obligation as is pointed out above) to be involved in a child's extracurricular activities. I do think it's probable that there is something different at stake, for a civic minded society, in decisions about parental invovlement in their kids' activities than in decisions about adult pottery classes. Further, I think it's probable that there are more scheduling limitations to youth team practices than there are to adult pursual of discretionary hobbies.

Dr. Crazy said...

I used the line for rhetorical effect, and obviously it touched a nerve with some. That's not what the bulk of the post is about, and I explained (at length, I think) in comments where I was coming from, and really, I was thinking about a specific example which was *fucked up*, so I suppose it isn't fair for me to be irritated when people call me out on that line, as you all don't know the specific circumstance. But if this comment thread is going to devolve into a discussion of how I'm horrible for one line in a lengthy post *that actually supports parents as well as all workers* then I really think that this comment thread has reached its time to be done.

My point in the post is that all workers have personal responsibilities. All workers' personal responsibilities should be valued. We can quibble about what counts as a "responsibility" but my point is that we shouldn't. It shouldn't be a contest. There should be a fair way to do the best we can for all workers.

Enough said.

m. minkoff said...

Just writing to say that you are the bomb, dr. crazy.

rachel said...

Nobody called you horrible at all. There really isn't even much defensiveness in this entire thread. Especially considering that you ended the post incredibly defensively.

Alice said...

see, I'm coming from this from a different perspective, colored most likely, by my different experiences as a mom of 2 in tt job at an R1 university.

I wish people would think of children as just another time-consuming hobby. Instead, the decision to have them before getting tenure is seen by many as a lack of commitment to Science.

I wish people would think of having to miss a meeting because of a child's illness or parent-teacher conference as they thinking of missing a meeting because of a haircut appointment or dog's vet appointment. Instead, pre-tenure mothers are advised to not mention their children, explicitly, as a reason to avoid scheduling a meeting at this or that time.

The fact of the matter is that I am judged against a bar set by people who work 70-90 hrs/week. Whether that is fair or unfair, desirable or undesirable, is a completely different debate (FTR, I think it is fair but am unsure on its desirability), but what we should all agree is that I don't need, on top of that, to be prejudged by the choices I have made in my *personal* life.

James said...

This said, I'm still struck by a tone I felt from the original IHE article, and from DD's post, that this is somehow an unfortunate thing that folks in academia choose to not have children. It can be unfortunate, absolutely. But, as I'd mentioned in my comment on his blog, this choice might also just be a pragmatic, positive reaction to the less-than-kid-friendly environment of academia.

There are even more positive reasons than you point out above. It's an incredibly selfless act to not have children, especially for people living in the first world. If we want a secure, peaceful future, we need to both consume less and have fewer offspring, and I'm glad to see that we're doing that, even if not quickly enough. I suspect more academics have such ethics than non-academics.

Karet said...

Like Addy N., I also think I have it easier than people in other professions (I have a 2 yr old and a 2 month old). I planned to have this baby at the end of March (yep, I'm fertile), so I could have spring quarter and summer off. Awesome. When I'm teaching, I only have to be on campus 2 or 3 days a week (depending on meetings), so that's how often my sitter comes. I'm super busy at night, after my son's bedtime, of course. I never talk on the phone or watch TV. But this craziness is temporary -- if I stayed in this job, I'd have tenure in 2 years, and my kids would become bigger and more independent in a few years. All of this is partly because I'm at a R1 school, and have a 2-1-2 teaching load. Sometimes, Crazy, I think your busy-ness is a product of your teaching load and your other insane job obligations (service), not academia in general.
All that said, I've decided to quit my job and move to Chicago with my family. The reasons are many: my husband's job (not in academia), our friends are there, we hate living in the rural midwest. But for me: it's family. Having extended family there will make parenting SO much better. And, we won't have to travel on holidays. Whew. I don't have to dread Xmas this year.
In case you're wondering, no I don't have a job lined up for next year. I'm waiting to hear about a few adjunct things. No, I haven't quit my job here yet.
Do I have regrets? ... Not yet!

Neuro said...

fuck pottery class...I just want time to grocery shop & do laundry--and yes, I've heard the "why can't your wife do it?" comment too and I'm also a single female...

oh, and sleep, a normal amount of sleep would be heavenly (although I'm guessing that grad students with kids also don't get much sleep--this is something that would benefit everybody).

Dr. Crazy said...

Karet,
This sounds like such a good move for you and yours, so first, I'm so happy for you that you're moving back close to family and that you're happy to be getting out of your current location.

You're right that my busy-ness is in many ways a product of this *particular* job, but it's also kind of my natural register. There are people I work with who are far less busy, far less productive. One of the things that I've come to realize is that I'm pretty happy living in a pretty busy register, and I'm not sure I'd be so happy if I were at an R1. That said, my institution is pretty deeply misogynistic in ways that are insidious, and this translates into a lack of *true* family-friendliness while there's a push to *give the appearance* of being family friendly. And I think that while this situation is in some ways unique to this institution, I think that a lot of people experience it. So, it's not that everybody's experiences in the academy are identical - this is true. But I think that it's largely true that many institutions don't take their workers' personal responsibilities seriously at all.

And that's where, Neuro, I hear you on wanting sleep and grocery shopping time, and time to do laundry. And I, too, have heard the quip of, "can't your wife do that?" Har har, very funny. I've also heard, in a less hardy-har-har way, "you know, you'd be happier if you found a partner." My internal response veers between, "no shit, Sherlock," and "really? says who?"

kim wells said...

I keep being struck by the "Why can't your wife do it" comments made to women faculty members. Really?! Someone actually said that to you folks?! I'm flabbergasted. But I do see that, often, even in academia where people are supposed to be smart about things.

I, too, want a wife. Where does a heterosexual married person sign up to get one of those things? end sarcasm.... I guess they're often called "nannies" and many academics pay them to fill that role. Just another thing for our fabulous salaries to do.

But do we really, really have to go back to that 1970s essay about that? I think this all the time. I need someone to do those chores for me, and I have a husband who is very, very enlightened but can't seem to remember how to pick up milk at the store on the way home.

If only there was someone perfect (like that Nicole Kidman character in Stepford Wives, after the brain implants,right?) to do all these chores for me while I sit in my air conditioned garret and think lofty thoughts. Ah, the bliss. And all I have to do is sit on the trapdoor so my kids can't force their way in here.

I am also reminded of that Steinem quip about how she has "yet to hear a man ask how to combine a family & a career."

Professor Zero said...

Perhaps it's just me but I keep noticing younger faculty who are successful nowadays do in fact have stay at home 'wives' no matter what their gender. Some of these wives have part time jobs which add to the income, but their physical and emotional work contributes, as in days of yore, to the success of the main breadwinner.

Being the professor and also being the professor's wife is my job and it puts me and others like me at a distinct disadvantage.

Jackline said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.