Mother + Academia = ???

It’s 8:11 am and I am packing my son’s snack for half-day Kindergarten. My head is pounding from a lingering cold and dishes from last night’s impromptu dinner of chicken fajitas (half of which the dog stole off of the counter) are piled in the sink. If I don’t get them in the washer soon, I’ll have a trail of ants across my kitchen counter.

In the family room, my son is mostly naked (he has socks on, at least), with Nutella smeared across his face and the sofa. I make a mental note of all the rhetoric surrounding the unhealthiness of Nutella and for 5 seconds wonder if I’m failing my child (Don’t worry, I’m still with you Kelly Clarkson). It’s Red Sox Day at school and the kids are meant to wear something red, white, and blue if they don’t have Sox paraphernalia. One of the reason’s my son is still naked is that he’s decided the Sox shirt he’s worn 17 times since school began is now, miraculously, too long and wants me to cut it. (Which I, of course, have no intentions of doing.) A battle is brewing and I’m trying to assess to what degree it might erupt. (It erupts big time on the walk to school, which means he’s either getting sick or going through a hormonal/growth spurt – two things I now have to prepare for.)

At the other end of the house, the dogs are conducting their morning wrestling routine. Tables are being pushed across the floor, there’s barking and the incessant clicking of nails on hardwood (I’d love rugs, but the chicken-stealer has an issue with going outside in the rain, so…). I see they’ve used a peacock headdress I made for Halloween as a pull-toy and blue, purple, and pink feathers are strewn throughout the living room. I ignore it for the moment. On my way to the bathroom, I pick up random items of clothing — some my child’s, some not – left to wither and die in corners, under dining chairs, peeking out of from under the sofa, becoming one with the tumbleweeds of dog hair that exist no matter how much I sweep or vacuum. I add these remnants to the pile of towels left on the bathroom floor and shove it all down the laundry chute with my foot, to be addressed later.

Looking at my desk, I see my calendar reminding me to draft some decision letters on articles for an academic journal I assist with, note the article draft I’m supposed to be working on, the job applications that should be in this week, the book proposal that needs to get started, the journal year-end report, the work on various other projects…and I wonder, “How am I going to get this done?”

Let me step back for a moment, here, and say that up until this point I have actually been handling this juggle fairly well – at least in terms of outcomes. My kid is healthy, clothed (most of the time), well fed, does well academically, is socially functioning, etc. I’ve managed to complete my PhD a year early, with publications, awards, and a pretty impressive research trajectory ahead. I’m not worried about being marketable as I embark on the dreaded Tenure-Track job search. But there has also been a cost and I worry about how my role as “Mummy” and “Professor” will reconcile both in interviewing and accepting a position.

I have no doubt in my ability to continue the trajectory I’ve started as an academic. Teaching and research are part of me. But I worry about the perception from outside because, despite women occupying a strong portion of faculty in English/RhetComp, those who are also mothers are not proportionally representative. It’s okay to have children, so long as they are not seen, heard, or interrupt the work. Ironically, last night I picked up a book at the library specifically focused on negotiating this work-life balance. I won’t name the text because, to my anger, it argued for women to do less professionally rather than finding ways of transforming institutions or shifting emotional labor or, dare we say, confronting the idea that we are all supposed to be “on” and productive 24-7. (It was written by women, as well, which only exacerbated my response.) It reminded me of a conversation I had two weeks before returning to an Alt-Ac job after having my son and being put in a position to reassure a male supervisor (who had 2 kids of his own at the time) that I was, in fact, capable of continuing to work at the prior pace despite my child. And that, no, I was not feeling I should give up my career to take care of my child. This “hidden child” narrative is not one that I’m willing to accept, which may be my downfall.

Obviously, this is not the case across the board. My current department is making great strides toward being child-accepting (though there’s still tension), and there are enough men asking for accommodations for their childcare concerns that people are becoming more conscious and thoughtful. But it doesn’t remove the very real challenges that do exist in balancing what it means to be (and look) like a serious scholar and that of being a parent. There’s always the lingering question: “What could she have done if she didn’t have a kid to weigh her down?”

What many people don’t realize, though, is that my son has actually made me more productive. There is nothing like knowing that you have a very specific block of time to write, for example, to remove writer’s block or generate pages. Or the weight of raising a family off of one salary (because the graduate stipend really only covers childcare costs) to make you focus, finish the degree, and get a job with stability. There is also the added benefit of my son being able to see his mother finishing her education much later than others, the emotional support his father provides, and the hard work that goes into the knowledge-making process.

This isn’t to say that there are not prices that are paid. Interestingly, though probably not surprisingly, the prices tend to be borne out by me. I struggle to eat well, get to the gym, or take time for myself. I haven’t read a book for pleasure in years and desperately crave long walks alone in nature. The dogs don’t get the exercise they probably need and I have, in effect, no social life. Emotionally, I feel guilt when I’m working too much, having to travel for research or conferences, or when the house looks like a pigsty. Or when my son has chicken nuggets and fries for the third time in a week. I’m sad when I try on work clothes that used to be baggy and now are inappropriately tight – mad because I can’t work full time, parent full time, and look like Cindy Crawford simultaneously (don’t get me started on embodied societal expectations). Guilt, again, at school parent council when most of the women in the room proudly declare their stay-at-home status as a sacrifice they’re willing to make for their children (suggesting I don’t care enough about mine to leave academia).

These past six years as a mother in academia and Alt-Ac have taught me a lot about staking your claim, setting boundaries, compartmentalizing, and other strategies for success. What I realize, now, though is that understanding from others and support is key. Being a parent does not make you a lesser academic; if anything, I think it demonstrates just how superhero-like we can be when we love both our families and our careers. It’d all be a lot easier for me, though, with less judging from peers and fellow parents. I crave a tribe of my own – of parents who share the challenges of meeting book deadlines and paper grading with swim lessons, teacher conferences, and date nights with their significant other. Maybe I will find that in the next year with (hopefully) a new job, maybe I won’t. Maybe it’s something those of us in academia need to spend more time thinking about.

If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them!

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