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Thursday, September 30, 2004

Professor Mama

posted by bitchphd
So people are talking about children in academic and private life--lots of people. Let me start by admitting that I do find some of what's being said upsetting, especially in the comments to some of the older posts. Which is part of why I'm weighing in now rather than earlier. Here, having had time to get past my initial anger, I'll try to minimize the polemic.

The first thing to start with, as I've said before, having children is not a "choice." It is a biological fact. We are living animals: we reproduce. That's how it works. It is a wonderful, wonderful thing--and I took advantage of it for more than 30 years--that we can choose not to reproduce; but unless you wanna outlaw sex, reproduction will happen. I know a woman, for instance, who got knocked up with TWINS while she was on bcp. Pseudonymous kid was a condom baby. Though really, the question of birth control error is a red herring, because I really want to stress the fundamental point that any system that is predicated on the idea that living things will not reproduce is deeply, fundamentally stupid. You might as well resent the fact that people have to eat. (And by the way, how often do you eat a power bar for lunch? Doesn't the inability to acccomodate eating suggest that there's something wrong?)

The second fundamental thing is this "children are okay, as long as I never have to deal with them" thing--including the resentment of people who get "more" resources because their health insurance covers their family, or because their kids get tuition breaks at the colleges where they teach, or who breastfeed in public, or whatever. Children are part of society. They are human beings. They are not exotic pets. They get to go into restaurants; they get to eat in places other than public bathrooms; they get to have bad days; they get to have their needs met, too.

Yes. Kids have certain needs that are specific to being kids. They are more dependent, they have shorter attention spans and less impulse control, they are sometimes clumsy or incompletely socialized. (Then again, so are a lot of adults.) Good parents will take this into account: if the kid starts crying, they will immediately pick it up and leave (or nurse it, which is what I always did). If the kid is being a brat, they will either put a stop to the behavior or leave until it's under control; if they want to go to a social event, they will either inquire about bringing the kid or they will figure out a solution, whether that means not going, or leaving their partner at home, or paying a sitter. This will inevitably cause some inconvenience to those around us: you will inadvertently see the tit while the baby is being pacified (though really, if you don't like to see breastfeeding in public, look elsewhere), or you will hear the yelling as the kid is hustled to the door, or you will not see your coupled friends as often as you'd like, if you aren't willing to have social events that include their kids (which is fine, but then don't get bent if the friendship inevitably cools a bit). And sometimes people are bad parents, and sometimes even good parents have bad days. Admittedly, other people are inconvenient sometimes.

Kids, perhaps, are more often inconvenient--especially in societies where their presence is not accomodated. Know, however, that I am raising my kids to have good manners--so when you get old and dribble your food down your chest in a restaurant, or speak loudly because you are hard of hearing, or even tomorrow, if you are having a shitty day and you are broadcasting your resentment to everyone in line at the shop, they will not demand that you remove yourself immediately but will, instead, understand that "everyone feels bad sometimes, honey; let's let that lady go ahead of us in line" or "she can't help being a messy eater, and it's impolite to stare."

Ok, so that out of the way, the specifics of academic life: what I think is that those of us with kids who are insisting on (and starting to get) "accomodation" for our family lives are the damn canaries in the coal mine. Or, if you want to be more optimistic and you don't mind mixing your metaphors, we're the vanguard. Rather than resenting us for getting "special" treatment, why not back us up? The fundamental problem isn't the kids: the fundamental problem is that the 40-hour work week died a long time ago, and we're all supposed to have these stupid monkish existences where we don't have frivolous hobbies. Like kids. Those of us who are pushing to do things like leave the office at a reasonable hour, or have some flexibility in scheduling, or recognize that teaching at unconventional hours isn't something you can just assume people will do, are the ones who--if you'll just back us up--will start forcing reexamination of the myth of 24/7 availability.

Let's talk about some situations: night classes? I taught a night class when pseudonymous kid was a toddler. Working class families have done that kind of thing for ever: one parent works the day shift, one swing shift, so as to cover child care. I would imagine that a lot of academic parents might actually prefer night classes for that reason, at least until the kids go to school. Meetings missed for soccer games? Everyone misses meetings once in a while--is this really that big a deal? Having to schedule things around when kids get picked up from school? Admittedly, this is a pain in the ass; if it helps at all, it's a fucking pain in the ass for us, too, the running back and fucking forth all the time: it isn't easy to try to maintain a train of thought when you're constantly dashing around, and it means we're always late, yes, and we know you resent it, and that just adds to the stress. So it's annoying all 'round.

Now it is true that academic life (and certainly other jobs too) demands a sort of presence beyond 9-5. The very existence of the "campus" creates a sort of community to which we all belong. Students schedule plays or rallies or campus barbeques during non-working hours, and in most places faculty are expected to take part, at least sometimes. I have this utopian idea that we ought to just bring our goddamn kids into the office when there are after-hours meetings, and let them play in a separate room, or quietly in the corner, or in the hall, or in our offices--it would help keep meetings short. When pseudonymous kid was a babe in arms, I damn well took him to meetings and nursed him to keep him quiet. And by the way, has anyone ever noticed that there are never baby changing tables in campus bathrooms??? Things like on-campus child care would sure help, especially if they were fully staffed (always, there is a waiting list) and let you drop kids in and out as needed (which often they don't).

I had a professor in graduate school who would bring her cat to the office on weekends. I had a couple of friends who brought their dogs to campus sometimes. I think this is all good: sure, there are people with allergies, and yes it is hard to work if the kids or pets are noisy, so obviously you need to be considerate--if the department's admin. assistant is deathly allergic to (or phobic of) dogs, leave the dog home, and if your kid isn't the quiet type, don't bring him in for the entire afternoon. Ideally, we really should be able to integrate our lives with our jobs, especially in jobs that demand we identify ourselves by our titles. Ideally, campus life should either be just a job--in which case, I'm leaving at 5 so I can have dinner with my kid--or it should accept that it's a vocation and professing is an identity, in which case I'll stay late, but my kid will come into the office and play in the hall.

I also want to point out that most of the discussion, especially by academics, is presuming that people with kids are married. This isn't always the case. Even if you wanted to be a hard-line asshole and say that anyone with children who divorces deserves to be punished by not being able to hold a job (because, you know, why should the workplace accomodate people's choices?), do you really want to say that if someone's partner drops dead? Not to mention that it is totally fuzzy thinking to conflate the issue of children with the issue of relationships--though obviously they often overlap, for lots of reasons. Being part of a couple does make it easier to parent, assuming your partner isn't a complete asshole; even in couples, women with demanding jobs often end up pulling more than their fair share of parenting hours, because it's a lot harder for men to ask for time "off"; because we've all--including the kids, which is important to note--internalized the "mama first" bullshit; because a commuter marriage is a lot harder to have when there are kids involved; and of course because "relationships" includes relationships with one's kids.

People are not brains on sticks. People have lives. Whether it's partners, parents, kids, pets, buddies, whatever, we all need time to get the hell out of the office. Yes, culturally, we say "kids come first" (though "family" parking spots notwithstanding, that is largely lip service--it's nice to lessen the chance that my kid's going to get hit by a car in a lot if he tears himself out of my hand while I'm carrying shopping bags, but it doesn't really make up for the fact that the big-ass grocery store is a shopping environment designed to try kids' patience so that inevitably they're going to tantrum or run off before you get all the way through the store, and then everyone will glare at you for being such a "bad parent").

Sometimes we are even starting to put kids first, like by not penalizing people for leaving the office to pick up their kids at school. It doesn't therefore follow that everyone else comes in last, however. It means that you ought to be able to say, "So-and-so needs to leave because her kid gets off school, and I need to leave because my dog has been locked in the house all day and will pee on the floor if I don't go now." So, say it. Don't expect us to fight your battles for you: speak up about your needs. If you can do so in a way that doesn't set up some false zero-sum game, you might get us as allies: keep in mind that saying, "I need to go because of my kids" is a fucking terrifying thing to say, a lot of the time. Ten years ago (and still, often), women who said that sort of thing were cutting their own throats. We had to fight damn hard to get the right to have kids and jobs (a right we still can't take for granted, obviously). In some sense, the pressure that we're all feeling about work can be read as a kind of backlash: you want a kid and a job? Ok, that's your "choice." Now, suffer--including suffering the resentment of your fellow workers. Fellow workers, look at how these women and men with kids are making your lives more difficult! Don't you think that they shouldn't be getting these "special" rights? Shouldn't they be forced to "choose" between their kids and their jobs? They're taking away "your" jobs, and they're not even doing them properly! They're imposing on your rights because they are demanding special treatment!

We all, every last one of us, with and without kids, need to resist the idea that the other person's "choice" is somehow unfair to us. Don't blame your sister because life isn't fair.
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