Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bad Female Academic: Motherhood

It has been almost impossible for me to "hide" the fact that I am mother during my academic career. When I moved to the States and began my first job as an adjunct instructor, I was quite visibly pregnant. It was a strange and wonderful experience to discuss the book Manliness while 7 months pregnant, talking about gender roles. When I was looking for tenure-track jobs, I had my husband and infant daughter in toe for the MLA interviews, made noise about being able to bring her for on-campus interviews, requested time for pumping, and always asked about on-campus childcare options. When I started my tenure-track position, I was once again pregnant, and had to take maternity leave at the beginning of only my second semester. And in my current position, I have often had to wear my son on my back while teaching because there was no one else to look after him. 

I am an admitted mother-hen when I teach. But I am also quite clearly still a mother while I teach. We live less than a block from campus, so often the kids will come to campus to visit. I teach in a small town, so I almost always run into my students while I am out with the kids. My kids become over-simplified examples for class (how my daughter's former love of all things Elmo, including canned beans, is no different than Katy Perry shilling ProActive). But, especially with the students I teach (non-traditional), my kids seem to humanize me and bridges the gap between us. Many of my students are from large, close-knit families, where they have plenty of young cousins, nieces, nephews, or young kids themselves. For many of my students, talking about my kids before class shows that I am a human being outside of the classroom.

Too bad that feeling isn't universal throughout academia. I still remember the stark difference between the reactions to me at the regional state university campus where I taught and the small, highly-competitive liberal arts college where I coached swimming to my visible pregnancy. At the liberal arts college, female students and faculty would visibly recoil upon seeing me, while at the state school, most girls would ask me my due date and if they could touch my belly. Academia tends to see pregnancy and motherhood as the small liberal-arts college looked at me: as something freakish, something to be feared and avoided. If one becomes a mother, then one also cuts herself off from many, many professional opportunities. 

The double-standard for male and female academics when it comes to parenthood is also a constant source of frustration. My husband also has had to bring our son to meetings on campus because of the lack of child-care options; he is viewed as a loving and doting father, not to mention devoted husband for "allowing" me to continue my career. But when I bring my kids to school, I am seen as unprofessional for bringing my role of mother into the classroom or a wife who has been asked to sacrifice too much in the name of her husband's career. I cannot be who I am not, and I am a mother who is an academic, an academic who is a mother. Why those things remain seemingly incompatible is beyond me. 

Just be to clear, I have never tried to use my position as a mother to "get ahead" (I took six weeks off when my second was born, had no mat leave support for my first, just the summer "off"), nor is it all that I talk about in class. I'm also not a Tiger Mother or a mother who thinks that my role is part of a larger, full-contact sport. I take my role as a mother seriously, but I am also a serious academic. A confession: last month, when I went, by myself, to a conference, I was thrilled. Not only because of the wonderfully stimulating conversations that were taking place within my field, but because I got a break.

Yeah, a break.

I went back to work in part because I had to for financial reasons, but also because I wanted to. No, that's not accurate; I needed to. Good Female Academics choose: be a good mother or be a good academic. I didn't. Or, I did temporarily, by giving up my tenure-track job. But I won't apologize for loving my job as an academic, on or off the tenure-track. Not to mention those parts of my identity that have nothing to do with my kids, my husband, or my job. 

2 comments:

  1. Great article! Many women in academia have similar experiences but while there is much anecdotal evidence, there is little that is so well written.

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  2. And this post pretty much sums up my experience as an academic mom. A fellow academic mom referred me to your site and this blog in particular. Thank you so much for posting! It's comforting (but also terribly sad) that we share similar experiences with this double standard, and the expectations from academia that you should be a mom or a dedicated academic. My story is very similar, right down to the part about choosing to have a more balanced life and less prestigious academic position.

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