Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Being Truthful about Being Human: or, "Having it All" Revisited

I apologize for the blog break.  Last Saturday, I attended a symposium with other theologians, and I spent last week writing the paper for that symposium.  It went well, by the way, and I really enjoyed it.  It also makes me think, once again, about the whole concept of working mothers "having it all."

I took the whole family with me to the town where the symposium was - actually, THAT fact was more Philosophy PhD's choice, since he 1) wanted to make sure that I made the 3 hour trip okay by myself (which meant him coming with me); 2) wanted to get out of town; 3) was maybe ever so slightly worried about being alone with L. for a whole day (?).  I'm guessing here.  In any case, they all came with me.

Baby G. actually went with me to the symposium, too.  Most of the time, that's a big "no-no" in academia, especially if you're presenting.  At least, I haven't generally felt welcome to do that.  But when I was asked to present a paper, I was already 7 months pregnant, and knew that in February there WOULD, God willing, be a baby to show for it all.  I also knew that I wanted to nurse the baby and therefore knew that my being away from her for a full night plus a whole day would likely not work.  (She does take a bottle here and there, convenient for quick meetings and such...but a whole day and night?  Philosophy PhD responsible for the feeding and care of a 3 year old plus an infant?  I'm sure he would have balked.)  Frankly, I'm not sure if even she were solely a bottle-taking baby, I would have left her for that long at 2 months old.  I suppose that's one of those "your mileage may vary" things, highly dependent on the parent and the baby.  At 7 months pregnant, you have no idea what kind of baby you'll have nor how you'll feel.  And, given that the baby could conceivably have come at any point up to January 11, when they would have induced for post-term pregnancy, the symposium could have been only a month after the baby was born.  All those caveats.  Despite it all, they kept their invitation open and I decided, why not?  It sounded like a fun symposium, and this is one of the several reasons I went into academia - to think about topics with other theologians!

The symposium planners and people were fantastic!  They welcomed the baby; one of the participants walked my baby around while I gave my paper (he totally didn't have to do that) and generally it went well, at least from my point of view.  (I don't know about theirs....)  But the fact is, I wouldn't have gone at all if I couldn't have brought her.  It was my sine qua non.

But I want to add still further to the reflection on all this.  I was one of only two women in the room, and the only woman with young children.  Actually, that's rather common both in my field and in academia in general.  There are a few fields that have more women than men, but for the most part, that's not the case.  The men there were all family guys themselves, so quite understanding about issues with kids - but still, there's a gender thing there.  I'm the only one who has breasts, to put it bluntly.  Whatever my brand of feminism at other times and places (I tend to favor post-modern feminism), in situations like this, I seem most like a cultural feminist, because there IS something to their idea that women have undervalued attributes like breasts.

This is especially so in the workplace.  It's one of the reasons why I am angry about this country's maternity leave policies, because the underlying view seems to be that, "Oh, OKAY.  We'll hire a woman, but after she's hired, she has to pretend that she doesn't have a uterus, breasts, children to pick up from school, or anything else that leaks 'family'."  (And let's not make this a those-Europeans versus these-Americans thing, since that seems to devolve into cross-ocean name-calling and discussions of who is most/least responsible when it comes to the national budget. For example, I was speaking to a friend in Uganda last week, where the national policy is three months...)

The standard of pretending one doesn't have a family belongs to a time when men could pretend that they could arrive at work and appear unconnected to family life precisely because they didn't have bodies that betray otherwise.  Well, I think partly because women have been in the workplace for a while, that attitude has been changing/changed for a while too.  Lots of men now proclaim themselves as family men and leave meetings to pick up kids early.  Our maternity leave policy is SO nineteenth-century - and while we're at it, the lack of a paternity leave policy is SO twentieth-century.

So let's be truthful about ourselves.  We are a people who work and who have families, even if we're not married with children.  That doesn't mean "having it all."  That's a statement about the way humans exist - and have existed for a long time.  Let's break away from the false ideals from the mid- to late- nineteenth century and post-World War II about women and men and families.  People have long been merchants with families, farmers with families, restaurateurs with families, etc.  Work wasn't always imagined as cordoned off from one's family life.  I think it is largely because we started to imagine a space called "the office" that family got pushed to the wayside - but that's too straitjacketed a way to live.

Having such a hugely separate place called "work" or "the office" is too great a luxury for us, I think.  I know my detractors will say, "But children are too distracting," and actually, I agree with them.  I'm a big fan of well-paid child care, but I also think there are many times when we are too quick to say that children don't belong.  Like, for instance, at academic meetings where for many participants, the main things aren't the papers but getting together over beers to discuss their field.  I do, in fact, judge academic meetings by how welcoming they are to children.  Society of Christian Ethics: excellent.  Other rarefied societies of which I am/have been a part?  Not so much.

Overall, we need better work policies in terms of hours, flexibility and the like.  We need to be able to be fully human, fully with families and also fully participants in the economy.  To pretend that we are machines or just individual objects in space, unconnected to each other, isn't realistic or good.

Just as a related aside: while I was on partial bedrest during pregnancy, I watched the entire series of "House, M.D."  (Never seen it before.)  Anyone else ever notice that ALL of the characters on the show have failed marriages, no children, no spouse, even no significant other (unless married to each other)?  There's an interesting underplot about work becoming family if you make it to high enough/rare enough ranks.  And obviously, the "best" doctors can't be ordinary, or mingle with the ordinary - that is to say, people with families.  It's kind of life marriages in Hollywood: can't associate with the plebs, because it "just won't work."


  1. And a thumbs up for NWNW, as well, I must say. I admit that part of why I've never tried to separate kids from work (e.g. leaving the baby at home) is because I wanted to remind people that I'm not "just a student." Perhaps it was a defense mechanism or excuse in my case. (Like, "I have other things going on in my life here too, and I don't mean racquetball games. They're people - cute little people.")

    Just recently I've been thinking about my future prospects and getting annoyed at the options for moms in academia. My sis is a midwife and works 2/3 time. I know other women who work 1/2 time. But for me, it'll either be full-time or adjunct. Neither is attractive to me right now. I love being home with the kids. But to be honest I miss the academic community being in the thick of it all.

  2. For what it's worth, it IS possible to be in academia and have a half time job. Those are more rare than the other two possibilities you mention, but they do exist. I think it would be entirely possible to negotiate that kind of a position along with your husband's job search.

    You might change your mind about adjuncting too - it IS true that it is low pay for teaching classes. BUT you have no committee work and there are more options for accepting/refusing classes, particularly in a situation (say at your husband's school) where they know you too. I have friends who adjunct and who prefer it. Of course, if the main aim is to have a job that can support a family, adjuncting is not the way to go at all. But it can work into a nice part time job depending.

    You're right - NWNW is another great example of an inclusive conference.

  3. Thank you. Would you like to come back to your previous place of employment with your family and talk about issues like this to the faculty?

  4. Additional comment - children are more common at art history meetings as there are more women art history phds.

  5. MAP - you know, we've been thinking about making a trip back east to see everyone. I'd be happy to add in a pointed conversation ;-) Though given the "natural" tendencies of a couple departments there, I'm not sure my argument would fly very well. we could see...

    That makes sense about art history - I was wondering, too, if English is now more of a woman-dominated field in academia? On the other hand, I have trouble envisioning the MLA conference being terribly welcoming. Maybe someone else who reads this can speak to this?

  6. Well, I do plan on adjuncting at some point (and want the time in the classroom!), though in our past experience, adjuncting was a hit or miss situation where Jeff just had to take whatever he was offered (if offered anything), regardless of time or subject. No committee work is kind of appealing though, given how much time Jeff spends on that! But in the end, maybe not the most cost-efficient situation for us (he gets paid more for an overload than I would for adjuncting, and we avoid a double-commute). The other issue is that his school, because they have primarily graduate classes, only wants Ph.D.s to adjunct.

    Btw, have you seen Doc Martin? I haven't seen any House, but Doc Martin is a British doctor show where the doc is also rude and struggling to establish a relationship with a normal person. It's funny to watch (and all four series are on Netflix).

  7. Yes! We have seen 2 seasons of Doc Martin and want to see the other two. We get them from the library so we'll have to wait a bit...