I've been thinking a lot about balancing work and family, and the role society plays in our decisions therein.
People spout their views about Sarah Palin's qualifications for VP, mentioning her five kids. But when we consider Barack Obama's qualifications for President, no one mentions his young children. Why? Well, because they'll have their mother to take care of them. Sarah Palin's husband Todd will be there for their kids, but that isn't the same in the public eyes. Why not? Why should it be any different for a woman than for a man?
As a parent and a grad student, I see the range of people juggling family and school. Hell, even a lot of the undergrads here are trying to balance academia with their spouse and sometimes children. It gets hard when, as a parent, one needs additional flexibility or considerations beyond those required by single or non-parent students. It feels unfair to demand special treatment. I don't like special treatment at all. But at the same time, the only way to normalize parenthood and strive toward equal treatment for all is to demand that flexibility, that accommodation. Bitch PhD has a really great article here about normalizing the balance of family and academia (yes, academics have lives!)
I came to this topic from personal experience. A few weeks back, at the start of the semester, we had a big lab meeting with all of the HumPhys TAs. We had to figure out who was teaching when, and arrange the schedule so each lab section had a TA and an Undergrad Aide (UA) covering it. The UAs signed up for times first, as their schedules are much more booked. There was negotiation for different timeslots, and juggling of coverage. One of the few female UAs this semester made a point to mention that she would really like a night section "because of my kids". Now, I know that at least a few of the male UAs are married, and some have kids. But none of them mentioned the kids, or spouse, or dog, or anything as a reason for needing their schedule a certain way. She's the only one who did. And I bristled. I bristled at her playing the "mommy card," requesting special accomodation because she's a mom.
When it came my turn to sign up for labs, I said nothing about needing to juggle my schedule with J's, needing to arrange care for Doodle. Nothing. Why? Because I felt it would be unfair to play that card when the guys don't. Maybe they feel they can't, maybe their personal relationships are such that they are primarily in school and their partners are primary care-providers for the offspring. I don't know. I didn't ask. But to feel like it's unfair to ask for accommodation due to non-academic obligations (such as family) seems wrong somehow. I feel like I should be able to mention Doodle in passing without fear of being dismissed as "well, she's not going to be doing much toward her thesis since she has a little one" or "well, I guess she's not really serious about academia if she has to go take care of her kid." Why must family and academia be mutually exclusive? I don't think they should be.
I don't think academia is alone in this. That's just where my experience lies. I'm still not sure what I'm going to do about this. I need to think about it some more.