22 September 2008

Parental equality in academia?

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.


Daktari said...

You know, I'm pretty anti-kid, well, for myself anyway, and because of the way society (or at least my sister) has gotten about over-protecting kids, I'm afraid to touch them, talk to them, interact with them much at all. I just smile and nod.

But, all things said, I think you are being a little hard on yourself. Grad students don't make much money, and poverty + children surely requires some juggling. For instance, there is no reason why you should not be able to work around your partner's schedule so that, if possible, you can avoid paying a baby sitter to watch your child while you work. I agree that playing the mommy card isn't always the most professional, but why not just say "I'm would prefer to work the evening labs" rather than mention baby?

What I don't think should happen is that others are inconvenienced by your parenthood. For instance, if a student had to drop out of a conflicting class because you wanted a plumb assignment. But there is no reason that reasonable accommodation of student's needs can't be taken into account.

My 2 cents.

Knotty Britta said...

There are a lot of learned judgments that people make. "She can't have an interesting life, or anything to offer to a conversation, she's a stay at home mom" is a big one. That has bugged me for a long time.

I understand the frustrations of singles, or marrieds with no kids when other people ask for "special treatment" because of kids, but I really don't see it as special treatment. I think society needs to become more child friendly. Single parents especially need more help than they get. While wanting a specific schedule "because of the kids" is definitely an excuse for a preferred time slot, it shouldn't be discounted all together.

Also, it's interesting that you have an issue with it! Playing the "mommy card," if done selfishly isn't cool, but it's still relevant!!!