Saturday, February 19, 2011

if I knew then...

I've been thinking a lot about this comment on an earlier post:

Shortly after Bunny was born, you argued strongly that you could combine archaeology with parenthood--no one (perhaps women in particular) needed to give up one for the other. I think you meant it in contrast to the messages many of us got in graduate school. Obviously, both arguments (combine kids with your career! DON'T combine kids with your career!) strike me now as part true and part false. Is there anything you would say NOW to yourself then?

I think that it must be true that we can combine kids and career, because if it isn't true, we've drastically reduced the number of people willing to participate in this field. (Yes, I know this is not the same as saying "it must be true because look at all the wonderful examples of people successfully balancing family and career!")

On the other hand, I now believe that I was overly-optimistic in the early days of parenting. I would stand by my original argument that combining kids and career is possible, but add three important caveats:

Caveat #1: Any individual's ability to balance work and family will be dependent on factors outside their control.

When Bunny was born, Dr. Mr. Palimpsest and I assumed we would be able to find some kind of shared job. Yes, we knew it was hard to find tenure-track jobs, but we didn't realize how difficult it would be to convince a university to hire both of us for the price of one. If we were both working half-time, the last few years would have been much, much easier on everyone, and we would both have greater job satisfaction. We can't force Tiny U to let us share a position, though, and so far I haven't been able to get another job offer. Given how bad the market is right now, I may never get one.

The U.S. has systemic inequalities and large gaps in childcare services, maternity and paternity leave laws, etc., etc. So much of a parent's ability to integrate children into their career will be dependent on where the parent happens to get a job, whether or not the parent has family nearby to offer support, and other factors that an academic has little control over. Yet, these factors are critical for familial well-being. Would we be happier/more balanced/less overwhelmed if we lived near family, or had jobs with a lower teaching load, or had two full incomes, or lived in a community with more resources for children? Heck, after all the illnesses my family have suffered this winter, would we be much happier if we lived in a warmer climate?

Caveat #2: Compromise is inevitable

Parenting - as with all of my varied and rich life experiences - makes me a better teacher and researcher. My career and education - as with all of my varied and rich life experiences - make me a better mother. But, at least for me, under my current circumstances, I can't do both at the same time without spending less time and energy on each than I would like. I cancel classes because my kids are sick. I fall behind on grading. I don't have as much interest and energy to devote to my students. Most importantly, given my high teaching load, research and writing takes lots of evening and weekend hours, and I'm not willing to take all of those away from my kids (or ask my husband to take care of them.)

As a mother, I hate the idea of my babies being cared for by others from 8-5 every week day. When Bunny was a baby, Dr. Mr. Palimpsest stayed home with her, so even though I didn't get to spend as much time with her as I liked, she was getting all the benefits of a stay-at-home parent. With Pumpkin, though, that wasn't an option. I've tried to keep him out of daycare as much as possible, but I can't keep my job and still have him at home for any length of time.

Dr. Mr. Palimpsest said in his comment on the earlier post that "the day home with the baby is a luxury you might not be able to afford." He's right - a full-time academic job is still a full-time job, period. But the day at home with baby doesn't seem like a "luxury" to me. It's a necessity. He needs me! He needs to be the focus of one person's whole attention, so that he gets food when he wants it, and he can go down early for a nap on days when he's particularly sleepy. He needs someone who always has his best interests at heart, and isn't balancing the needs of three other infants. He needs a mother more often than 7-8am and 5-7pm on weekdays.

Yes, I know, if what I just said is true, then no mother should work full-time outside the home unless they have a partner willing to stay with their children. I can't say that's true, but for me, at least, I'm not sure it's untrue, either, because...

Caveat #3: Your priorities and goals may change unexpectedly when you become a parent.

Before I had kids, I never thought I'd feel guilty about working. My mother worked outside the home, so my brother and I both went to daycare. I never thought my mother should feel guilty. I never felt my health or development were compromised by her job. I knew that she felt guilty, but didn't understand why. Now that I'm a mother, I'm torn up by the fact that I can't be there for my kids. I feel like I'd be a much better mother if I wasn't working such long hours - not only because I'd have more time with them, but because I'd be more patient, less frustrated, less overwhelmed, more joyful, during the hours that I spend with them.

If you'd asked me before I had kids, I would have said that it was next to impossible that I would ever consider leaving a career in order to spend time raising my children. Once I became a parent, though, both my priorities and goals changed greatly. My kids are more important than my career, and my most critical goals relate to the development of my children. Note that I'm not saying that it isn't possible to combine a career and kids. But, at least given our current circumstances, I feel a much higher level of personal conflict than I would have expected before Bunny was born.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and honest essay. I remember talking to several older female faculty about day care when I was freaking out about sending my own baby off to one. They were kind but not that sympathetic; they'd done it. To some extent this isn't a rational, fact-based decision but a very very personal one, and I agree you don't know what your beliefs about it are until you are in that position! I hope you can resolve in this some way that feels right for your family. Get healthy and get some sleep, and see what you think this summer. . .