(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)
What I remember most about my post-grad Gender and Politics seminar were the extensive discussions we had about having babies. It was 2004, and debates about babies vs careers, and whether women should ‘opt out‘ to raise families, were heated and divisive. Women were told in the 1980s and 1990s that the highest feminist aspiration was to wear oversize, terrible suits and work alongside men- as equals (or at least work alongside men, while accepting less pay and dealing with harassment). This was followed by the movement to denounce the double-day; the New York Times and Time Magazine led the charge in declaring that women wanted out of the work force, and were empowered by the choice to stay at home and raise children. Less than a decade later, it was declared that ‘women couldn’t have it all‘- the career, family balance was a loose loose choice. We had been duped. The opt out luxury was always ‘fiction‘ that only really applied to white middle-class women. Forbes pointed out that opt-out mom’s were unable to catch up in their careers and Al Jazeera concluded that women weren’t opting out, they were out of options. The opt out women ‘wanted back in‘ (are you confused yet about what *good* feminists should want??). Perhaps the culmination of this back and forth comes in Linda Hirshman’s book, ‘Get to Work…And Get a Life Before it is too Late.’ Hirshman calls ‘opting out’ a form of ‘self-betrayal’ (and also encourages women to only have one child).
Entangled within this debate were mixed messages about how to ‘time’ having children (note, there was no debate there about whether strategizing to fit children within one’s career plan was itself a problem).
One article I read back in 2004 encouraged women to ‘do the math’ and take control over the timing of children so that they didn’t ‘forget,’ have to rush to become a ‘last chance mother,’ or run out of biological time before they reproduced- ending up ‘single and childless‘.* The strategy went like this: pick the age at which you want to have a child (or your last child, if you want more than one), count back in years and account for how long you want to be married before you have children, count back more years and think how long you will date before you get married. The results- your long term birth plan.
Does it get more heteronormative that this? The article made several big assumptions, including: Continue reading Bad Advice on Making Academic Babies: opting in and out of heteronormative panic
(this post also appeared on the Duck of Minerva)
Academics are generally pretty lucky when it comes to parental leave- at least on paper. Many universities provide more leave than the minimum required by governments (so more than nothing in the US), yet there are several aspects of our careers that cause parental leave erosion. I should say from the outset that I had a generally supportive and positive experience while on leave last year, but I’ve also found several sources of leave erosion. *I acknowledge that there are many different types of parents taking parental leave, and I’m mainly drawing on my experience, or those of close friends in the field. I’d love to hear other experiences.
1. Pre-leave ‘make up’ work: This is a typical scenario: parents learn they are expecting, figure out when they are taking leave, and start working overtime to get ‘extra’ things done before the leave. In some ways this is understandable; it makes sense to want to wrap things up, tick things off a list etc before baby arrives. However, the idea that we need to work extra hard so that the parental leave doesn’t ‘put us behind’ or give some kind of disadvantage places unrealistic expectations on parents. Doing more work before your leave also means you (and your colleagues) treat your parental leave as a reshuffling of work, rather than time away from work. This kind of extra stress is the last thing that parents-to-be need, especially since pregnancy can be really terrible. You might be flat on your back trying to hold down any type of sustenance rather than writing your opus in the 8th month- and that’s ok. Parents don’t need to ‘earn’ their leave- and working extra, taking on extra roles etc before baby arrives means you donate time to the university and treat the arrival of the baby as the ‘finish line’ rather than the starting gate.
2. Parental leave free labor: I blame sabbaticals for this. While on sabbatical staff that are ‘away’ are still expected to respond to emails (even if it is slowly) and somewhat maintain their visibility and roles in the department. But parental leave is, and should be, different: parents take it because they have a new baby, not because they are focusing more of their attention to one aspect of their job. Also, most parental leave involves a pay reduction- so from a purely economic sense, parents are not getting paid to do their job anymore, they are paid to be parents, on leave. But that’s not reality. Most parents on leave end up responding to emails, doing copy edits on articles/books that are in the publication pipeline, writing reference letters, providing annual reports to funders, giving advice or feedback to grad students, and maybe even reviewing. These are tasks that one is almost obliged to do in order to sustain a minimum lifeline as an academic, but it is UNPAID LABOR. Continue reading Academic Parenting 101: parental leave erosion