i’ll bite.

No one wants to be the poster who posts after a wildly successful (or controversial) blog entry because nothing seems like it could possibly compare to what came before it. But, eventually someone’s going to have to post again. Plus, I want to say something related to all of this, and I’d like to hear what other people think as well.

Of all the hype and comments about olderwoman’s post and related (or unrelated) matters, the one that struck the deepest chord in me was this one, on metafilter:

On my end, as an academic *not* on the mommy track I grow more and more frustrated by my colleagues who are. When deadlines come, or work piles up, it’s my responsibility to stay late and do the work. They’ve got to leave and pick up the kids or go to a play or what have you. And it frustrates me because I can’t say, “Look, I need to go home and read a book on something non-academic, hang out with my boyfriend and play with my cats.” That’s not a valid excuse, while having children is. AND, my male colleagues with children are right there with me. Working late and travelling as needed. They don’t have to worry about the kids.

I don’t want to pick on the poster because she said some things that I completely agree with and am grateful she articulated. What I want is to know if this is really true. Are women with children in academia really not pulling their weight? I can see it in other professions, with required work groups and specific hours of business, but in academia? Granted I’m new at this, but I’ve never seen it.

While I’m only an n of 1, I don’t think that I have ever, in the last eight years, begged off of something because I was a mom. Quite the contrary, I was sure not to, so as not to perpetuate this stereotype.

The first year of graduate school we had to give this wildly important presentation as part of our method’s project. It was the same day that my son was having serious surgery. I admitted my son to the hospital and went to give the presentation before I came back to join his father in the waiting room. I have missed my son’s first day of school the last two years because of work-related issues, but left him in good hands to see that I could make those retreats and conferences. I’ve hired nurses to tend to him while he’s sick so I can go to work, and I’ve stayed up long after he’s gone to bed to ensure that I get everything done for the next day. My son has sat through college classes because his school was closed or he wasn’t cleared to return to school yet. I find babysitters so that I can attend evening talks and recruitment dinners and bring him with me to advising night, letting him do his “work” as I do mine.

The one place that I can think of begging off work is to leave a faculty meeting to go pick up my son from after-school care before it closed. I would have gladly met earlier in the day (or not have had it drag on so long).

I think that if there are women out there in academia who play this card, there are just as many who go out of their way, above-and-beyond the call of duty, to hide this hand. It’s not that they’re bad mothers. I know, for a fact, that I’m a great mother of a fabulous kid, who benefits from me and my career. I might not get tenure because I’m juggling these two things, but my colleagues certainly aren’t negatively affected by my double-duty.

In addition to wondering if this is really the way that women with children act in academia, I also question if it’s true that men don’t. Or do men who beg off work for parenting just get rewarded because they’re “involved” fathers and not “detached” academics? Are kids only an “excuse” for women, but something else for men?

16 thoughts on “i’ll bite.”

  1. Great post, and great bravery. Quick response, maybe more later. Yes, I have heard men beg off of jobs due to child care responsibilities. One colleague was often considered to be rather annoying in this respect, kind of flaunting it as a demonstration of how gender cool he was. As I said, I’m afraid I did beg off things in my day. In my department, there is a broad cultural sense that there are these life cycle issues. People also get out of things when they or their spouses have cancer. I suspect that there is a ton of variation on this on both sides of the gender line. People also beg off work for all kinds of other things, including (I am not kidding) “I need to do my research.” It is my sense that the innate willingness to do work for the collectivity (which I see varying on both sides of the gender line) tends to swamp the life cycle issues over the long haul, Most people who beg off for life cycle issues in the short run try to pay back in the long run. But, as I said, not everybody believes in reciprocity. I can think of a few colleagues who are always complaining any time they are asked to do anything, who objectively do much less than anyone else.

    But if a person is feeling dumped on, there ought to be some way to be able to talk about it. I’ve read a lot of things by stay at home moms who make the same complaint: since you have nothing better to do, please do my work for me (i.e. watch my kid, run my errand).


  2. I definitely hear what you’re saying about “paying back” and have done that myself (overcompensating often for some place I think I’ve “slacked off”). I’ve also heard (and used) tons of excuses through the years, some better than others. I agree that it crosses gender lines, though.


  3. I haven’t seen too many people beg off of job responsibilities because of children, with a couple big exceptions (three separate people who used the excuse very often).

    What I find to be irritating is the implication (and on more than three occasions, the outright statement of belief), that my being single means I have nothing else on my plate. The people I know who used the “kids excuse” always hauled it out when they had to do something “stupid.” So while they didn’t get out of the big, important work, they did get out of the time-sucks the rest of us had to contend with.


  4. gradmommy (the trackback): I don’t see either of your examples of “begging off” as leaving others who remain childless in a lurch or to do all the work (as I read the original post to imply).

    And, angela, I understand your point completely.


  5. jessica – i think you are right, i didn’t leave work for others to do (and being in grad school, i haven’t run up against that many opportunities to do so.) but i did also read the original post as saying, in general, that those with children get special treatment/allowances/etc due to having kids.


  6. Interesting. My impression is the opposite of Jessica’s. I have almost never seen women bring up the issue of childcare (presumably because there is the fear of being seen as mother first, academic second), while I have certainly seen male academics emphasize that they are off to do child care (presumably because they will be seen as caring enlightened men in addition to being academics). (I must take a moment here to add that it is very annoying when some men refer to such activities as “babysitting”.)

    I completely understand that certain hours of the day are more difficult for some than others. What I find helpful is when people who can’t make it at some hours then are active in taking on responsibilities that should be shared at other hours. One such thing I’ve seen done is be the first to volunteer for breakfast meetings with job candidates.


  7. You’re right, d’uh! I meant opposite of the person you were quoting. What you said sounds right on: mothers needing to (or at least feeling the need to) overcompensate.


  8. Greetings scatterplotters.

    Robert Drago calls it “bias avoidance,” the practices of behaving so you don’t activate the “slack mom” stereotype. (And Jessica, I think it is more stereotype than fact.)

    He says that men who integrate parenting into work get a much more positive reaction (“aw, isn’t he a great dad?”) than when women do it. But, I could see it going either way: maybe involved parenting is a demerit — in some depts, perhaps — regardless of gender.

    One of my favorite sociologists says that we’ve got to promote a “culture of covering” in our depts, recognizing that virtually all of us are going to have life impinge on our work, at some point in the life course (as olderwoman said).

    If we want academe populated by well-rounded people, then we have to get rid of its monastic model. Everyone deserves to have a life along with their work. Kids or no kids.

    I’m probably preaching to the choir here. Apologies for starting off on a pedantic note. Love the blog.


  9. I’m inclined to agree with anotherjess. I’ve certainly heard (complaints of) the kid card but I’m really not sure of the true existence of kids-as-scapegoat for malicious intent to get out of work projects. In this context it reminds me of the false image of the Welfare Queen. Very blame-the-victim.

    That said, I think that people without children have their own caring responsibilities, ones that should be acknowledged by their workplace. Not sure if I’d go so far as playing with cats, but I would say taking a neighbor to the hospital is far from trivial.


  10. Me again, #10. Finally figured how to use WordPress. While I’m commenting again, I also agree with Eszter on the caring-men-as-additive bit. In fact, I wonder if it’s even a multiplier. I’m not a fan of this give-me-a-cookie thinking, but I do recognize it’s existence and think this is an issue to be addressed.


  11. It seems to me that this post directly relates to Shamus’s earlier post on saying no. Everyone has lots of stuff going on in their lives that sometimes requires them to say no to additional responsibilities. Perhaps the frustrated commenter’s issue was simply that it is more socially acceptable to say no for child-rearing reasons than for others (except perhaps for the research reason). I can understand the frustration, especially if it appears that all of your reasons are not socially acceptable. I guess that means I lean more towards anotherjess’s point that we all need to have a life outside of work, whether that life involves rearing children, as mine does, or writing a novel. (I’d be the first to admit that my spouse’s preference not to work full time makes it much easier for me to live with the consequences of our choice to raise children and, as a result, I feel fewer constraints on my time than Jessica does.)


  12. A quick supplement to my earlier comment as I’m not sure I communicated myself clearly. Basically, I think the issues raised by Jessica wouldn’t be problems if there was less pressure to say yes to everything and if the range of acceptable reasons for saying no was broadened.


  13. Reading your comments reminds me that we had a conversation along these lines on that beautiful (albeit a bit wet) hike not too long ago, Brayden. It was so nice to spend that time together!

    I agree that this is much more stereotype than reality, and that everyone’s entitled to use life as an excuse (as I have often wished that I could, both related and unrelated to kid-issues) because we’re all constantly facing our personal things. I’d just heard the kid excuse more from men than women and though the comment I quoted should be addressed because it certainly seems (like many of the comments here suggest) that it’s interpreted differently. Maybe it’s another lesson to include in my lecture on the confirmation bias.

    I want to say, too, that like Brayden I realize that my ability to skirt many intrusions of life’s emergencies is owed to my son’s father, who was ever-present when we were married and almost as much so after we divorced (although now distance is an issue), and my partner, who has no qualms about making work his utmost priority, but also isn’t afraid to pitch in to “babysit” (that’s for you, Eszter) when need-be.


  14. That was a beautiful hike. That weekend convinced me that the best conference format would involve lots of ski-lift rides and hikes through the mountains. There is no lovelier way to engage in very fun and enlightening conversations.


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