Since I read it last Friday I have been meaning to say something about this article in Inside Higher Ed about why female academic appear to have lower birthrates than male academics and than female professionals in other fields. Of course, between work and family obligations (and grinding fatigue) it’s taken me until now to get to it.
Is this a clue of some sort?
Luckily, Sciencewoman has written a thoughtful and detailed rumination, and she links to Dr. Crazy’s, Mommy Prof’s, and Dean Dad’s fine discussions, too, so I can keep it brief.
From the outside, academia looks like a perfect workplace to combine with parenting. It’s possible to schedule your teaching within only a couple days of the week (or at night), and the number of classroom hours in even the heaviest teaching load is far less than 40 per week. But, as others have noted, there are many more hours that go into teach than the face-time with the students (even if you include office hours) — there’s the prep time, the grading, the adjustment of your pedagogical plan in response to what you discovered while evaluating student work, the answering of frantic student emails, the grading.
And then there’s the research, which could easily eat all your time if only it could catch teaching unawares and club it to death.
So, there’s a lot of flexibility about when you tackle the various parts of your job as an academic. But, as we used to joke in grad school, this amounts to having the freedom to choose which 20 hours a day you want to work.
Kids really restrict that freedom.
Last week, for the first time maybe in years, I was able to attend a departmental symposium/workshop. It happened to be scheduled for two o’clock, rather than the customary time of 4:30. The customary time doesn’t work so well when you have to start driving at 4:00 to fetch the kids from the after school program and get them to a soccer practice. Eventually, when my kids are sullen teenagers, I may get to attend symposia on a regular basis. Maybe when they’re not speaking to me for days at a time, I won’t have to stay up late or get up early to find time to keep up with the literature. When they can
drive themselves take the bus to after school activities, I may have an easier shot at finding big block of time in which to get manuscripts written.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not at all bitter. I love being an academic, and I love being a parent. But I’m very, very tired.
I’m glad that I wasn’t fooled by the apparent flexibility of the academic’s schedule. Otherwise, I might well be bitter. I’m glad my better half had a clear understanding from the outset of what kinds of demands and pressures my ivory tower job was likely to dish out. The amount of slack my better half picked up on the homefront (not to mention the constant emotional support he provided) made it possible for me to do what needed to be done to get tenure.
For the record, having kids in play — indeed, kids old enough to be established in school and attached to their community — makes the prospect of not getting tenure much more terrifying. Because if you don’t get tenure, you don’t get to stick around — you generally get one more year, and then you have to find yourself something else. And, in fields like philosophy which are not bursting with jobs in every geographical location, this means getting very lucky and finding something else in your current locale (where in all likelihood you have to start the slow climb to tenure all over again), or uprooting the family to move to a job in another geographical area (where in all likelihood you have to start the slow climb to tenure all over again), or leaving your field and figuring out whether you have any other marketable skills with which to help keep the family housed and clothed and fed.
My mom told me a story about going to her 20th college reunion some years ago. She was struck by how many of her classmates seemed only to be able to have two out of three at a time of career, marriage, and kids. The women with solid marriages and careers had opted out of having kids. The women with careers and kids seemed not to have been able to make marriages work. And the women with kids and happy marriages could maybe squeeze in a job, but nothing they described as a career.
The exception, Mom said, was the women who had become doctors. These were the college classmates who seemed able to manage marriage, career, and kids (and who seemed happy doing it). What made them different? They knew from the start that they would have to juggle.
Juggling is not always easy, but if you know that’s what you’re in for, it’s not impossible, either. Plenty of rational people — including female academics — take a pass on juggling.
I don’t know if that makes me irrational, or simply less risk averse than I used to be when I was younger.