A career ain't the half of it

February 26, 1999

Can a mum be a professor? Only if dad does half the childcare. Francine Deutsch reports on a new division of labour

I grew up in the optimistic early days of the Women's Movement. Despite an all-male faculty in Columbia University's psychology department, where I went to graduate school, I anticipated a road free of gender discrimination. Barriers to women's achievement were crumbling at an astonishing rate. In 1970, the year I graduated from college, only 22 per cent of all college professors in the United States were women. Today that figure has jumped to 40 per cent.

Despite the gains women were making in professional fields, when I looked around at what was happening in the family, I was shocked. When motherhood hit, egalitarian ideals seemed to fly out the window. And no wonder. It is not enough for professions to open their doors to women. For equality, professions and families need to change.

Academic careers, like other careers, are really designed for men with wives backstage. In my first teaching job more than 20 years ago, I witnessed the advantages of backstage support. The wives of my male colleagues brought hot lunches to the office, entertained for them, kept the children out of their way, and sometimes even worked for them as unpaid research assistants. When our department meetings ran until 6pm, I knew those men would soon be home eating a nicely prepared dinner, while the other lone single female colleague and I would be in the supermarket trying to find something quick to fix. It did not seem fair.

As a young female academic beginning my career, I was worried. I wanted to have children but reports from the home front sounded ominous. The troublesome tale being told by social scientists was clear: whether women worked outside the home or not, they were responsible for the work at home. This problem began to loom large in my future. Two images promoted in the popular media haunted me: superwoman and former superwoman. Superwoman was able to spend 50 hours a week pursuing a successful career, while still juggling a never-ending onslaught of meals, baths, bedtimes and household responsibilities. I knew I did not have it in me to do that.

The image of former superwoman was more disturbing. This was the woman who had tried to do it all, failed, and had happily retreated into domestic bliss.

I doubted that I would be content as a stay-at-home mother. After six years of graduate school pursuing a PhD, and five more years on the job market until I obtained a position, I could not imagine throwing my job over so lightly. I wondered how many women could really be so sanguine about relinquishing their professional lives.

I could not know then how intensely I would love my child when I did actually become a mother, and how silly the rewards of a career would sometimes seem compared with the joy of listening to my child laugh, watching him play the violin, or hearing "I love you Mommy", after I had managed to assuage one of his worries.

Nevertheless, I know that full-time child care has its downside. Patience can wear thin after cleaning up the umpteenth spill, whining can grate on one's nerves and the absence of adult company can be lonely. Caring for small children is hard work, much of it stressful, boring and isolating.

As I pondered my future, another solution came to mind: equality - men and women equally sharing the care of their children. Coming of age in a feminist era it seemed so sensible. If parents could be peers, not only would women escape the no-win bind of superwoman or former superwoman, but men would be liberated from the burdens of solitary breadwinning and free to develop meaningful relationships with their children.

Eventually I became a mother myself. Compared with most women, I had an easy time of it. Without a struggle, my husband agreed to share equally the care of our son. Both of us had leave from our academic jobs for the first four months of parenthood - mine, a newly instituted maternity leave that Mount Holyoke College offered, his an unpaid leave with a little part-time teaching.

The next semester was more difficult. When my son turned four months, my husband resumed teaching 150 miles from our home. I remember the stress of those months. My husband was gone overnight once a week. I juggled the demands of a small baby and the mounting pressure to complete my tenure dossier, which would determine my future in academia. (After a six-year probationary period in US colleges and universities, a tenure decision confers either lifetime job security or a terminal one-year contract.) Aided by a temporarily reduced teaching schedule and my husband's willingness to take one day off from work each week, I managed to secure my tenure. But I doubt that I could have done it without a family-friendly academic department and a husband who shared childcare.

After receiving tenure, I embarked on a study of the division of childcare responsibilities in dual-earner couples. I knew we were not the only equal sharers out there. I wondered how many of them were like us, ideologically driven by our passionate belief in gender equality and privileged by flexible jobs. People sometimes dismiss the equality in our family as an aberration of academia. But I discovered that equal-sharing couples came from all kinds of jobs. And, conversely, most of the academics I interviewed, like most couples, were not equal sharers.

Despite the public perception that academics enjoy endlessly flexible work schedules, flexibility is in the eye of the beholder. I found that academic jobs were often perceived as more flexible by women than by men. Eager to publish and make names for themselves, some of the tenured men I interviewed perceived little flexibility in their jobs, worked 60-hour weeks and left much of the childcare to their wives. In contrast, tenured women often exploited the flexibility in their schedules, but sacrificed scholarly achievements to the burdens of the double day.

In the equally sharing families, academic or not, parents reinvented family and career. Rejecting the model of a "two-father" family, both parents limited their work hours and allowed family obligations to intrude on work. But both parents also maintained a commitment to work as a part of their identities, and avoided the spiral in which only the father ends up with a real career.

Francine M. Deutsch is professor of psychology and education, Mount Holyoke College and author of Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works to be published by Harvard University Press, Pounds 15.50.


* Women routinely think about how motherhood can be combined with a particular career. Of more than 50 couples Francine Deutsch interviewed, only one father had done the same.

* Children in full-time day-care from infancy were no less likely to be securely attached to their mothers by 15 months than were children at home with mothers (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 1997).

* More than 60 per cent of the equally sharing mothers mentioned feeling guilty about their parenting, fewer than 20 per cent of their partners did. "I don't feel like I should expect more of myself than I do of him, but I do," one mother said.

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