'Balancing fatherhood and professional life need not mean the annihilation of academic ambition'

October 24, 2003

I used to think that male academics didn't do children. And, if they did, they acted as if they were in permanent denial about their dark secret.

I remember the time when a young colleague interrupted the dinner-table conversation to announce that he and his partner were starting a family.

Instead of offering congratulations, most of the guests reacted with embarrassment as if they had just heard something distasteful. Others treated the remark as if it were a confession of academic failure.

Although these comments were motivated by the best of intentions, my colleague was perturbed. "I felt very lonely that evening," he later recalled.

The birth of my son eight years ago unfortunately coincided with a quality assurance inspection of our department. Three hours after my partner gave birth, I had to attend a departmental meeting with the inspectors. When I shamefacedly indicated that I needed to leave and tried to explain my predicament, one inspector was incredulous. Worse, I felt guilty for letting down the department.

In most occupations, there is a tendency to draw a line between professional and family life, but maybe in higher education we take the compartmentalisation to extremes.

It is ironic that people who are so clued up about the problems of the world are sometimes so insensitive to those in their daily lives. Academics are no less well intentioned than others, but perhaps we are encouraged to treat personal problems as academic.

"Fatherhood and academic life are often perceived as a contradiction in terms," says Adam Burgess, a sociologist at Bath University and father of two young boys. He recalls the time when he had to excuse himself early from a workshop. "When I told the organiser that I had to leave early to pick up the children, he looked at me with incomprehension, as if I were speaking a foreign language," Burgess notes.

He also finds that academics are bemused when they discover that he has another child on the way. "Having one or two is just about acceptable, but three children are often seen as a sign of irresponsibility."

Of course, the estrangement of fatherhood (and motherhood) from academic life is understandable. Unlike many occupations, there is no clear separation between the office on campus and the desk at home.

For many academics, the real work begins when they get home. Most university teachers find it difficult to read, write or do research in their offices. Academics who are passionate about their work rarely keep a 9-to-5 schedule. Studying and writing go on late into the night and often encroach into the weekend.

Before my son was born, my partner and I worked most nights and at least eight hours over the weekends. Having a child has certainly slowed our productivity. Gradually, we have learnt to live with the noise and the constant distraction of a child, and we work most evenings. At the weekends, however, the study continues to be off limits.

Most academic fathers I know share responsibility for childcare. For them, the pursuit of scholarship over the weekend is something to look forward to in the future.

But balancing fatherhood and a professional life need not mean the annihilation of academic ambition. The unhealthy compartmentalisation of fatherhood from work can be overcome if we talk about our experiences. By normalising parenthood, we may find that our colleagues can be surprisingly responsive and sensitive to our circumstances.

Moreover, there are many reasons why academic parents are more privileged than those in other sectors. School holidays and half-terms often coincide with the university calendar. It is easier for us to juggle our responsibilities as lecturers so that we can deliver and pick up the kids from the nursery or school than for those who have a non-negotiable work schedule.

In my circumstances, my flexibility as an academic allows me to take primary responsibility for looking after our son so that my partner can pursue a demanding career while playing a role as a mother. Here's to having even more flexibility.

Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent.

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