Mothers’ work-life balance in the academy

Matthew Reisz on how women walk the line between home and office

August 1, 2013

Source: David Lyttleton

If you don’t achieve tenure at the expected time, that’s basically it. You usually have to leave that institution within a year - which is particularly disruptive for parents with children in school. There’s a lot at stake

When Brenda Bushouse, associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, returned to work after having a baby, a senior male colleague told her that she had been on a “sabbatical” that was “unfair to the other assistant professors”.

In reality, she reports, she remembers “having to choose between eating, sleeping and showering” in the 45 minutes between feeds. “I have heard mothers talk about working on research during naptimes, but there were no downtimes for me to squeeze in academic work given that I had twins…

“I felt marginalized due to a department culture in which I was compelled to separate public and private spheres and therefore forced to view the family-work tension as an individual problem rather than as something to be addressed collectively.”

Bushouse’s is just one of 19 testimonies in a powerful American collection, Mothers in Academia, that addresses “a systematic failure to recognize the ways that motherhood can alter a female academic’s career in profound ways”.

It came about when Mari Castañeda, associate professor in the department of communications at UMass Amherst, received a grant from its graduate school “to do mentoring and support of grad student women who were mothers, because there were no resources on the campus to do that”. Castañeda herself had given birth to a son, now 18, in her second year of graduate school, but “there were a lot of different perspectives women were coming from that I thought would be better reflected in an edited volume bringing these widely diverse voices together…The impetus was to start a conversation that a lot of us were having behind closed doors and to make it more visible.”

Castañeda therefore joined forces with Kirsten Isgro, assistant professor in the department of communication studies at the State University of New York Plattsburgh, to send out a call for papers, initially through networks of women working within communications and media studies, American studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. Although they decided to include only those in the social sciences and humanities (there have been other books about the parallel challenges in the hard sciences, one from 2010 memorably titled Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out), they received about 300 submissions.

Faced with such a variety of material and bearing in mind the prescriptive advice constantly handed out to women in this area – “Don’t have a child until you’ve got tenure”, “Make sure you give birth over the summer”, “Don’t have more than one child” – the editors were keen to include examples of women successfully juggling the demands of work and family at different stages of their careers, although usually at the cost of their sleep. There are single mothers, adoptive mothers, lesbian mothers as well as examples of first-generation academics from minority backgrounds.

“When we started,” says Castañeda, “we simply wanted it to be reflections and people’s stories, but it became very clear that it had to be theoretically grounded in broader issues of what is happening to women in the workforce.”

Many of the statistics are depressing. One study showed that women with babies were 29 per cent less likely than women without babies to enter into tenure-track positions. Another indicated: “Women in academe are far less likely to become biological or adoptive parents than other professional women or their male counterparts and are more likely to remain single for the purpose of achieving career success.”

Equally depressing are the examples of institutional rigidity and patronising professors. One of them told a pregnant contributor that there were “no exceptions” about missing classes, that “there were other alternatives for ‘girls like me’”, and that he was “surprised that I didn’t have the foresight to ‘take some time off’ to handle my ‘condition’ or simply ‘drop out’”. Another woman describes being given only 28 days off to have a baby, and even then having to teach one class “despite being on maternity leave and recuperating from a caesarean”, first via tape recorder, then in her living room and finally back at college. There are also cases of new mothers theoretically on leave who are still “on the clock” and expected to produce work, sometimes without pay and against medical advice.

The writing styles featured in Mothers in Academia range from the forthright to the grandiose, from the intimately personal to the highly theoretical.

Take the issue of breastfeeding. Larissa Mercado-López, lecturer in women’s studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, “returned to teaching ten days after the birth and passed my oral exam thirty days later…It was a messy time – shifting nursing pads under my shirt, leaking breasts, and baby spit‑up on my blouses. Between my two consecutive classes, I would run out to the parking lot where my husband was waiting with the baby.”

David Lyttleton feature illustration (1 August 2013)

Yet Mercado-López also wants to place her experience in a political context and “reclaim the erotic maternal body as a neocolonial instrument of self-treatment through which breastfeeding mothers in academia can feed their children as they reap the physiological benefits of lactation and also produce scholarly work”.

On a more practical level, a librarian gives an account of setting up a “Mothers Comfort Zone”, at a cost of less than $1,000 (£663), as a way of “acknowledging with dignity that nursing mothers cannot ignore milk-engorged breasts while pursuing intellectual pursuits”.

Although the editors were wary of contributors who wanted to sanctify motherhood and say things such as “because I’m a mother, I’m a better teacher”, they include some interesting examples of women finding new research angles from the experience. One embarked on a project about graduate student single mothers and their children, and used her son as a co-researcher to interview the latter group. Others became interested in the Spanish-speaking characters in children’s television and the “fascinating social world” of immigrant childminders in a local park, which eventually led to a dissertation and book on West Indian childcare providers in Brooklyn.

Mothers in Academia is very much rooted in the US context, where there is extremely limited parental leave and a very rigid “tenure clock” structures academic careers. (“If you don’t achieve tenure and promotion at the expected time,” explains Castañeda, “that’s basically it. You usually have to leave that institution within a year – which is particularly disruptive for parents with children in school who’ve set up a certain kind of family life. There’s a lot at stake.”)

Most contributors write from broadly within this system. They are implicitly critical of the more corporate, neoliberal model of the university. They cite successful examples of institutions that have introduced more generous leave policies or agreed to extend the tenure clock by a year, which often pays dividends in terms of retaining talented female academics. But few propose more radical (and, no doubt, unlikely) solutions, such as a national move to family friendly employment contracts on, say, the Scandinavian model.

Rather more far-reaching in their critiques are some of the “women of color” the editors were keen to include, precisely because they bring in issues of race and class alongside gender.

Olivia Perlow, assistant professor in the department of sociology at Northeastern Illinois University, looks back to her time as a graduate student and mother at one of the US’ “historically black colleges/universities” (HBCUs). Although such institutions were “designed to provide black people with the opportunity to achieve upward mobility”, she found that hers “perpetuated race, class, and gender oppression”. Black student motherhood, for example, was “highly frowned upon because it plays into notions of irresponsible and unrestrained black sexuality”, but objecting to this, as opposed to championing black causes off campus, soon got Perlow a reputation as the wrong sort of “troublemaker”.

“Instead of adhering to traditionally African-centred principles of cooperation, interdependence, and collective responsibility,” Perlow adds, “my HBCU promoted the dominant ideology where hegemonic ideals of success are based on Western capitalistic notions of liberal individualism.”

Similarly, the career of Irene Mata, assistant professor in the department of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley College, has taken her from a part of California where “real Mexican food”, Latino music and “the cadence of Spanish” are ever present “to the previously unknown world of affluent white suburbia in the Northeast”, where, she says, “difference remains suspect and real diversity is almost nonexistent”.

Along with the professional barriers faced by most of the women in the book, Mata feels “constant concern regarding my children’s cultural survival”. She keeps asking herself: “How do we instill in our children the same working-class values that built our character?”

Looking back to her own time as a young mother, Castañeda sees signs of positive change: “I definitely think that more women feel they are able to have children in graduate school – I’ve definitely seen the shift.”

Yet many difficulties remain and she hopes that “a book showing successful cases can encourage other institutions to adopt similar policies. When I give presentations elsewhere, many people are surprised that there is full parental leave at my institution, that it is even possible. There’s still a lot of work to do.”

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