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Parents versus non-parents is the wrong productivity battle to fight

Written by: Srila Roy
Published on: 28 May 2020

A female runner giving children a high five as she runs past.

Source: Getty

Conversations among academics around parenting and productivity have always induced guilt in me. I feel I need to come out and confess that I have more time to work than other parents do because of the gift of divorce and co-parenting.

My children go between two residences – their father’s and mine – offering me three days of uninterrupted time to work. I felt less guilty before I re-partnered because when the children – twins, and very young at the time – were with me, I was overwhelmed with their care. As a recent migrant to a new country, I had no family to lean on and no institutionalised childcare. Paid help made it possible to hold down a full-time academic job on weekdays, but the evenings and weekends were an entirely different matter.

The care of two small children was not only unending and exhausting but also lonely, given that friends tended to recede into their own or extended families over weekends. But it was when the children were with their father that I felt my solitude most keenly. I missed them terribly, in ways that cultural expectations around motherhood only made worse. I mean, which new mother has nights without her children?

READ MORE: Women in science are battling both Covid-19 and the patriarchy

However, at least I had time to dedicate to meeting the expectations of probation and promotion, urgently necessary for job security and financial stability. And the ability to submerge myself in work also helped me to regain a sense of myself. I had moved countries, endured a traumatic childbirth, seen the end of a decade-long relationship with the father of my children, and become involved in a protracted custody battle. I needed to feel connected to the person I was before all this disruption had occurred.

Still, when colleagues exclaimed “how productive you’ve been!”, I felt quite defensive, as if I knew that this time in my life had been carved out for the care of others and not myself, not for work offering self-care. 

By the time the Covid-19 crisis came around, the worst of my own personal crises had passed. Having gained security as a migrant and recently purchased a home with a new partner, I had a support system to help me take care of the children for greater stretches of time. Sara Ahmed describes heterosexuality as an elaborate support system, or something “to fall back on when you fall”. I did not spend sleepless nights thinking what I would do if I fell sick, as many single mothers were having to. I was supported in tangible ways by a partner – even if, as a “non-parent”, his carework was hidden.

So when conversations around academic productivity during the pandemic gained traction on Twitter – with parents pitted against non-parents – I found myself unable to take sides. Non-parents were having to defensively point out that care encompassed more than the care of children and that being alone did not translate into the ability to “get ahead”. Far from it, given individual struggles with loneliness, for instance. But the care of children does not exclude other forms of care either, especially of elderly parents – and parenting and coupledom are not incompatible with being lonely.

My own experience suggests how facile these discussions are. Personal circumstances vary vastly, even among parents and non-parents. Yet, we seem to cling to these meaningless categories and even pit the members of one against those of the other in order to manage our own anxieties in a moment of great uncertainty.

A few voices have intervened to remind us that the real issue is whether our neoliberal managers respond flexibly and humanely to the crisis. Will Covid-19 change expectations around probation and promotion? Will the tenure clock stop, for instance? What will the pandemic mean for the freshly minted PhDs entering a shrinking academic job market? And what will it mean for minority academics – women, black, queer, differently abled, migrant?

Preliminary data show that women are submitting fewer journal articles for review than men. But click-baiting headlines proclaiming that academic work is basically incompatible with motherhood seem to cast children as the problem, rather than unsupportive (male) partners and institutions. Women academics without children are entirely absent from these discussions, even as all women, with or without children, are measured against patriarchal standards.

Highly individualised conversations mask these massive structural inequalities and insecurities. They normalise a neoliberal logic that blames the individual for doing too little or even too much. None of these are helpful responses amid an unfolding global crisis.

We need to resist structures modelled on the productivity of the white male scholar with heterosexuality as a support system to fall back on. And we need to celebrate minority colleagues (women, queer, of colour, parent, non-parent) for faring well in this moment – even engaging in productivity porn! We must not make them repositories of anxiety and resentment that are best directed elsewhere.

Srila Roy is associate professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand.