broken heart · equity · having it all · kid stuff · saving my sanity · slow academy · women

Motherhood, Childcare, and Academia

As tears welled up in my eyes, my newly hired nanny quietly asked what was wrong. “I’m going to find it hard,” I replied. I was about to start a new academic job after 18 months of maternity leave with my three year old and my one year old twins. As I looked up, I saw that my nanny was also teary-eyed. “I miss my three kids too,” she said. A wave of emotion flooded over me, including feelings of guilt for my privileged position. Here I was, about to leave my three little ones with my new nanny and travel 150 kms back and forth to and from work. Here she was, about to look after my children, thousands of miles away from her home in the Philippines. She wouldn’t see her own children for a full two years. What a crazy world, I thought. But I took the leap of faith. The next day I drove to work. My nanny started her care for my kids. And that was the start of a difficult but wonderful thing.

It was one of a series of moments of letting go that I think are essential to the kind of motherhood that I endorse: the kind in which children are cared for not by a “mother” but by “mothers,” including fathers who take on traditionally more motherly roles. Over five years ago, as a new mother, I sat in a mom’s group, listening and sharing. Many of the women complained about how they, not their husbands, did most of the work in housekeeping and caring for their newborn. A good place, I suppose, to vent such frustrations. What bothered me, though, was that while these moms voiced their complaints, they clearly weren’t willing to hand over primary care-giving responsibilities. They were hovering over their husbands, demonstrating how to hold, how to feed, how to rock the baby. Not me. If I wanted an equal partnership both in careering and in parenting, I believed, I needed actively to make that happen. It’s not easy to walk out the door when your baby is crying and you feel yourself lactating—that physical attachment. But it’s necessary. And to this day, I’m amazed at how my husband can soothe our kids. I have a real respect for how he parents, and it’s because it’s his way, not my way.

Working with a nanny involves a balance between making sure your own important parenting values are expressed and brought forth and having faith in both your nanny and your children. For instance, I’ve had serious discussions with my nanny: “too much TV is not acceptable”; “processed foods and sugar are not the be-all-and-end-all.” Cultural differences are of no small significance. I’ll never forget the look on my nanny’s face when she first saw my husband and I drinking water straight out of the tap. Evidently, she had never lived in a place with such clean water.

One day, after a few months on the job, I came home to find my nanny telling me how much she and my children had bonded. She was reiterating little details of the day, so upbeat and happy, and I could tell that she really loved them. Jealously reigned and I heard myself reply to her gruffly. But ultimately, I knew it was a good thing. I knew that I needed to let my children really have more than one mother. We are two mothering women: one working and living for the dream of bringing her family to Canada; the other working and living for the dream of being both a mother and a career-woman. My husband is building his own career while also not hesitating to engage in what is typically deemed “women’s work.”

Having a nanny and an involved husband has relieved me—to a certain extent—from what Mary Ann Mason and Eve Mason Ekman call “The Second Shift”: coming home from a day of work to an evening of housework. Freedom from housework also results in more time with my kids. But it’s still a crazy and very busy life.

We mothers need to share the care-giving responsibility in order to have equality in the home and at work. This may seem obvious, but clearly it’s not a done deal. Here are some statistics for your contemplation.

Tenured Faculty Married with Children: Women, 44%, Men, 70%
Tenured Faculty Other Family Configurations: Women, 56%, Men, 30%

The Road to the Ph.D, Tenure, and Beyond:

  • Women with babies 28% less likely than women without babies to enter a tenure track position.
  • Women married 21% less likely than single women to enter a tenure track position
  • Women 27% less likely than men to become an associate professor
  • Women 20% less likely than men to become a full professor within 16 years

Women Fast-Track Professionals with Babies, by Age:

  • Doctors: 27% have babies between age 32 and 37 (the height)
  • Lawyers: 25% have babies at age 32, going down to 20% at age 35 (the height)
  • Tenured Faculty: 18% have babies between age 32 and age 36 (the height)

Note: having babies at all other ages for these professions is pretty rare, at between 5% and 10%. Of the three “fast tracks” mentioned here, women tenured faculty are the least likely to have children.

(Stats gathered in California and discussed in Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers, by Mary Ann Mason and Eve Mason Ekman.)

By Laura Davis

4 thoughts on “Motherhood, Childcare, and Academia

  1. I agree. Both that it's hard and that you have to let others parent your kids in their own ways. And truly believe that your kids get something from the caregiver that complements what you give, that they are enriched by their experience.

    When my daughter was young (and I was still an academic), I found an excellent day care in our neighbourhood. I chose the neighbourhood day care over the one at the university because my partner didn't work at the same university and we both worked from home sometimes. If I'd chosen the university day care, it would have become my job to take her and pick her up.

    I also had a friend/colleague who stayed with us regularly. His day started later, so on those days, he hung out with our daughter in the morning and took her to day care on his way to work. She developed a strong relationship with him less mediated by me being there.


  2. Laura, I found this post very moving and very honest — it's true that as a mother I have experienced the same conflict as you: I really want to have help with the all the labour of mothering and homemaking, but I have found myself sometimes unwilling to abandon my absolute authority on those matters. Because to do so threatened my sense of identity as a mother and as a woman, and exacerbated my guilt.

    JoVE, your arrangement seems both sensible and sensitive. There's more to choosing a daycare than proximity to the office, and there are more people to love and care for a kid than just the parents. I think it's wonderful that you let your friend–and that your friend wanted to–spend that time with your girl. Some of my best memories of childhood were of close relationships I had with caring adults who weren't directly related to me. It's a wonderful thing.

    My husband and I have a parenting system we've worked out, that helped me (gently) to learn to let go of always being the expert: we tag in and tag out like in wrestling. Once somebody tags in as the parent in charge, the other can't swoop in to help or rescue or correct or discipline unless the parent in the ring explicitly requests it. A lot less power struggling now.

    Those stats you cite, Laura, are really depressing. I think we have to be the generation of academic women who push back hard against what has become a pretty terrible situation for everyone. There's no reason academic women should be so disadvantaged by having children. It's obscene.


  3. Thanks for your comments. Jove, it sounds like you had a good childcare arrangement. Aimee, I love the idea of doing tag-team parenting. In the book that I refer to, doctors actually fare best as mothers in the fast track professions. The book traces four professions: medicine, law, academia, and journalism. One reason that doctors seem to be mothers with less drop-out or drop-down is that they can arrange a part time schedule, and they can also go back into the profession after a few years away from it. I’ve seen this, in fact, with my doctor friends who work in emergency or family practice. The money is good and the work is available. (Of course, it is not easy to work part time or take time off with many of the specialties in medicine, such as surgery or radiology, which are still occupied mostly by men). What about our profession? What can mothers and parents do to work around the challenges of being a mother or parent in academia? I’d also be curious to hear about your relationships with those who help to care for your children, which is much of what my post is about.


  4. Laura – this comment comes a little late, but I too found your post interesting and moving. I attended a session on balancing motherhood and academia at the NeMLA conference this past April and I was shocked by the statistics and stories. The stats are even worse for the US, where most academic mothers don't even have the option of maternity leave. They were shocked to find out that at U of Calgary, we now have a 4 months maternity leave (paid) for female graduate students.

    My husband is in medicine and I agree – it seems easier for the majority of his female colleagues because (especially those practicing general medicine), there's tons of work available. They can also take well paid maternity leave during residency (still not an option at most universities for graduate programs).

    My little one is barely three months, but I'm set to work come March/April and have yet to hire a nanny. But we've already started looking because it's hard to find someone you trust. You need someone like your nanny – who loves the kids – and although you might experience some tinge of jealousy, you want to know that when you're at work, they have someone who cares about them – and that they trust and care about. I fully agree: this is an age of mothering (plural).


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