academy · balance · equity · ideas for change

Family affairs

It’s been a crazy two weeks. Just before Thanksgiving, I went down to a conference in Denver, Colorado with my partner and our 19-month old son and then the following Friday the three of us took a group of graduate students and faculty to Banff National Park for a 3-day environmental history field trip. I know that might not sound so bad, but factoring in a toddler’s eating, napping, sleeping, and need-to-be-entertained-by-something-other-than-a-lecture-on-history schedule makes what is otherwise a busy two weeks into a crazy two weeks. My main point though is not to say that we survived, but that both of these work trips were family affairs.

I know I’m lucky that this is even possible. My son is young enough that he’s still a free flight. I have a partner to share childcare and who is also an academic in a similar-enough field that we can attend the same conferences and collaborate in this fashion. We also work in a system that is less hostile to parenting than some.

That said, this good fortune reflects more my personal circumstances than structural advantages. The Canadian academic system is hardly a paradise for parents with young children. University jobs are not M-F, 9-5, but I’m not aware of any university with childcare provisions that acknowledge this reality. The majority of conferences I attend have no childcare on offer, which is a particular blindspot. University careers are, more than most, uprooting. You are fortunate if you have an academic job and extended family in the same town. In my case, our grandparents, aunts, and uncles are all hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away, so we can’t leave our son behind when we go to a conference. But it is virtually impossible to make such arrangements in an unfamiliar city (I’ve tried) and cost prohibitive to bring childcare along for the ride as well.

This is more than a plea for better childcare at conferences, however. It is also a question: might there be good reasons to not only accommodate but also to embrace family relationships as part of universities? And I don’t just mean children here, but families – partners, parents, siblings. 

This assumes, of course, that academia does not already embrace families. Spousal hires are the exception that proves the rule: while they aim to accommodate academic families, they are hard to come by and often perceived in a profoundly negative fashion. Spousal hires are also no use if your partner is not an academic. The academy cherishes the individual. The model humanities scholar is an isolated individual, deep in thought, surrounded by books (do a google image search for “Historian at work”). The model academy is predicated upon gatherings of single people engaged in research and teaching, supported and sustained by families who are not part of that work but who perhaps attend the occasional department party. Recognising this helps us to understand why so many family-unfriendly activities (long-distance conference travel and intensive, months-long field or archival research and writing projects) are so core to academic success.

But our families humanize us and by extension, acknowledging them can humanize our relationships with students and colleagues, acting as a counterbalance to an increasingly corporate and bureaucratic culture. By making explicit the commitments that we have to our loved ones and that can potentially disrupt our work lives, it becomes more possible to accommodate such disruptions so that they are, in fact, less disruptive. If people know that you have a sick parent or partner, they might be more able to assist before you become so overtaxed that you just have to bail on your commitments. Moreover, when family commitments are explicit then colleagues, students, and administrators are less likely to assume that your domestic responsibilities are taken care of by someone else. We are each then surrounded by a range of functional models combining work and family. Lastly, embracing family relationships within universities, however hokey it might sound, offers an opportunity for academia to be a place where social alternatives are imagined and explored, not just through research, but in our daily practice.

3 thoughts on “Family affairs

  1. This post certainly resonates with my recent experiences of conference travel! In fact, I don't think I've ever attended an academic conference without my partner and one or both of my children (now 4 and 1). This often involves a lot of extra planning and extra money. But we also have fun times traveling together and I feel like it has even helped me connect with people at conferences (i.e. “Are you the one with the adorable baby?”)

    I cherish the hopefulness of your final paragraph and firmly believe that showing each other how we negotiate a healthy work-family balance is a feminist move for sure.



  2. Yeah!! I was/am fortunate enough to be employed (now tenured) by/in a family-friendly department. No spousal hires in my day. Which contributed to the end of my marriage and the ongoing adventure of academic single-parenthood. I do recall nursing my second son (now 19) in breaks between sessions at a conference in 1993. I completely hurrah your points about the need to integrate family life into academia, but am completely depressed about how we are still urgently needing to have this conversation, 25 years after I was hired, 20+ years after I had my babies. All I can do (and I DO, and I urge everyone else in my position–ie. senior academic women– to do this) is try to support younger colleagues in this excruciatingly slow-to-change system, and make a noise wherever I can (in tenure and promotion committees etc.) about the need to take account of family committments. Good luck!


  3. Just to toss one point of view into the mix about how to go about trying to make things change … As both a rhetorical point (since making change in a university necessarily involves getting buy-in from a significant percentage of faculty with no children (one of the more vocal constituencies when these matters are discussed, in my experience) or those with partners at home when children are young (20% of tenure track men and 5% of tenure track women according to a recent study)), and as a matter of getting things right,it's important to think of work/life as a career-long matter. Some of the worst challenges come for people with aging parents, or siblings who get in car wrecks, etc. Liza's point about the usually scattered families of academics never stops presenting challenges. It also never stops being a bigger challenge for women academics, by and large, than men … but, at least as long as women are as outnumbered as they are in academia, improving it will require getting enough male faculty to see this as their issue, too.


Comments are closed.