balance · best laid plans · failure · grad school · having it all · parenting

Parenting in the PhD

Two weeks ago today, I wrote about setting myself up for what I hoped would be a productive and successful semester. I laid out some key strategies that have worked well for me in the past, and added to those an additional goal that I figured would work well to keep my work/life on track.

Two weeks later, you might guess I’d just be getting into the swing of things, finding my rhythm, hitting my stride.

Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. Instead, I’ve most definitely dropped the ball. Last week, my well-laid plans had a big wrench thrown into them in the form of a poor sweet two-year-old, and a particularly nasty week-long bout of the flu.

Two days with my Writing Group? Try two hours!

Teaching prep only on teaching days? I suppose if we’re not counting the wee hours of the morning…

Family Time? Well, I think I nailed that one, if you can count time cuddling my feverish lethargic little girl and don’t count my partner, who I barely saw as we alternated primary caregiver duties in an attempt to manage our disparate work-related responsibilities.

This week, fortunately, my daughter is back to her normal, bouncy, enthusiastic self, and things have settled down a little bit. I’m still catching up on the work I missed, but I managed to attend a full day of writing group yesterday, and actually spent that time writing. My lecture magically wrote itself today (not true, I wrote it), and I even managed to dash off some emails.

But the harrowing trial of last week, among other things, has me thinking a lot about how very very difficult it is to be a graduate student and a parent.

Sometimes, in an attempt to justify my choice to be a parent, I’ve found myself waxing poetic about how fortunate I’ve been to have had such an easy baby who slept through the night at seven weeks, who learned to sit at six months and didn’t crawl until eleven months, who generally has had a very happy, contented disposition and in many countless ways has made it incredibly easy to become a parent. I’ve mentioned to several people how “lucky” I feel to live in Canada, where, as a SSHRC-award holder, I qualified for and was granted a four-month paid parental leave and a stop in my program to care for my newborn daughter. I feel very grateful for the fact that I never had to worry about paying for the healthcare-related costs of pregnancy and childbirth, for pumping space at my university, and for the provincial grant that made it possible for my partner and I to afford childcare when we were both cash-strapped students.

What I don’t mention are the countless nights with so little sleep that my short-term memory couldn’t properly store and process information (sometimes babies sleep through the night . . . and then they don’t), the hours I wrestled with my (4) breast-pump(s), trying to coax out an extra ounce, the weeks and weeks I’ve spent hunched over a kleenex box and computer in a cloudy haze, dashing out words on the page while attempting to ignore the latest illness my petri-dish-daughter transmitted to me. I usually don’t talk about how I lost my university library privileges while on parental leave, or how many times I’ve had to “remind” the university of my parental leave and stop in my program and what that means (answer: more than 3), or the fact that I really really wish I could have taken more official time off but couldn’t because there was no part-time option. I don’t tend to talk about my difficult pregnancy: how many months I spent nearly completely incapacitated by nausea and vomiting (answer: 4), or the crazy migraines that landed me in the hospital, the weeks and weeks of perinatal appointments to monitor my daughter’s development, umbilical cord, kidneys, heart, amniotic fluid, the induction, childbirth… the countless and uncounted hours I spent in a kind of labour that is unacknowledged by the academy.

My point? Doing a PhD and becoming a parent is HARD. It is incredibly difficult. For some people, it is impossible, and this is not their fault.

Sometimes, I think that out of some obligation to our feminist foremothers we tend to gloss our difficulties, as though in order somehow to acknowledge the gains we’ve achieved, we have to forget where we still need to go.

But I think it’s important to suggest that perhaps a PhD and a baby is darn-difficult if not impossible for some women, and there are structural reasons for this impossibility. Perhaps women can’t have it all, and perhaps instead of trying to justify our choices we should work towards addressing the roots of those systemic inequalities and advocating for the changes we know we need to see.

So, I’m just going to throw it out there: what do we need to change in the academy to make things better? When PhD students elect to have children, how can we ensure that they aren’t punished for their decisions?

age · day in the life · emotional labour · enter the confessional · having it all · mental health

Time changes / Times change

Time changes.

Every year, around this time, I confront once more my still-surprising inability to create time. My academic travel season is over: my house is a disaster, my kid is manipulating my guilt, my husband is trying to catch up on everything he couldn’t do when I’ve been gone, the puppy has managed to create three new pee stains on the white rug without anyone noticing, and it’s all just generally feeling like a marathon being run at the pace of a sprint, and we’ve all been heading in the wrong direction. Balls are being dropped: appointments missed, noses out of joint, forms go unsigned, tempers flare, no groceries in the house, McDonald’s twice in one week. Ugh.

Every year this happens.

I somehow have the idea that when I’m gone away for a weekend, for three days, for a week, that I can put in all those extra travel and working hours, and that despite my absence, the house and family can maintain themselves. That without going to yoga for a month, I’ll still feel strong and grounded and be able to touch my toes, to sleep well. That my daughter won’t suffer and that my husband and I won’t miss each other.


When I’m gone, 1/3 of the household resources disappear: we’re a three person family, trying to operate with only two people. That’s suboptimal. When I layer all this extra work and travel into my own schedule, my physical and emotional needs don’t get met, and I can’t meet those of my family, either.

Time is zero sum: when I disrupt our standard schedule to travel, everything is out of whack. Jet lagged. This is why it’s the worst right when I step off the airplane: I’m exhausted and mentally in another time zone, my daughter is crazed from the excitement of me coming home, my husband is completely worn out from doing it all by himself. We all need someone to take care of us; none of us is much ready to take care of anyone at all.

I like the idea of flying west: I gain time. I wake up “early” and sleep well at night, and feel pretty good about life. But that time has a cost. There is no cheating time.

It’s going to take us well into July to pay the bills, tend the perennials, fix the clothesline, put the hats and mitts into the attic, fill out reimbursement forms, dig out our respective offices at work, answer those emails. To sit on the couch holding hands long enough to feel like we’re not holding on for dear life.


Times change.

This year, at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, I found myself way too frequently saying things like “when I started coming here…” and “DHSI used to …” and “the first several times I taught this course …” You know, I’ve been to DHSI nine times in ten years. I’m actually very, very old in DHSI terms. And every time those phrases started coming out of my mouth, they felt like context and comparison and such, but by the time the sentences finished, I felt … old? Like I was trying to hold onto something that happened a really long time ago, that wasn’t relevant?

Being a professor is weird for this kind of thing: no one really gets their job until they’re 30, so 30 is “young” in this profession. I’m 39 and am often treated like the breath of (brash) fresh air in many contexts, maybe because I work in popular internet media, so can pass for a digital native with a familiarity with millennial mores. Sometimes when I talk my colleagues look at me like I’m from another planet.

But then, because I work in popular internet media, much of what I know rapidly becomes outdated, irrelevant, old. We used to code web pages by hand in Notepad, man! I remember when the www was text only! Blogger didn’t used to be owned by Google and once upon a time … blah blah. Sometimes when I teach my students look at me like I’m from another planet. TL;DR.

So I vacillate on a pretty much daily basis between feeling hopelessly young (Hey, Professor Whipper Snapper, do you think we should make a Web Page Site for our digital? Lol? Did I use that right?) and godawful old (Email? That’s for old people, um, and they made a new version of that software like, three weeks ago? But we all use the open source version, if you don’t want to torrent that one on the sly.)

I don’t often feel like what I know is just right, as I feel like I’m whipsawing between precocity and irrelevance, between too fast and too slow, too much and not enough, from morning to afternoon, context to context.

I’m not sure if I’m having an intellectual middle age crisis, or a teenage growth spurt. I’ve got an inappropriate haircut but that’s par for either course.

In moments of quiet reflection (in short supply; see above) I’m generally happy with my own place in the world, with my knowledge, with my work. But things feel like they’re changing with my own positioning relative to others, and I don’t know why or how or what to think. Times change.

faster feminism · good things · having it all · heavy-handed metaphors · kid stuff

What I don’t have to miss

Saturday night, I took my daughter skating. There’s an outdoor rink in our town square, very close to home, but far enough to feel like an adventure to a little kid. It was magic: she’s so rarely out after dark, the moon was clear and nearly full, the rink was all lit up and full of teenagers and families and people on dates, with my five year old the only little kid wobbling around the undisturbed middle of the ice.

She’s a new skater, in the sense that she’s only figured it out this past week–and I know this precisely because she learned on a field trip with her kindergarden class that I attended. I’ve been on several of these “sorties éducatives” with her, ever since she started daycare actually. I figure I miss so many weeks to conferences, so many evenings to public lectures or job-candidate dinners, so many weekends lost to grading binges at crunch time, and every single year since 2006 I miss her birthday because I teach at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria. In the face of all that not-around, I like to compensate by attending these mid-day, mid-week events that the professorial life affords.

It’s a balancing act, home versus work, daughter time and husband time and alone time, negotiated daily. Sometimes it doesn’t work so well when the borders between Professor and Mom/Wife are too porous–not three minutes ago I snapped at my darling husband because I’m trying to do too much at once. He’s bathing the girl and I said I’d take care of the post-supper mess, but he came downstairs to find me typing away at this post and I wasn’t too pleased he doubts I’ll do the dishes. He’s none too pleased with my tone. I’ll go up in a minute and apologize, and try to remember that work, even blogging work, is best handled during the day, when I’m all alone. I seem to have to learn that same lesson fairly frequently. But sometimes, as in the case of the field trips and the skating, the balance can work, the lesson is easy, the reward immediate.

When I’m on the field trip, my daughter formally introduces me to everyone; she licks my hand because she’s a kitten who loves me; she sits next to me on the bus; she tells everyone her mom is the best skating teacher in the world (I’m not), or the best french story reader (maybe true). She’s thrilled to bits to have me there. I wouldn’t miss this for the world, and, hallelujah, I don’t have to. There’s lots I have to miss, but at least I get this:

She’s been trying to skate for years. She has her mother’s athletic gifts (minimal) and violent impatience (in spades) but it finally–suddenly, completely–clicked. And I was there.

Which meant we could go out together Saturday, holding hands under the stars, on a mild, clear February night, singing skating songs in French. When I’m old, I know this is what’s going to matter most to me. The research trips, the articles, all of it? I’m proud of that work and I enjoy it, but what melts my heart are these times, something new and surprising, shared with my family, going around in circles maybe, but keeping our eyes on the stars.

community · equity · faster feminism · having it all · reflection · women

"Yes, and": Familyism, Feminism, and Full Participation

After I wrote about children at a faculty event, reader maepress wondered if this new inclusivity was “familyism” rather than feminism, if it had more to do with shifting generational values, or with dads’ greater interest in spending real time with their children and less to do with gender.

I got to thinking: is “familyism” understood this way distinct from feminism?

I don’t think so. But I thought I’d share my reasoning with you to see what you think.

First, I think today’s feminism is something different from first wave feminism (become recognized as persons) and second wave feminism (gain access to realms of public life previously only open to men, kinds of behaviours previously only open to men). If first wave feminism strategically or earnestly deployed “femininity” to soften the terrifying prospect of extending rights to women, to show it wouldn’t turn them into me, it seems to me that a lot of second wave feminism busied itself rejecting “femininity” (and oh, hell yeah, I’m using the scare quotes deliberately …) as inherently discriminatory in order to win greater autonomy for women: no bras, no babies, no makeup, no housework, so that we can be sexually and economically and psychologically empowered! Both sets of feminists have accomplished huge social good: I like having the vote, and my life would be the poorer in more ways than one if my mother’s generation of feminists hadn’t pushed so hard for pay equity legislation, for example.


As it turns out, some women want to have babies, and most children benefit from present, nurturing parents. Some women like to wear makeup. Some women have no interest in high-power jobs in male-dominated fields like politics. Of course, other women gladly chose lives without children, discard much of the culture of dress and style and feel the freer for it. Some become university presidents.

And it’s feminism that makes all of it possible.

In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey outlines the rules of improv, and they’re excellent rules for life and, I think, for feminism. First, the fundamental principle is “Yes, and”–that is, you take the premise that your improv partner starts from, and you build on it, in a positive way. So if someone points a finger fun at you and yells “Stick ’em up,” you don’t say, “That’s not a gun, that’s just your finger.”You say … something like … um … “Okay okay geez you can have the last courseware package. I knew letting guns onto college campuses was a bad idea.”

That’s my feminism, I think: yes, and.

For me, feminism has as its aim the assurance that women can participate fully in the world, to have all the options open to them that they wish to pursue, without prejudice: to work, to love, to play, to travel, to be ambitious, to have leisure, to raise children, to live alone. And the world in which that is possible is one where dads are involved with their children, where women in families and women on their own created networks, where it’s socially acceptable to eat in a restaurant alone, where we all have real choice and real agency and real support. That party with the children’s craft table? I wouldn’t have brought my daughter with me unless my husband came too, because I just can’t network at the same time as I am gluing foam starts onto foam door hangers. In real ways, I can’t be the person I want to be without my husband being a different kind of man than most of our dads were. I can’t be the person I want to be without government programs supporting maternity leaves. I can’t do it without the unions and faculty associations that have taken women’s compensation issues into their purview.

Perhaps your supports are different: maybe you are not a tenured upper-middle class married white straight woman. Your feminism might include other kinds of equity considerations around race or religion or sexual orientation. But surely, as we all, we women, become ever more integrated in the full complexities of human social life, our supports become more subtle, more diffuse, the battles and hurdles no less daunting but maybe a good bit more individuated and less sweeping.

I generally resist totalizing statements and blog posts like the one I’m creating here. But a student just asked me last week if it was okay for a feminist to want to get married. I was floored, but this is not an uncommon belief. There’s a lot of stuff that still needs work, but we don’t all have to march in exactly the same direction, to the beat of exactly the same drum, to cross all those finish lines whose ribbons are still tautly strung.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a total relativist. I think some kinds of choices are overdetermined and not really ‘free’, and so I’m not above judging others’ behaviours as unfeminist. I am wary of the cooptation of the idea and the ideals of feminism, nicely captured in this Saturday Night Live skit, with Fey as Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler as Hilary Clinton, discussing what it means to campaign as a woman on the national stage–read the transcript, it’s fantastic.

For me, familyism is feminism. And single-ism is feminism. If it aims to increase and broaden the kinds of participants and the kinds of participation in the full range of public and private life, well, for me, that’s feminism.

How about you?

academy · appreciation · balance · change · equity · good things · having it all · ideas for change · kid stuff · making friends · reform

Something special, an ordinary party

Did you see that episode of the Simpsons, where Bart joins a football team, and Lisa makes this big dramatic entrance to the field, all suited-up, ready to fight the feminist fight against gender discrimination in sport? And there’s already some girls on the team? And she’s kinda like, “Oh, right then, okay, carry on.”

That happened to me this week.

I was invited to attend the welcoming supper for new faculty members, because I’m on the faculty association board. The invitation didn’t specify, so I wrote to ask if I could bring my husband and daughter, you know, to fight the feminist fight against the erasure of real-live-families from academic life? Well. We got there, and not only is there a nametag for my daughter (in cheery Comic Sans, no less), but a whole tablefull of kid name tags. And a giant, well-stocked craft table at the front of the hall, where a mass of small children are excitedly making glittery foam stars and flowers, collaboratively filling out colouring pages. My daughter made friends! And a pink door-hanger with unicorns on it!


I made a point of moving through the room, introducing myself to faculty families–faculty moms and faculty dads and their ‘civilian’ spouses and their toddlers, their newborns, their twins, their tweens. The spouses got nametags, too. There is nothing more heartwarming for a crusty old tenured faculty mom than to see a new professor mom, burping a name-tagged four-month old, while her husband fetches strained carrots out of the diaper bag. We talked schools and daycares, and while I was fully prepared to to staunchly defend our rights to reproduce and research in the same lifetime, no one really needed convincing.

I actually found it very moving.

As the crusty old tenured mom, I have to interrupt myself to bring you back to the olden days, when I started here. I went to the same party. There were no children, let alone a child’s play area. And I would have noticed that, because I was BABY CRAZY but feeling like I had to maybe keep a lid on it.

Things change, even at universities. They even sometimes change for the better, for the more inclusive, and the more humane.

Best. New Faculty. Orientation. Dinner. Ever.*

* full disclosure: I won a cheese tray in the draw. I NEVER win stuff in draws. This possibly colours my interpretation of events 😉

balance · day in the life · good things · having it all · summer · time crunch

Just one day out of life …

You know, if we took a holiday, took some time to celebrate? It would be-e-e-e, it would be! so! nice!

This post is a couple of hours late because I took a holiday. A vacation. A break. Some time off. For almost nine days in a row, no work. That’s the longest stretch of real time off I’ve taken in over a year. And I’ve lived to tell the tale! I feel like it’s my duty to tell you how hard it was to let go of everything (it took a couple of days), how great it was to be free of all of it, and how relaxed and cheerful I am about returning to work today.

Hard: My last ‘working day’ on the Friday coincided with a very big writing deadline, which I met, but not without some injury to my soul. I felt like I had spent the day trying to dig a ditch through bedrock with my fingernails, with the result that at 5:30, when I tried to go into vacation mode, I was bitchy, headachy, and thoroughly weepy.

  • Lesson 1: You can’t do a week of work in one day in anticipation of five days off. At least, I can’t.

Hard: It was hard to maintain vacation mode when I had a defense to participate in on Monday. (Of course, the defense is harder for the candidate; this is worthy work; I’m glad to do it, it’s an honour and a privilege, and it was a great dissertation. Of course.) It was really hard to gussy myself up, go in for three hours and then, again, expect I would be immediately transformed into a blissfully vacationing happy person once the papers were signed. Instead, I got crabby and took a nap.

  • Lesson 2: “Switching it off” is not an instantaneous thing. It’s less like a light switch (“click!”) and more like the garden hose — first you turn the tap off, then you gravity-drain the hose, then you turn off the valve inside the house, and drain that. There’s steps. It takes some time.

Great: From Tuesday on, time expanded, my heart opened up, and I just let everything go. Really: no emails, no NOTHING. We did yard work (new clothes line!), we went in to Toronto to the AGO, we went out for lunches, had naps, planned a barbecue party. I went to three yoga classes, and for many long bike rides, at 9am, even! My life felt qualitatively different: it wasn’t just that I wasn’t working my full days, it was that I wasn’t working at all, and got to be the person I am when I’m not working.
  • Lesson 3: When you go on vacation, don’t even work for 30 minutes a day, because you don’t really get the benefits of letting it all go. Doing less academic work is work to rule; doing no academic work is a vacation.
Relaxing: We threw a party on Saturday. An outdoor party, with adults and kids. All day it threatened rain. People RSVP’ed late. I felt, though, remarkably zen about the whole thing: I can’t control the weather, and we can just move inside! People will come, or they won’t! More sweet potato fries on the grill for me! And it was awesome. I’m not laid back like that about work. But maybe I should learn to be a little less … clenchy. Because relaxed felt pretty nice, and worked out awfully well.
  • Lesson 4: Work exacerbates my control-freak tendencies in ways that don’t contribute to either my happiness or my effectiveness. Might need to rethink some stuff …
Cheerful: So here it is, Monday. I’ve got some more writing to do, some committee stuff in my inbox, another dissertation on my desk. I’m kind of looking forward to getting at it. After all, I really do enjoy my work. I feel like I’ve got a bit of balance back, and I feel a lot less resentful, angry, and overwhelmed, the way I was getting to feel after this very intense year I’ve had. That’s good news.
So. I did it. I took the whole week off, and puttered around my house and my city, spending time with my husband, taking it easy. And I feel fantastic now.
  • Lesson 5: Draw your own conclusions on holidays here … Do you have a great holiday story you want to leave in the comments? 
best laid plans · broken heart · emotional labour · having it all · jet lag · kid stuff

A conferencing we go!

I find myself in the unusual position, this week, of parenting solo while my husband is on a business trip. This has never happened. There are business trips aplenty in this household, but it’s always me traveling. And I always go alone. Solo. Like a wolf.

Well, that’s not strictly true, but the exception clarifies the rule: once, when my girl was six months old, my department sent me on a graduate recruiting trip to my alma mater, and I said that since I was breastfeeding I could only do it if my daughter came, and if my daughter came I could only get any work done if my husband came too.

Can you believe they paid for all of us? We saved on hotel costs by all staying with my husband’s parents, but really! Three of us flying thousands of kilometres to do a recruiting trip! It was crazy, of course: my daughter fussed for the entire flight, there AND back, the time change was hell, my boobs were like rocks every time I left my daughter for more than 90 minutes, my husband was solo parenting in someone else’s house, out of our collective routine. Nobody slept. I hardly remember a thing. I barely knew if I was coming or going, it was 40 below, and I was worried about everything. Good times!

Yeah. So now I travel alone.

I’ve been to Denmark, England, Alberta, British Columbia (yearly), Northern Ontario, Maryland, California, and Michigan (three times) without my family. I’ve ordered room service and luxuriated in hotel robes. I’ve done yoga on pebble beaches. I’ve plucked oranges from trees growing along the sidewalk. I’ve slept in. I’ve done audio tours of historic buildings. Of course, I’ve also cooled my heels in what feels like 50 versions of the same awful, soul-sucking airport, having my dignity and shampoo alike confiscated. I’ve sat through innumerable presentations in uncomfortable chairs with very poor coffee to sustain me. I’ve crammed myself into hotel rooms the size of my bathroom. I’ve had jet lag and panic attacks and indigestion.

I do know that I get a lot more work done, and that I’m better able to manage the various stresses of traveling when I’m alone. I know I’m freer to network, to devote myself to conference sessions and meeting colleagues, and making the most of the book fair, then getting enough sleep and alone time to do it all again the next day. But I really do wish I could share the Viking Museum in Roskilde with my husband, bring my girl to see the tulip festival in Ottawa, lie on the rock beach at Brighton with them both so we could all have the sense memory of that incredible sound of waves and pebbles ebbing and flowing. I have one particularly pitiful memory of a four hour layover in Amsterdam where I set myself up in an airport bar and closely examined all 2000+ family photos on my computer, in chronological order, a sped-up version of This is Your Life that seemed to rip my heart in two.

Academics have to go to conferences. It’s an inescapable fact of professional life. If you have a family, there are two ways to play it. Either you turn that conference in England (say) into a family vacation, bringing everyone with you, and staying some extra time before or after the working part of the trip–or you don’t. I don’t. And if I’m being perfectly honest, that’s probably the best arrangement for me and my family.

What do you do?

emotional labour · having it all · kid stuff · new year new plan · saving my sanity · time crunch

The irony is that a lot of my research is about mothering, actually …

Have you read that Tina Fey essay from the New Yorker, that’s making the rounds as an email attachment? It’s about that elusive work / life balance issue. She writes, compellingly, I think, that “[t]he topic of working moms is a tap-dance recital in a minefield. It is less dangerous to draw a cartoon of Allah French-kissing Uncle Sam […] than it is to speak honestly about this topic.”

(pause to strap on tap shoes)

My life is fantastic! Most days, here’s what happens: we get up, as a family, around 7:20. My hubs goes downstairs to eat breakfast; Daughter and I join him after we have a bed snug, go to the bathroom (like girls, in a group), and I get her dressed. She chats up her dad, or her My Little Ponys, and I make her breakfast. After, she watches Mickey Mouse Clubhouse while I make her lunch and pack her bag. I bring her to the bus stop and we play in the snow. I blow her kisses, and sometimes we wave at Dad as he drives past on the way to work.

I go home, make beds, clean up the breakfast messes, have a shower.

I work. I do some laundry. I work. I do some yoga. I go to Starbucks and work. I’m writing / researching about three hours a day. That’s pretty sweet.

I make something from scratch for dinner, and wait for Husband to bring daughter home. We hang out, eat supper, he baths her, I put her to bed. Unless I’m gone to yoga, in which case he does it all.

Sounds balanced and pretty much idyllic, right? Yeah. It’s totally an artificial, once-in-a-century, stars-aligned kind of thing. All this work / life balance is made possible by my ‘pre-tenure course release’–I’m not teaching a damn thing this semester. That’s 40% of my work life, just taken right off my plate.

Basically, that 40% is being used to salvage my family life, a family life that has been buckling under the increasing weight of my tenure application and all the work and stress and heavy expectation that goes along with being a junior faculty member. I have spent the better part of the last 18 months angry and stressed and anxious and insomniac and guilty and heartsore about being torn in twelve directions at once. When I came to grips, in September, with the idea that, unlike at daycare, junior kindergarden required me to pack my girl a lunch from home every day, I cried with frustration: I really didn’t feel I had it in me to make lunches, on top of everything else.

I love my job. Maybe it’s not writing and starring in 30 Rock, but I love it. I love the writing, and the teaching, and sometimes even the meetings (mostly the ones where I get to wield the whiteboard markers …). It’s just that, even with all my freedom and autonomy and benefits and salary and security and short commute, it’s still too much.

It’s too much. At least for now.

And so, when I handed in my grades in December, and contemplated all the free time that comes with not teaching again until September, I snuggled on the couch with my husband and squealed with excitement … about homemade spaghetti sauce, home made by me! About crawling into bed with my girl every morning so she can tell me her dreams while she sticks her bare feet against my belly. About waiting to have the house to myself so I could have the whole thing tidy and organized before 10am, instead of after 10pm. About him maybe getting to work on time more than once a month.

I’m writing a lot, but if I can be perfectly frank, it’s not my number one priority this term. I want to, as we say in yoga, align with my intention. My intention has always been to pursue my career passionately and competently, but within the boundaries of maintaining and nurturing my family, and me within it. It’s so very easy to lose sight of that in the race for tenure, where great is never good enough, and there’s always more you can do, always more you’ll be asked to do. Now that I’m home in my pyjamas scraping peanut butter off the baseboard while I wait for my Writing Coffee to finish brewing, I’m just a lot happier. I’m more patient. Less bitchy. More relaxed. Less … overscheduled.

I like how this feels. I wonder how I can keep this up once that 40% of my job I’m supposed to devote to teaching makes its way back into my life. My family has made a lot of sacrifices for me, and while I want to give some of that back, mostly I just really miss them. I’ve been overwhelmed, and I have overwhelmed them, and I didn’t realize how I was suffocating until the life-giving air of time and simplicity blew back into my life. What happens in September?

age · having it all

Guest Post: Aging in the Academy – it gets (somewhat) better

I’ve been thinking about writing a guest blog for Hook and Eye and anticipated turning my hand to it next term. But Leah MacLaren’s Dec. 3rd Globe and Mail column – “Boomers’ bodies are breaking down? Cry me a liver spot” – spurred me to action, especially since it seemed to follow so quickly upon Claire Campbell’s Nov. 16th guest blog, “An Open Letter to the Baby Boomers.” Claire’s post begins “Please, when the time comes, retire” though, citing as it does folks “in their fifties and sixties,” it’s not altogether clear when “the time” is meant to be. At the traditional retirement age of 65? or maybe 55? or even 50? Leah MacLaren resents hearing baby boomers talk (and write) about the difficulties of aging, and says “When we are young, we’re not preoccupied by the physiological minutiae of youth.” Well, actually, Leah, you are. You just can’t see it. Take your column about jogging in London and being told you have a “nice butt.” Fast forward thirty years. Get it?

It’s not that you won’t have a nice butt. It’s just that your butt, and everything attached to it, will be invisible. It’s really true what they say. Middle-aged (and older) women are invisibled, including in the academy. What they don’t tell you is … that’s not always such a bad thing. You don’t have to worry about whether or not to wear glasses or power suits. Having a bad hair day? Who cares! No one can see your hair anyway. And who hasn’t always wanted an invisibility cloak? It can be pretty hilarious to sit in a high-powered meeting (say, a selection committee for a very senior administrative position), offer an opinion, and have the chair of the committee look startled. As he squints in the general direction of your voice you can see the cogs laboriously turning. Where’d she come from? Is she on this committee? Wish I could remember her name. All this in spite of the many senior positions you have yourself held, your hard work in and on behalf of the university.

So why do I say that being an older woman in the academy is not such a bad thing? Three words: you know stuff. Knowing stuff gives you confidence. It can give you the courage to take positions on tough issues. It fine-tunes your bullshit barometer. The stuff you know can make you a formidable opponent … or proponent. You want to change the curriculum, introduce anti-harassment or equity policies, find money for a new scholarship or visiting professor program? No problem! The (other) old women I know have done all this and more. Believe me, you want old people, and especially old women, on your side. Which is not to say that senior administrators are always happy to hold on to their elders. We really have seen it all before and we’re a little leery of bandwagons.

A few more good things about being older in the academy: your kids are grown up and most of them have turned out to be kind, smart, and interesting people; undergraduate students are revealed as the very young and vulnerable people they are; your research and teaching get even more interesting and rewarding. Best of all, your brains do not go flying out the window when you turn fifty. They stick around. A little more accommodating. A little less anxious.

Jo-Ann Wallace
University of Alberta

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