enter the confessional · parenting · work

When should I have a baby?

Melissa’s post (yay! Melissa!) last week made me think about babies and work and, specifically, a very clear moment when I realized that there was no “good time” to have a baby.

First, let me say that I don’t mean to imply that any one, or you or me specifically, should have a baby. That is a different, and also very personal question. Maybe the best answer to that so far is in this excellent Dear Sugar column, “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us,” which I still re-read every once in a while because I love what she says, and I want to remember that I need to salute the sister life that I did not choose, the one where maybe I didn’t become a mother, and know that this other life is also important and beautiful.



Hello there, other life! You rock! Sending you love!

But, in this life, I get to do work that I love and also have this totally awesome kid who has completely redefined the whole idea of love for me. For me, there is this whole universe of love I didn’t know about and then, poof, there it was in this tidy 6.9 pound package of non-stop sweetness.

I didn’t know that I wanted a baby. I was not one of those people who “just knew.” Even right up until especially at the moment when I was about to give birth, I was really not convinced that this whole having-a-baby thing was such a good idea.

I did know, and I had known for quite a while, that there didn’t ever seem to be a good time to have a baby. This realization hit me on New Year’s Eve some time during the end of grad school. I was  in LA and had just broken up with a boyfriend who lived there, and my beloved friend Emily told me that I could join her in San Francisco where she would be meeting up with her girlfriend. I was sad and lonely and I will never forget the generosity of these two great people letting me crash their romantic getaway so that I would not have to bring in the new year being sad and lonely (which, sadly, I did anyways but I have only myself to blame). Anyways, the three of us were having dinner somewhere cool. It was a place where there were lots of fancy cocktails and no kids. And we somehow got to talking about when, if we wanted to do it, we would have children. This was a purely hypothetical conversation. Emily was in law school. I was finishing my dissertation. We had no intention of actually doing anything about this baby thing any time soon. It was just a conversation about what might be good time for that to happen, if it was ever going to happen.

Emily and I have been friends since high school so I would sometimes have these kinds of “life-plan” conversations with her. The hubris of these conversations are now amusing. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Well, even if I did find someone to have a baby with me, I can’t do it until I finish my diss.

Em: No, that doesn’t make sense.

Me: If I got a postdoc, that would not be a good time. I probably wouldn’t even be in Canada since I want to do my postdoc in the states.

Em: Nope, that would definitely be a bad time.

Me: And if I got a job after the postdoc, that would be the worst time because I’ll have to work my butt off to get tenure.

Em: Nope, I guess you definitely can’t have a baby then.

Me: So, maybe after tenure…

Here, I stop to count how old I would be then. And then I stop and realize that I would be old (sorry, current self, but the person I am now seems totally old to that girl who sat around in that cool restaurant in SF back then). Em, her girlfriend, and I look at each other, blinked, shrugged our shoulders and said to each other, I guess there’s no good time! I remember this didn’t seem all that terrible to me. I just thought that it was a puzzle and I hadn’t figured it out yet. Like, there was some secret code and, once I was in the right place in my life, someone would give it to me and it would all work itself out.

We ordered more drinks.

In my late-twenties and thirties, I had boyfriends, I lost boyfriends, I found new boyfriends. The baby question seemed even more impossible. I mean, it was hard enough to just figure out if these relationships would still be a thing in my life from one month to the next. One of my long-term boyfriends told me that dates with women in their thirties were like “husband interviews.” Since we had made it past those early dates where I (maybe?) played it cool, I gathered that it was desirable to never treat any date like a potential husband interview. So any question about any future beyond what band we should get tickets to see, or what restaurant we should go to, or what cool trip we should take, was off the table. At the time, I didn’t know that I necessarily wanted to be married, or have a baby, so this all seemed fair enough. Or, as Jess Zimmerman put it so beautifully in “Hunger makes me,” it was too hard to even acknowledge that there were things I could want. Now, I see the imbalance of a relationship where one person declares talk of real futures super-uncool and the other then just suppresses any thought of such futures.

All through this time of forestalling futures I didn’t know I could want, I kept seeing news articles about the precipitous drop in fertility that women experience after a certain age. I became really angry about such news items and was secretly convinced that they were part of an anti-feminist conspiracy anxious to get women out of their jobs and back in the home making babies. It seemed to me that it was no accident that there were suddenly so many of these articles everywhere at precisely the same historical moment (in the first world) when more and more women had decided to put off marriage and babies in the interest of being rock stars at their jobs.

But I was secretly also a little anxious. I felt like I had done something wrong, like I had planned badly, like I had somehow failed. And I still really truly wasn’t even sure that I wanted to have a baby.

Fast forward and I meet this amazing person and he is fabulous in every possible way and now we are parents and it is amazing and fabulous. Still, when I was pregnant, I learned that mine was technically considered a “geriatric pregnancy” and that I was of “advanced maternal age” because I was older than 35. I was directed to genetic counseling that, because I was not prepared for it, left me feeling like big jerk for trying to have a baby as an old lady and thus subjecting my poor unborn child to elevated risks for all kinds of bad things. I’m sure that was not the intention but that was the effect on me and I felt awful about it.

There wasn’t any plan. I did end up getting tenure before I had a baby. I did end up getting a job in the same city where my husband lives. Even though I didn’t get pregnant at the exact moment when I decided I wanted to have a baby, it did happen. And those first years of being in a job and being a mother were bananas and bananas-exhausting. How we laugh now when people who don’t have children tell us that they are “so busy.” Mostly though, nothing bad happened. It was all fine. I couldn’t have known any of that then.

Here’s the thing. I keep referring to a “good time” to have a baby as though such a thing existed. That was and is a fantasy. Not least because you can only plan so much. Becoming a parent taught me humility in nine thousand different ways, but one of them involved learning that parenting is about surrendering a lot agency about timing because your kid will have their own ideas about when it will be a “good time” to do anything — that includes everything from putting on snow pants to when they will emerge into the world.

I probably don’t need to rehearse the somewhat depressing stats on the “motherhood penalty,” or why women who have children generally take more hits in their career trajectory than men. This graph sums up some of the latest research (yep, it deserves a whole special post of its own):


Source [link to pdf]: “Children and Gender Inequality,” Working paper for National Bureau of Economic Research, January 2018

It is now widely recognized that “family formation negatively affects women’s—but not men’s—academic careers. For men, having children can be a slight career advantage and, for women, it is often a career killer” and “that men with young children are 35 percent more likely to get tenure-track jobs and 20 percent more likely to earn tenure than women in the same boat.” On top of all that, this penalty can begin even before there is a baby in what Jessica Winegar calls the “miscarriage penalty.”

Or, coming at the question differently, there is Rivka Galchen whose book Little Labors includes a tally of great women writers who have opted out of motherhood including: Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Hilary Mantel, Janet Frame, Willa Cather, Jane Bowles, Elizabeth Bishop, Hannah Arendt, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Mavis Gallant, and Simone de Beauvoir.

For these women, there was no good time.

But, to be honest, I don’t think there is a good time for anyone. I know that this can sound like a useless platitude and there are others who offer more concrete advice. It leans towards the idea that the ideal time might be when you are in grad school. I can see that argument but I can say that it would not have worked for me.

It will never be a good time AND, if this is the sister life you choose, it is always the right time. I know that my younger self would find this frustrating. I wish I could tell her, and you, that there is a secret code, a magical time, when it will all be perfect and easy. But she (and you) would see right through me and call me out on that anyways.

Looking back, I will say that I wish I had been able to talk more honestly and more openly about this question — even just with myself.

Whatever happens, whatever you decide or have decided, let’s keep standing tall and saluting these great feminist lives that we are making.

Hello there, other life! You rock! Sending you love!










parenting · writing

Bodies and Brains and Babies

So yeah, I’m pregnant. After all the fuss about not being able to be, three years of fuss, my partner and I are having our first kid this summer. I’m firmly in the second trimester, that wonderful time when you look back on the last few months and realize “Oh right! THIS is how I’m supposed to feel, not exhausted and queasy and generally anxious. I’d forgotten.”

You’d think that, feeling good again, I’d be anxious to get back to writing here and elsewhere. Baby brain doesn’t seem to have set in yet, so the words are there in roughly the same quantity and sophistication as usual. I have a list of posts and ideas as long as my arm. I have the time (although less than usual, as a terribly timed basement renovation means commuting to the city from my parents’ house in the suburbs while our place is unlivable).

What I don’t have is the motivation. And it’s not just the motivation to write–it’s the motivation to engage in much of anything academic or intellectual. Instead, I find myself drawn to physical comedy (we’re watching the incredibly silly Baywatch movie as I write this), to cooking, to planning for my vegetable garden and the new basement, to walking, to snuggling the cats, to looking out the window, to examining the outward evidence of my body building a whole new human from scratch with no conscious instruction from me.

I’m into the physical, into sensation, into doing instead of thinking. Which is weird for me.

But I’m relishing being forcefully embodied, as strange as it is. I have a terrible habit, one reinforced by an academic culture that sees bodies as a nuisance or an afterthought, of forgetting that I’m not a mind in a meatsack but a wholly integrated, embodied consciousness. I can’t do that now. There’s nothing about this process over which my conscious mind has control–my body is in the driver’s seat. And I’m letting it be.

I haven’t always been able to. Part of the reason why it took us so long to get to this point was that I was afraid of doing just that. While in theory I wanted to have a child, I was fearful of letting that desire get in the way of my ambition as a professional and a writer, of my intellect. I’m really into my job and my writing, and into being good at (and ambitious about) both.

Through both, I not only get to exercise my skills and feel accomplished; I get to help people who need helping, every day. I get to put policies in place that pay for childcare and airfare for their children when my students and fellows go to conferences. I get to tell the Tri-Agencies that their insistence on postdoc mobility hurts the careers of academic mothers, and watch them make a different decision than they might otherwise have. I get to make sure that my disabled students have all of the equipment and supports they need to do their work and succeed. I get to write about how CanLit in the 1950s and 1960s set the stage for the messed up CanLit of today so that knowing its history can help us do better.

The fear that motherhood would prevent me from doing all of those things, even as I very much wanted both, kept me from actively addressing my infertility for longer than I should have. I was so tied to living and working in my brain that it kept me from doing something I really wanted to, but was afraid of. My ambition was familiar and desirable, whereas becoming a parent is a process entirely mysterious and unknowable.

But I’m not afraid now. That’s  lie–I’m terrified about how hard motherhood will be, because I know it will be ever so good but ever so hard. But I’m not afraid of giving things up. I have, and I will again and again, but I’ll get them back, because I want them. I can be a body who builds and feeds babies and a brain who thinks and writes and works, who does the work of making sure that other people who want to do the same can have as much of both as they want and need. I can be a person who models that for my kid.

It seems silly to say it out loud–of course I can do both, with some significant compromises and what I’m sure will be plenty of guilt and conflicted priorities–but it doesn’t feel silly. And it’s not, really, for me or millions of other ambitious women who face motherhood in a world that makes it really hard not to have to choose.



academy · dissertation · faster feminism · grad school · parenting · PhD · productivity · reform · women

Parenting in the PhD: Round II

It was with mixed feelings that I welcomed September and the onset of autumn this semester. Most years, with the yellow-tinged leaves and the crisp morning dew, I find myself back in the classroom, gearing up for a semester of teaching, welcoming new students, or training incoming RAs.

This year, I’m gearing up for a different kind of semester. I began the term filling out Employment Insurance (EI) forms instead of post-doctoral applications. Instead of stacks of papers mid-semester, I’ll be dealing with stacks of diapers. Instead of scheduled student hours, I’ll be at the beck and call of unscheduled infant cries: my second child is due to arrive at the end of October.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how different my experience of pregnancy, parental leave, and the academy has been on the second go-around.

Although both my children will be born during my PhD, the first arrived at the end of my first year, while I was funded through SSHRC. The second comes at the tail end of my program, as I submit my final chapter, re-write my introduction, and finish my conclusion. My funding has shifted from scholarship-based to teaching-based, and with that shift comes a complete alteration in how (and whether) I qualify for paid maternity and parental leave.

As it turns out, there are vastly different parental benefits available to graduate students at the University of Alberta depending on the source of their academic funding. Although every graduate student is permitted to take up to three years of unpaid parental leave, qualifying for paid leave depends on precisely how you are paid: 1) by scholarship, 2) as a Graduate Student Research/Teaching Assistant, or 3) as a Contract Academic Employee. Each of these options has various benefits and drawbacks, but most graduate students don’t actively chose which one they happen to qualify for. Much depends on how a particular department happens to be able to fund its graduate students, or the scholarships those graduate students themselves happen to win.

1) If you are paid by scholarship, paid parental leave depends on the scholarship itself. If you hold an external SSHRC doctoral award, you qualify for up to six months of paid parental leave at 100% of your stipend. If you hold other awards, it depends on that award. Surprisingly (to me, at least), many of these awards, both external to the university (like the prestigious Killam) or internal (like the now-defunct Dissertation Fellowship) offer no paid parental leave at all, meaning you would qualify for nothing if you happened to need parental or maternity leave while holding these awards.

2) If you are paid as an Research or Teaching Assistant (either full or part-time), you are permitted to take either: parental leave, which allows for 16 weeks of leave at 75% of your current stipend; or maternity leave at 100% of your stipend for six weeks, followed by 75% of your stipend for the remaining 10 weeks. (For more, see the Graduate Student Assistantship Collective Agreement).

3) If you are paid as a Contract Academic Employee, you *may* qualify for leave through Employment Insurance as long as you meet the requirements (you must have worked 600 insured hours as a Contract Academic Employee in the previous 52 weeks, which is not typical for most graduate students). This would permit you to take a full year of paid leave, at 55% percent of your salary.

These, of course, are just the policies at my own university–the University of Alberta. While other Canadian universities operate on similar lines (ie: whether you qualify for leave depends on how you are paid), many actually don’t offer any paid leave at all for students supported through the university (ie: as a research or teaching assistant).

In my particular case, in this second pregnancy, I managed to qualify for a full year of leave through EI by working as a Contract Academic Employee. I got a bit lucky because I was offered an extra course through another department at my university, and a spring course through my own department (which I was not guaranteed with my particular funding package). This meant I was able to work the amount of insurable hours I needed to qualify, and it means that this time I will be taking a full year of paid leave, versus four months last time–which I felt was insufficient (in fact, I wasn’t able to find full-time childcare until well after my four months of official leave). There was, of course, a trade-off: I almost certainly slowed my progress to completion by taking on the additional teaching work.

How, then, might universities better support graduate students who become parents during the course of their degrees?

What I’d really love to see is a full year of paid parental leave for all graduate students, regardless of how they are paid. This would go a very long way in helping women to succeed in academia. However, given that even the best leave (SSHRC) only pays six months of leave (albeit at 100%), I feel like this is a good second choice. So, I’d love to see all graduate students qualify for six months of leave at 100%, regardless of their funding sources. It would also be great to see the qualifying period simply be based on the student’s previous four months of pay. This would negate the need for students to undertake more work (and thus slow their time to completion) simply in order to qualify.

Both these things would help reduce the academic opacity that seems to surround the decision to have a family, and make it more fair for students who happen to be on scholarships or funding packages that mean they don’t qualify. Really, all graduate students should be entitled to paid leave, regardless of the source of their funding.

academic work · accomodation · commute · family · free time · inconvenience · kid stuff · open letter · parenting

4:30 is the worst time in the world

Dear Academic Scheduling Powers That Be,

It has come to my attention that you continue to schedule visiting speakers, and assorted other events where I have to sit down and take notes, at 4:30 in the afternoon, usually for 90 minutes.

This must stop.

You see, 4:30 is the worst time in the world. There are a number of reasons I can imagine that this time slot appeals to you; however, as I hope to convince you, these are outweighed by several more compelling reasons why this is absolutely the worst time in the world.

I know you think that 4:30 is kind of the Luxembourg of time slots. It aims to offend no one, and split the differences in the most innocuous way possible. I can almost hear you puzzling it out! Most people are mostly done teaching at 4:30. Administrative meetings, too, don’t tend to be scheduled to run to the bitter end of the standard workday. 4:30 seems innocuous research-wise, as well: who is still writing at that time? They’ve had a full day to live the life of the mind already. I know that it seems like 4:30 forestalls all those faculty objections of too-busy, I’m teaching, it’s a research day, I have lots of meetings that seem to diminish attendance to embarrassing levels. Surely loads more people will be able to attend a talk if we stuff in a time slot that’s mostly taken up by commuting and staring bleakly into space!

But. Consider: with this 4:30 time slot, are you not, effectively, suggesting that attending this rigorous and demanding research talk is not part of the work day? And thus not part of work? Is this a discretionary, fun activity? Like a cocktail party that would traditionally substantially overlap the time period in question? The French call these “cinq à sept”, because this kind of party runs from five until seven–note carefully, please, that there is booze and nibbles generally served at this time, which is never the case at these talks you’re scheduling at 4:30.

I think attending research talks is part of my job. Your scheduling thus confuses me on this front. Do I do a full day of teaching and research and meetings and then this too? Or am I doing this instead of something else? Is it part of the work day, or not? You know, I’m here in my office most days by 9:15, and I stay until 4:45 or 5, having eaten lunch at my desk while reading or grading. By 4:45, I’m kind of not really smart enough to take in a lecture. I need booze, and nibbles, and possibly to put on track pants. If I’m being perfectly honest, 4:30 in the afternoon is an absolute ebb, energy-wise, mood-wise, and metabolism-wise for me: I am tired, and crabby, and hungry then, you know, from going full tilt on the life of the mind for a full day by that point already.

Also, I really didn’t want to mention it, but you might not be aware that most daycares close at 5:30 or 6 o’clock. Maybe I could pick up my daughter early, like at 4? Then bring her to the talk with me? If only there were juice and nibbles, it might be possible! And if my husband goes to pick her up, I have no way to get home: we commute together. And if I take the bus home, leaving here at 6, if the talk ends on time, which it never does, I’m not there until 6:45, and who’s going to make supper and do homework in French with my kid, or get groceries or have time to go for a run or walk the dog or do my yoga homework before bed? I know it’s unseemly to have a personal life, but it is nevertheless the case that we must, as a family eat, and sometimes my husband likes to go to the gym, and I like to attend yoga classes, and we would all like to meet these basic needs and still be able to get to bed before midnight.

I’m sorry to be so troublesome about this, I really am–I know you’ve probably also heard loads from my colleagues who drive in from great distances to be here during the work day and would prefer not to spend the rest of their night in traffic, or to have to stay in a hotel. It’s just that I don’t want your feelings to be hurt when the same pitifully small number of people show up for the 4:30 talk as showed up for the 2:30 talk.

In conclusion, then, I ask you: is attending this talk work or not? If it is, please schedule it during the workday. Also, 4:30 is the worst time in the world.

Sincerely yours,

learning · parenting · teaching

The Vulnerability of Learning

Around my fifth or sixth birthday, I got a small wooden kids’ piano as a present. It was gleaming red with no more than ten or twelve keys, but I was instantly enchanted. I resolved, with all the might of a preschooler, to learn to play the piano. A friend of my parents’ taught me to play the “Do Re Mi” song from The Sound of Music, and I became convinced that I wanted to dedicate my life to the pursuit of piano playing. My mom, however, had been traumatized by childhood piano lessons with the strict Fräulein Schiller, who used to encourage correct playing through the assiduous administration of ruler slaps to erring fingers. In consequence, my mom had vowed not to inflict music lessons on her innocent children, so she was reluctant to fuel my newfound passion for piano playing.

Fast forward a few decades to the present, and here we are, my daughter and me, going to her music lessons every week. We found our way into the Yamaha music education system through the recommendation of some friends, and their class-type method suits both of our social-butterfly natures. She loves going to music class. She really likes her teacher. She can watch the dvd like a pro. But she masterfully avoids practicing at home until the very last moment, when she has to do her homework, because she does not want to miss out on her workbook receiving the literal stamp of approval, which changes every week to a new child-friendly rendering of a musical instrument, an cute animal, a flower, or some fruit.

My goal is to find the middle ground between my kids’ gaining exposure to the world of music and my mom’s legitimate reluctance to shove music down her own kids’ oesophagi. I want my kids to grasp the richness of music, to offer them the opportunity of not starting from scratch should they ever want to pursue it, short of pushing them into it with all my might. I am not tiger mom, and this is not my battle hymn. However, I do want my kids to understand that the world is available through different types of languages, and that adequate understanding requires engagement and work rather than passive consumption. Achieving that understanding demands work, practice, and openness to rendering yourself vulnerable by admitting some degree of ignorance in order to open up the space for fostering new knowledge.

The affective vulnerability of learning emerges through the gamble of its result: acquiring new knowledge can make you happy, but a better understanding can also make you despair sometimes. When we were driving to the Farmers’ Market one Saturday while listening to CBC Radio 2 broadcasting a piano sonata, I put my pedagogical hat on–you know the one with the teacher and the classroom, right?–and asked my daughter if she noticed how accomplished the pianist was, and did she imagine how much practice had gone into achieving that level? Her reply, skirting my direct and very transparent moralistic lead, was that when the pianist plays F clef, it sounds like “[deep voice] Santa’s going down the chimney,” whereas when it’s G clef “[squeaky voice] Santa’s going back up.” Chuck this one to the woefully under-represented pile of “good-parenting goal achieved.”

There will be time, of course, to despair when learning about our inequitable social structures leads to an understanding of the diminished options for most humans’ and others species’ lives; when seeing how our generalized obsession with women’s bodies colludes with numerous other acts of aggression–physical and mental–that amount to a patriarchal structure whose fundamental modus operandi relies on domination and subjugation; when concluding that wars of both military and ideological kinds are waged by a handful, yet impact us all.

My hope, in both parenting and teaching, is that despair will be transitory, and move us into action, into changing the world to the benefit of the many. I want to resist the facile cliché of pain and gain here, because like most soundbites, it simplifies a complex affective situation, and reduces it to some form of monetary outcome. Vulnerability of the non-teleological kind is more like it.

balance · body · busy · grad school · modest proposal · parenting

In Praise of Sleep

It’s Reading Break! Phew….

Somehow I’ve managed to get halfway through my first semester of teaching, and coincidentally, half way through my first stack of papers. I’ve been grading leisurely this past week, with curling in the background (the Canadian Women’s Curling Championships ended a week ago), finally with space, it seems, to breathe.

This past weekend was one of the most relaxing I’ve had in quite some time. With no teaching pressures for the next week, I wasn’t trying to cram every spare moment with reading, writing lectures, or class prep of some sort or another. I took my daughter to an indoor playground, baked muffins, slept in, lazed around my house in my pajamas, and vacuumed my whole house for the first time in (gulp) over six months. It was really nice.

If I haven’t said so before, I’m going to say it now: teaching for the first time is intense and exhausting. Selecting books and writing the syllabus aside, the weekly lecture writing, assignment creation, and grading (my students do weekly reading responses), has made me, well…a bit frazzled. So far, I’ve been managing (with only a week of major slip-ups) to stick to my semester goal to keep my teaching prep to teaching days, write two days a week, and spend daily and weekend time with my family. But it has come at a cost: my sleep.

Sleep has been shown to be essential to all kinds of things: memory, focus, and concentration, safety, immune function, cardiovascular health…I could go on. But one of the things I’ve just started to piece together about myself and sleep is that when I don’t get enough of it, my stress levels go up exponentially. It doesn’t matter if all my work is done or if I’m fully on top of all my responsibilities, if I’m not getting enough sleep, I’m stressed. Period. And stress, apparently, does not do good things to your brain.

You’d think being several years into a PhD program would mean that I would have already figured out this crucial bit of information. But, believe it or not, PhD + Baby ≠ deep and intimate knowledge of the value of sleep. Although I’ve learned to deeply appreciate the moments when I have the “luxury” of sleep, I’ve failed to make it a priority.

This reading week, I’m determined change that, and I’m hoping my resolve will stick around for the semester. 

Do you prioritize sleep? Or is it often the first thing that falls to the wayside when you’re busy?

#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic work · parenting · transition

The Damage Done by DWYL

Did you read Miya Tokumitsu’s “In the Name of Love” this week? I bet you did. It seems like everyone in the circles I run in (probably the same circles you run in, if you’re reading this) read her meditation on the damage done by the creed of “do what you love, love what you do.” The article hit me where it hurts (as the best writing does) in making me realize that even after I publicly admitted the damage DWYL did to my psyche, it’s an idea I still cling to. And why?

In the abbreviated version of the story of my leaving the tenure track, two important people with interesting takes on DWYL got left out. The first person was my dad. I grew up in a house where DWYL was not, at least for my parents, an idea that had a lot of credence. For one, my parents started working and parenting before they were in their twenties, and DWYL wasn’t a luxury that two newly-marrieds trying to raise a baby (and then two) on a single income could afford. For another, my dad knew what it was to be forced to turn what he loved into a career (souping up cars stops being so fun when you work with cars all day), and see that love transformed into the plain old slog of work. I had a friend when I was a teenager who also loved cars, and I vividly remember my dad telling him to do anything but work with cars. Keep it a hobby and keep the love, he said. If I got the same advice from my dad, I don’t remember. Or I wasn’t listening. But whatever he did or didn’t say to me, I’ll tell you this. I did an English PhD because language is what I love, and while my parents didn’t have the luxury of choosing to DWYL, they made sure that I did. Speaking of love, I can finally use the present tense again, because for a long time, language was not what I loved. It was what made me feel anxious and scared and like a big ol’ failure. Now that reading and writing about books is not what I do for a living, I’m far more attuned to that love than I was when I was supposedly doing what I loved as a job. Dad was totally right.

Nowadays, I share my life with someone is totally anti-DWYL, although for different reasons, and his perspective was incredibly important in my journey to quitting the path to the tenure track. My partner reasons that if what you want to do is make the world a better place, and you don’t believe that work is the best place to do that (and/or you recognize that a job with world-changing potential is a luxury most people aren’t afforded), here’s what you do: get a job that pays the bills, and do what you love, and your world-shaping work, in your off time. As Tokumitsu so devastatingly argues,

If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves, what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores? The answer is: nothing.

Ouch, and I hate to admit it, kinda’ true. My partner’s firm “my job is not who I am” stance is pretty much the opposite of the DWYL “non-love labour is meaningless” ethos, and that unhooking of identity and employment was, at first, a bit of a shock. “What do you mean, you don’t believe in DWYL?,” I remember thinking. Why wouldn’t you want to pursue what you’re passionate about full-time? I’ve definitely had to ask him to explain his stance to me more than once. Once I understood where he was coming from, it forced me to rethink what I was doing in academia, what Tokumitsu calls the ultimate land of DWYL:

Nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia … There are many factors that keep Ph.D.s providing such high-skilled labor for such low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a Ph.D., but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

I’m not actually sure that academia is the place that DWYL has done the most damage. I’d argue that it’s far more pernicious in current “mommy” culture (the one that expects motherhood to be sunshine and roses and a labour of love without exception) and that DWYL is one of the major factors behind the failure to recognize parenting as legitimate labour worthy of significant recompense. But unquestionably, the doctrine of “do what you love” has done a lot of harm in academe, particularly with regards to issues of labour conditions and fair compensation. In my case, as is true for many academics, the harm was done when the doctrine of DWYL reinforced, over and over, the total alignment of self and occupation under the guise of self-actualization. And when I started realizing that the professoriate was maybe not for me, and falling into the consequent “If I’m not an academic, who am I?” trap, my partner’s critical distance was a balm. There was another way to think about who I am, one that didn’t depend on what I did. And that alternative perspective was in large part what let me finally let go of academe, unhook my identity from my job, and move on.

But still. I find myself in my current role, one I genuinely do like a lot and find fulfilling, falling into the trap of DWYL. “Do I love this?,” I ask myself as I try to wrangle a gaggle of senior faculty into setting up a scholarship adjudication meeting. “Am I living up to my full potential?,” I wonder as I place a catering order for a student event. “Why did I relinquish control over my workday?” I question as I sit in a meeting and watch other people add item upon item to my to-do list. But then I remember: what I do isn’t who I am. Research Officer is my title, not my identity. Unlike when I was a full-time PhD student, work ends at 4:30 and the rest of my time is my own. I am fairly compensated, I have job security, and I belong to a good union that ensures its members are treated fairly. And for the first time in a very long time, I have the luxury to  actually do what I love–read, write, think, cook, craft, spend time with the people and felines I love, do absolutely nothing–on my own terms.

What about you, dear readers? Do you also fall into the DWYL trap? What’s your philosophy about the relationship between work and love?

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?

day in the life · kid stuff · modest proposal · parenting · righteous feminist anger

Snow Daze

This morning dawned bright and clear and dangerous: the coldest weather ever recorded in Waterloo. Environment Canada was telling people to stay indoors and leave their taps running. Daycares, all the schools, our dance studio, garbage collection, day programs for seniors, all cancelled. Exposed skin could freeze in 5 minutes. A blizzard or blinding squalls were also predicted.

The university? Remained open.

Now, this is Canada. It gets cold. Dudes, I’m from Kirkland Lake, Ontario–45 minutes away from where that guy filled the Super Soaker with boiling water and sprayed ice crystals. I see your Uggs and raise you my knee-high Sorels and an array of lined deer-stalker hats. However. This was extreme weather, full stop, and certainly extreme for Waterloo. Everything else in town was closed. Many students rely on unreliable public transit, and waiting for buses outside is dangerous today. Hell, parking in our assigned space 1km away from our offices exposes us to dangers in this weather. If you can get your car to start. And navigate the roads. Avoiding those drivers who haven’t cleared their windshields. We should have closed.

The university’s closure policy used to be to follow what the local school boards decided. This was a good policy not least because the school boards get the word out before 7am, while Monday on campus, for example, the university put out its closure decision (“We’re open!”) at 8:52, after we’d had a 6 inch snowfall overnight and all the school buses were canceled. Attendance … was sketchy.

No, the really great thing about tying the university’s closure decision to the school boards was that it made life a whole lot easier for parents. Most of us can’t arrange last minute child care. Some of us couldn’t afford it even if we could. Those of us who are contingent do not feel safe bringing children into the classroom and risking looking “unprofessional.” Those of us with tenure might still not be able to manage our kids and our students simultaneously, depending on age, temperament, and subject matter. Students with children are even less likely to feel able to bring them to class. And I know I’m not bringing my daughter to whatever meetings I still have to go to: she knows too much from dinner chatter and I live in terror of what she might blurt out. Ahem.

The university keeps proclaiming its interest in work/life balance, and in recruiting and retaining female faculty. (The university has a big new daycare! It was closed today, due to extreme weather …) It remains true that in most families, when the kids are suddenly off school, it’s Mom’s problem. At my house it’s my problem if Dad’s got meetings, and it’s Dad’s problem if I’ve got teaching or meetings. It’s very stressful, and today our daughter spent the morning playing the My Little Pony video game on her father’s iPad, in his office. I dropped them off right at the building door, before driving to the closest parking lot I could pay dearly for, and staggering in to my meeting.

I know this is a very specialized problem. I know that many businesses in the so-called “real world” don’t close in bad weather. But taking “sick days” to deal with child care on snow days is not really possible if you’re teaching or taking classes.

All I’m saying is, I guess, that the old system was more humane. It aided work life balance, and was attentive to the needs of women in particular. Sometimes we got a snow day that turned into soft rain and a bad call, maybe once out of every 10 snow days (so every 4 or 5 years). I think that’s a fair price to pay for making the lives of a community of more than 30,000 undergraduate students and 5100 grad students, 1100 (full-time permanent) faculty members and 2200 staff members. The university is the size of a big town, and has a lot of decision-making power, and it seems to keep choosing to grit its teeth in the face of real life, domestic and climatological. The rest of us are grinding them, stressed out and frozen and dragging seven year olds across the frozen steppes with us. Take the lead, UW: be better.

best laid plans · emotional labour · parenting · pedagogy · righteous feminist anger

Pedagogical and Parental Responsibility in the Face of Precarity

You might have heard that the Alberta budget was released a couple of weeks ago. You might also be familiar with its consequences on education, the higher one in particular, although there are deep cuts at all levels, without enough noise being made about them. This austerity move from the province everyone in Canada views as the richest, most privileged one, led me to think more deeply about precarity. It seems to be the going theme here at Hook & Eye this week. What do we do about it? How do we combat this neoliberal wave of blowing up every remnant of job security, human solidarity, and certainty in the near future?

My interest started due to my own unexpected, deeply emotional reaction to the budget and its implications. I felt disbelief, betrayal, grief, etc. I was going through all the stages of mourning, and I wanted to understand why. What was it about my relationship to the province that made me react this way? An unwarranted, and definitely unreciprocated attachment? Once the initial hurt–also the reason why I couldn’t formulate a blog post last week–passed, I was able to think about it in a more detached manner: my reaction is personal, because I don’t think I’m prepared for this brave new neoliberal future.

The answer came, as it sometimes happens when we have the benefit of children to mirror our own idiosyncrasies, through my oldest, when she explained to me that she can now perform a certain physical feat, because “I practiced it a lot.” She had internalized, you see, my parental injunction that “we only become good at something if we practice it a lot.” I froze on the spot and the coin dropped: yes, that’s how I was raised, that if you work hard enough at something, whatever it is, you will eventually become good at it. But what happens when the world around shifts so that being “good at it” doesn’t guarantee any kind of gratification, no matter how much you defer it? Am I parenting on a Fordist model, when the world stopped being like that a very long time ago?

What about teaching? We and others keep making the point of the relevance of humanities for today’s world, that universities should not cater to industry, etc., but what is it that I do in the classroom that prepares students for the world that I’m not doing at home? I suppose it’s critical thinking, as in the ability and the flexibility that allows students to thrive in a variety of situations, to tackle problems from novel angles, and, ultimately, to create new, better worlds. One would hope. Do these skills work when students themselves face a precarity in their professional lives that does not allow them to “think big!” “be creative!” “change the world!” but insists their efforts go into the less glamorous “paying the bills” “buying food,” and “getting rid of that student debt”?

This pragmatism does not in any way go to undercut the importance of arts education. If anything, it reinforces the potential of arts education to allow people to step back and gain perspective in the face of sustained and systematic blows from a global system bent on breeding and generalizing inequity. So, what is the solution? How do we–teachers, adults, educators, parents–empower the young ones to tackle this increasing precarity or deal with it better than I see my generation doing it? What right do we have to place such an immense burden on their shoulders, when we couldn’t solve it? (and yet I realize that our inability to solve this issue necessarily places the burden on them).

In Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, Bernard Stiegler charges contemporary (French) society with having failed the youth altogether by withdrawing the responsibility of the older generations towards the younger ones, severing the ties, while at the same time demanding the youth display the behaviour that only the careful education of such responsibility would have provided. Instead, he says, we leave it to contemporary capitalism to exercise its psychopower on generations of youth devoid of the care that should have prepared them to engage with it. Stiegler promises to come up with solutions in the next volume, but the charge is clear now: there is an intergenerational failure, whether of pedagogy and/or of parenting, which leaves youth unprepared, while capitalism continues to do its thing.

So, my unfair question to you, just before the weekend is, what do we do? How do we live up to our responsibility in the classroom and elsewhere? Do you have little tips and tricks. I know the questions are big, but the solutions need not be. How do we teach four-year-olds critical thinking without swiping their big-eyed wonder at the world in one? Anything? Bueller?