The True Story of Dr. Mom

1 Oct 2006

So, out comes another article on women struggling to be mothers and academics, this time from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And once again I feel like the story is missing something: math.

Simple math. Not the kind you need a Ph.D. for. Here goes…

You can’t be at work and be with your kid. Period.

Your university can offer you on-site daycare, it can offer you rooms in which to pump your breast milk, it can offer you a visiting nurse service to come and take care of your sick child when you have to run off to teach. And none of those options will allow you to be with your child.

OK, disclosure of my biases: I read this article as someone who gave up a tenure-track job to go part-time a few years into motherhood—something that, pre-child, I would never have thought I would do. And it pains me to see a lot of women still go through what I went through—a shocking realization, post-child, of the simple math I mentioned above. You’d think with our Ph.D.’s, we could figure it all out sooner and find a way to torture ourselves less.

The comments of one woman quoted in this article made me particularly nuts: “Though teaching, research and raising a family can make for tiring days, [Professor Anna] Haley-Lock notes that academia provides a flexible schedule to accommodate sick kids.”

Oh, sure, grant deadlines wait for sick kids. Classes can be rescheduled for sick kids. Committee meetings, too. And grading, hey, just leave it until your kid clears the pneumonia. NOT! My former university (Michigan State University) provided “sick child care” for 16 hours per semester per faculty family. That’s two days a semester. Ever had a little kid in daycare? Let me tell you a little secret; they get sick more than two days in four months. And to use the sick care, you had to be willing to have a complete stranger come to your home and care for your sick child while you went to work. Great!

The article goes on about Prof. Haley-Lock: “She also has the help of her husband, Eric Lock, a lecturer at the university.”

Yeah, she has a husband working out of the tenure system—he’s playing the classic wife. Fine! But let’s not pretend that two tenure-track jobs plus little kids is suddenly workable in a way it didn’t used to be. Like I said, it’s just math.

Do I wish there were part-time tenured jobs readily available? Yes. But it’s always going to be the case that you can’t be maximally attentive to work and maximally attentive to your offspring. Let me say something politically incorrect: When you pump your breast milk into a bottle and hand it off to your daycare provider, she is the one feeding your child. When you pay your public elementary school for “before and after care”—even if your university pays for it!—someone else is caring for your child before and after school.

People work this out in various ways. I decided I really like my kid, and we could make the finances work, so I quit my tenured job. (I also quit it to do more activism and writing, and, frankly, to sleep and cook more.) My husband, he works a lot, and not just because he’s now the chief breadwinner. From what I’ve seen, men on average are more willing to feel frustrated about neglecting their kids, and women on average are more willing to feel frustrated about neglecting their work/career. Biology or culture? Probably both.

I couldn’t agree more with Professor Catherine Petroff, quoted in the article: “My advice when people talk to me is if you’re going to have kids [you’re] going to need a support network at home, not necessarily at the university.” And here’s my point: When you have a kid, you might well discover you want to be the support system for your own child.

Now I have to go play with my son and his new garbage truck. It’s so cool. And so is he. (That up there is a picture of us at Mount Saint Helen’s. He was telling me about how volcanos work.)


For a follow up, read “The Kid Option.”