The Elusive Work-Life Balance, or Why Mothers Should Get No Special Exceptions in Academia (maybe)

So, I find myself thinking what at first blush feels like a very un-feminist thought: Enough already with the special exceptions in academia for women who choose to be mothers. Yes, give them reasonable maternity leaves, on-site day care, nursing rooms. But forget about dragging out the tenure clock beyond a full semester maternity leave, and absolutely forget expecting less of them than others come P&T time…

You’d think that, as a hard-driving academic woman who couldn’t seem to manage full-time academic life with a young child even post-tenure, I’d promote special accommodations for women who choose to be academics and mothers. You’d think I’d look back and wish I had had them. Well, sort of.

Attentive motherhood is undoubtedly difficult to balance with academic life. In fact, it was only after I quit working full time (and gave up tenure in the process) that I finally started feeling like I could manage motherhood and an academic career. I remember the point at which I decided to quit: we were already paying others to do our childcare, our lawn care, our house cleaning, our laundry…. I had started to look for someone to buy our groceries when I realized I had truly gone over the edge.

But you know what? Motherhood is hard with any serious career. Turns out kids take a lot of time and energy. (I’ve ranted about that elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash here how, after you have a kid, you discover with shock that there are still only 24 hours in the day.) And you know what else? Motherhood (according to most feminists anyway) is a choice. So why, I am wondering lately, do we think we should make special exceptions for people who make that choice and not others?


My friend Marie recently heard from her students that they thought she should be more available to them than Marie’s colleague Joan is, because Joan has kids. These were not patriarchal students; they were Women’s Studies students. Their logic was they were supporting Joan as a working mother by dumping more expectations on Marie.

But tell me, why should Marie not be allowed to have just as much personal time as Joan? Why should Marie not get to go home and do whatever the heck she wants with as much “free” time as Joan? Marie chose not to have kids because she actually took seriously what motherhood requires.

Meanwhile, a colleague of mine was talking to me recently about the “leaky pipeline” problem, i.e., the “problem” in which women in the sciences drop-out at relatively higher rates than men from rung to upper-rung of the academic ladder. She was talking to me about how women need more time if they have children. But why, I wondered aloud to her, shouldn’t our mutual friends James and Stuart (who are partnered to each other and childless) get to have more time, too? Why exactly should they work themselves to the bone just because they haven’t had kids, while I get forgiven time for soccer, parent-teacher conferences, and field trips?

When I was in graduate school, we used to talk about how feminism could benefit all people if it succeeded. The idea was not to simply get accommodations for women, but rather to change the systems so that they were more fair and humane for everyone. Special accommodations for women who choose to have children doesn’t fix the fundamental problem of everyone working too damned hard in academia. That many women with little kids cannot manage should be a sign to us that the system is exhausting for all, and needs adjustment.

One might object that women’s biological clocks make for a special case; our fertility drops in the years in which we’re ordinarily trying to get tenure. Well, true, but you know what? Lots of other abilities drop during that time, too: the ability to do extraordinary physical feats like climbing particular mountains or competing in triathalons; the ability to enjoy your youth before you start having to attend regularly to aging parents and your own aging body; the ability to go out and find a partner while you’re still sorta flexible and maybe even mobile.

Why are women’s reproductive clocks special? Why shouldn’t slowed clocks be available to everyone, if they are available to some?

In a weird sort of way, it feels to me lately like special accommodations for women who choose to be mothers is, well, kind of patriarchal in its attitude that women with fertile wombs are special beings unlike any others.

I’m tired of us doing the patch-job of fixing the broken academic life by helping only mothers of young children. Yet when I hear people in academia talk about “the work/life balance,” what they’re seemingly always talking about is women with kids trying to manage. The idea is NOT that ALL academics are entitled to (gasp!) time off–time off to have dinner parties, go to movies, go biking, sleep, have pleasurable sex, garden, whatever. No, all we’re entitled to is more self-sacrifice, this time in the form of sacrifice to our children.

Blah. Maybe those of us who “leaked out” just figured out the pipeline wasn’t going to get any more comfortable down the line.

I have academic friends who have griped about colleagues who “aren’t working hard enough.” More and more, I look at those “not working hard enough” academics and think they are doing us all a favor in bringing down the average of what counts as a reasonable work week. I’m not calling for more “deadwood” here. But I am calling for people to go home, not because the kids need to be fed and gotten to field hockey practice, but because we’re entitled to have pleasurable lives that include vast amounts of time spent on things which have absolutely no place on our c.v.’s.

We should not have to live like one biology grad student I met while I was also in grad school; this guy was hiding from his lab-mates the fact that he had gotten a dog. He knew that if they found out he had purposely gotten a dog, they would think he wasn’t serious about his work.

This is a picture from my spring garden. I’ve been weeding.