September 28, 2009

What’s wrong with being a mother of three and an academic?

“Kids aren’t like computer programs that run predictably. With more than two, there is always going to be someone who is sick or needy, and so something at work is going to have to give. If anyone told me they wanted three kids, I would be thinking, What, are you nuts?”
- Comment from an anonymous dean at

Judging from the above comment, academics (particularly women) having children, especially more than one or two, is taboo. I am not sure I have figured out why.

When I tell people I have three children, perhaps I get a raised eyebrow or a look of slight surprise. However, I can’t say that anyone has outright told me that I am crazy. People do occasionally express awe at my ability to publish and have children.

I, on the other hand, do not think I would be any more productive of an academic were I childless. For me, writing and research require a lot of mental energy, and I have a limited supply of that sort of energy. If I write for two hours in the morning, take a break, and read for another two hours, that’s all the mental energy I can devote to my research in one day. I can then spend another two to three hours teaching or on class preparation, and another hour on service-related tasks. That’s an eight hour day, and all the energy I have for my job.

When I have done the arduous task of actually keeping track of all of my time over the course of a week (in fifteen minute intervals), I find that I work about 36 hours a week, spending roughly the amounts of time required by my job – 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service. When I get home from that, I am only too glad to cook dinner, clean up, wash clothes, read the Magic Treehouse, or sit at the library or in gymnastics class with my children. I have no inclination to write the next article or to prepare class for the next day. Once in a while, if I am really behind on grading, I might spend an hour grading before going to bed. And, if things are really crazy, I might write for an hour or two on Saturday morning.

On the flip side, spending from 6pm to 9pm each evening with my children plus all weekend, plus vacations, plus all summer, I think that is plenty! I am sure my eight-year old twins have a lot more fun in their afterschool program than they would if I picked them up and took them home. This can be confirmed by the fact that, when I show up early, they never want to leave with me. The same goes for my five-year old. She loves going to daycare, and I am pleased professionals are taking care of her - teaching her all kinds of things I wouldn’t have even thought of. (My favorite: “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit!”)

The last piece of the puzzle is, without a doubt, the fact that I have an incredibly supportive and non-sexist husband who works at home most of the time. If the kids need to stay home because they are sick, or if they have a doctor’s appointment, my husband usually can take care of that. He also does more than his share of the housework. And, if I need to go out of town for a conference, he is willing to take over all of the childcare and household responsibilities for the duration of my conference.

The day-to-day of being an academic and a mother of three children is relatively easy to work out with a good dose of time management. It’s the conferences, dinners, and out of town travel that can make it difficult for parents, especially single parents. That aspect is quite difficult to manage without a strong support network. I am lucky to have a supportive partner. Great friends, family members, or even a hired nanny can help others fill in this gap.

So, perhaps someone else can explain this taboo to me!

1 comment:

  1. I really like this post! The only thing that I can contribute, as someone who just had a baby at age 35, is that people without kids have a hard time understanding why you would enjoy many of the mundane tasks of caring for kids, much less three of them.

    I was one of those people, but when it's your child, it is just very different. I just changed the third poopy diaper of the day for my sweet boy David, and I didn't mind a bit.