Flexibility for Faculty Fathers
I’m writing this piece in the shadow of Eleanor Seitz’s excellent post in this series, So You Want to be a Grad Student Mama. I think that’s quite apt, as (in my experience) fathers operate largely in the shadows of mothers in the parenting realm. (And while grad students are often in the shadows of faculty members, like mothers they’re often there doing all the real work!)
Eleanor wrote about becoming a mother in her first year of graduate school and how that dual identity became inextricably linked. Similarly, my wife and I had the first of our three children during my first year as a faculty member, so I’ve never really known what it is to be a professor or a father without simultaneously wearing the other hat. While every job and every kid is distinct with its own particular histories, contexts, and fussy temperaments, hopefully a few of the ways that my fatherhood has tinted my career may speak to some other people’s specificities. (I should note that I write this from the extreme privilege of being a tenured faculty at a supportive institution, a privilege that many of you reading this might be working toward, but is far from guaranteed.)
One of the most important keywords as a faculty member (and parent) is flexibility. On a micro, day-to-day basis, being a full-time college professor is one of the most flexible professions there is: aside from your class schedule and regular meetings, your daily schedule is quite amenable to the demands of parenting. I can usually pick-up my kids from school, shuttle them to activities, stay home if they’re sick, or otherwise make adjustments to fit the family’s schedule. And even though I have a constantly growing to-do list, nothing on it is ever as important as taking a kid to the doctor – our daily work is generally low-stakes and highly-flexible, while parenting has much higher and more vital demands.
But at other levels, being a college professor lacks macro-flexibility, putting a number of major constraints on a family. Most notably, it often forces people to move across country for a job with comparatively lower pay than other professions with highly competitive national job markets – talk to a doctor or lawyer about what would draw them to relocate for a job for some perspective (and while money is not everything, having extra cash is a way to buy time as a parent, in the form of childcare, housekeeping, etc.). This is most challenging to a faculty spouse, who probably must work to supplement that meager pay, but also must deal with being plopped down in whatever part of the country hosts the job you land. We’ve grappled with this constant imbalance, as I worked to get a job in a part of the country close to extended family and in keeping with the lifestyle where we want to raise our kids, despite the resulting limits on my wife’s career options. And I write this as someone who knows that I’ve won the academic lottery with a great job where we want to live – for the majority of PhDs, the choices and trade-offs are far more dire and limited. But for almost every academic parent I know, choices are first motivated by what is best for their families rather than what might be best for their individual careers.
One great appeal of being a faculty member is the flexibility of how we spend our professional time, allowing us to choose what to research, what forms of publication or scholarly output we wish to pursue, how much time to focus on teaching or service, and generally the freedom to self-define the arc of our careers. But this flexibility has a sting: without clear markers of what you need to do for career stability or advancement, many of us feel like we need to do it all. Likewise, parenting without an owner’s manual often leads us to think that the right answer to choices about what to do for/with our kids is All of the Above. As both a professor and a parent, I find myself stressed by self-inflicted pressure to do more, do it perfectly, and say “yes” to new opportunities. One of the most important lessons for both parents and professors is that it’s alright to say no, and that it’s ok to fall short of perfect on some of those things we say yes to.
Another great bit of mixed-bag flexibility of this career is technologically enabled – aside from in-class teaching, most of my work can be done anywhere, needing only intermittent WiFi and power. This is quite useful when I need to stay home with a sick kid, edit an article in the car during a soccer practice, or catch-up on emails after everybody’s bedtime. And technology also makes our familial choice to be at an isolated rural locale feasible, enabling professional connections and communities via blogs like Antenna and other technological tools – I know I would have been far less happy as a professor at Middlebury a generation ago, when isolation was far more acute and professional advancement more limited by geography.
But the curse of constant connectivity is that I have trouble resisting the urge to check email while dinner’s cooking, or stop writing a blog post while I could be taking care of something on my parental or homeowner’s to-do list. Pervasive connectivity is a boon to someone with a flexible schedule, but always having one more thing to do (as both father and faculty) and a predilection toward distraction makes it a curse. (I would love to hear from others who’ve found ways to overcome this tendency.)
Another more disciplinary-specific intersection between faculty and fatherhood is that with the flexibility to aim our academic interests at self-defined projects, I’ve found that I often get inspired by my kids to explore new avenues of media studies. Watching my oldest daughter learn to use our DVR led me to write “TiVoing Childhood” for Flow, and I’m currently writing a piece about my kids’ favorite current show, Phineas and Ferb. I’ve also taught a course on Media & Childhood that stemmed in part from my own experiences as a parent watching my kids interact with media, and I even drafted my daughter and her friends to create a student video project on climate change for kids. Obviously it helps that media scholars grapple with issues and developments with clear connections to our children’s lives – my fellow faculty fathers who research PTSD or hate-speech have not found similar opportunities for synergy! – but it’s been a great boon to my academic interests to be able to see television and media through the developing eyes of my children.
One last thought, going back to issues raised in Eleanor’s post, is that parenting foregrounds issues of gender in ways that complicate many of the post-structural feminist theories I studied in graduate school. Having two girls and a boy makes me view gender as less of a discursive free-for-all than I used to think, as daily behavioral differences reinforce gender as something more biologically-grounded than I’d been taught. Yet as a faculty father, I try to articulate my identity as one in which my kids are an active and visible part of my professional life – they often come to my office and my colleagues hear it when they want to schedule meetings that are less than family friendly. Hopefully such behaviors by me and fellow faculty fathers carve out a more family-friendly workplace for all, but especially for female faculty who face many of the pervasive issues and assumptions that Eleanor outlined.
As always, stories of someone’s career or parenting are highly individual. So I hope this post prompts some conversation among academic fathers, mothers, and non-parents about flexibility, visibility, and priorities – I look forward to further discussion in the comments!