Single Motherhood and the Faculty Life

October 11, 2011
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I represent a mixture of two of the perspectives covered so far in Antenna’s excellent work-life series: I am both single and a parent. Exactly five years ago and at the precise time that my tenure file was being voted on by my department’s committee on personnel, I was in the hospital recovering from the birth of my son. My tenure clock and biological clock have always been eerily and problematically matched, as is the case for many women in academia. As I entered my late 30s without a partner, though, I decided that I had to act on my desire to be a mother or risk losing out on the experience of parenting a biological child. In October 2006, I became a single, soon-to-be-tenured mom.

The balancing act that has followed has much in common with what both Jason Mittell and Eleanor Seitz have described in previous columns. I’ve had to learn how to be both an active and engaged parent for my son and a productive and present faculty member, which has been challenging and has often left me feeling as though I’m doing a poor job on both fronts.  The difficulties of academics who choose to become mothers have been discussed elsewhere and studies on the consequences of our choice have revealed depressing statistics on the negative impact of parenthood on the careers of female academics in comparison to our male counterparts.  Motherhood and academia are in many ways an uneasy mix. And even more so when it comes to single motherhood.

My own experience surely speaks to how difficult it is for female academics to identify the ideal time in which to start their families: Is it graduate school? Immediately after graduation? During the first years on the tenure-track? Wait until post-tenure? None of these options felt exactly right for me (especially considering I didn’t have a long-term partner willing to commit to fatherhood for much of that time) until I was up against a wall and had to make a choice about what was best for my future self and family. For most women, in fact, it will likely feel as though there really is no right time, since our biological clocks start winding down just as we feel the worst of the job insecurity and workload begin to lift. Mary Ann Mason, law professor and co-director of the Economics and Family Security Center at Berkeley, refers to the ages of 30-40 as the “make or break years”, a time when almost too much has to be decided and accomplished by women both personally and professionally.

I should note that there are some unique circumstances to my life that make single parenting less stressful for me personally than it might be for many others.  I work in a family-friendly department in a Research 1 institution with a teaching load of 2/2 and a generous maternity leave policy. My tenure provides a rare and coveted level of job security. I have subsidized housing on campus and in a neighborhood zoned for excellent public schools. I also have an incredibly supportive network of friends—many of whom also live close-by in faculty housing. All of these factors, combined with the flexible schedule that being an academic affords, means my work is conducive in many ways to my life as a single parent.

That said, the many practical difficulties of being a single faculty parent still play out in my everyday life. Besides the financial burden, the most challenging aspect of my choice has been fitting in as much research, writing, administrative work, teaching and class prep possible into a 40 hour a week schedule—the time when my son is in school/daycare. While I can technically squeeze some work in at night, once my son is asleep, and on the weekends, it is incredibly difficult to accomplish anything at those times that requires my full attention and/or any level of intellectual energy. (Not to mention that I often need those hours for more basic life-management tasks like paying bills and cleaning.)

I can also only attend talks on campus, which are often scheduled after 5pm, if I chose to sacrifice both time with my son and money to pay for a babysitter, which is why I often take a pass. Conferences and research trips also involve much finagling and uncomfortable decisions, as I have to leave my son with friends or transport him back and forth to his grandparents in Florida in order to travel alone. (Some of my single mom friends chose to bring along a babysitter or family member to watch their children while travelling for work.)

Another struggle for me as a single parent involves trying to protect my time on campus without feeling as though I am avoiding or short-changing my colleagues, students, and myself. I don’t enjoy having to tell people that I can’t meet them for coffee or lunch or spend a big chunk of time conversing with them in my office. However, I often have to do just that, as every hour not working in the office is an hour that I will have to make-up post-bedtime when I am in a state of utter exhaustion.  In general, my tight schedule means that, for now, I am losing out on much of the social and intellectual life that I had prior to becoming a parent. However, I am banking on the idea that at least some of that will return once my son gets older, since, as I’m quickly learning, the early childhood years are astonishingly fleeting.

In exchange for all the juggling and social, professional and financial costs, I have a life that is richer, more intimate, and more complex thanks to the presence of my son in my life. For now, I am avoiding the workaholic trap that Ben described in his column that is often the fate of the single academic and experiencing more joy and satisfaction in my personal life than I ever had before. Single motherhood was not my first choice for how I envisioned creating a family and it likely is not a workable option for every single female academic approaching the end of her childbearing years. However, even with all of the struggle, balancing, and strict time management involved, it has turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made.


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5 Responses to “ Single Motherhood and the Faculty Life ”

  1. Cynthia Meyers on October 11, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    Congratulations! and best wishes! Divorce can cause another kink in the parent/academic path. I became a part-time single parent/full-time academic. Luckily, while my child was small my dept was kind enough to schedule meetings when I had child care coverage. But the larger problem was that my custody situation prevented me from going on a national job search. (The Solomonic choice between child or career is one that divorced as well as married trailing spouses/academics may face!) So, I focus on having been fortunate enough to find a tenure-track line where I already lived. So, yes, luck in finding a good “situation” is key to making it work.

    Now that my child is a teenager, I can reassure you that some of the issues you now face with time management and travel will definitely ease in the future!

  2. Eleanor Seitz on October 11, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    Thank you so much for a terrific post. I am so grateful to see the unique considerations of being a single mother in academia, but also the successful and positive example you present are for those of us who plan on being faculty. I have been trying to fit everything into a 40/hour work week because work after bed time is just exhausting and I want to spend weekends with my daughter. This has not yet been successful, but reading this post has made me more determined to be stricter about managing my time. I do look forward to the age when sleep overs start happening.

  3. Elana Levine on October 11, 2011 at 11:04 AM

    What a great and inspiring post! Although the amount of responsibility and time constraint you bear is remarkable to me, there are some similarities to your situation in being part of an academic couple in the same field, as childcare for conference travel and non-daycare hours events is a perpetual challenge. Now I should stop writing this as I have already been interrupted by colleagues too many times today to be getting as much done as I need to!

  4. Miranda Banks on October 11, 2011 at 2:00 PM

    This is a fantastic post–honest, thoughtful, informational, and heart-warming. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your experiences.

  5. Melissa Click on October 18, 2011 at 3:56 PM

    Thanks for your candid comments on a very important topic. Those of us who have kids (and/or like kids) should work to find ways to support each other with childcare at conferences!