Thursday, October 21, 2010

Guest Post: Academics and Motherhood: Can We Have it All?

My partner and I chose to have a baby during our graduate studies – before I hit the job market and before the start of his medical residency. We wanted to ensure we’d both have time with the baby, despite the missing financial comfort of maternity or paternity leave. Although we are known for our high energy, determination, and multitasking skills, our decision sparked some gossip amongst our peers. I was barely four months pregnant when I overheard the following conversation take place in the staircase that unites the two floors of our department:

I heard Veronique’s pregnant.

Yeah, me too. No surprise there, given she just married that doctor. She won’t need a job now. They can easily live off his salary.

No kidding. I was kind of relieved, you know. Now I won’t be competing against her on the job market.

She told you she wasn’t applying?

No, no. But a baby leads to more babies. Universities won’t hire unless she publishes the next big study on CanLit. And with a baby on the way, that’s unlikely to happen. How many women do you know who have successful careers and families?

Not many. God, I can barely handle my dog.

Indeed, having a child in grad school could jeopardize or delay a career. Common concerns revolve around the delay of the doctoral thesis, the disappearance of promising publications, and perhaps even the abandonment of the PhD altogether. In my prenatal naïve haze, however, I never worried about postponing my thesis or dumping my career. Rather, I was predominately concerned with writing as much as humanly possible prior to my daughter’s birth in order to enjoy a bit more flexibility once she arrived.

When our daughter was born a month ago, I began finding pockets of time to get work done; I sent myself email messages with ideas from my iphone as I fed her at night – I transformed my baby buddy pillow into a laptop desk - I read articles aloud to get her to sleep instead of Goodnight Moon. After a month with a newborn (albeit a very calm and content newborn), I feel I can get the thesis written by the end of this year as planned – at least, a full draft – and although I’ve had to readjust my schedule and writing habits, I certainly don’t think I have to give up on my professional goals and writing ambitions.

But…

What I didn’t expect, however, was the obstacle of a baby (and breastfeeding for that matter) when it comes to public academic engagements. I may be writing, but participating in academic discourse beyond the page has become more difficult. I no longer have the luxury of attending every talk hosted by the university (I missed the Markin-Flanagan “passing on the torch” reading for the first time since I moved to Calgary), and I won’t be jumping from reading to reading at Wordfest this year. I’ve had to sacrifice my spontaneous academic interactions, and although none of them are “requirements” for my degree, I do consider them essential to my overall experience. Sure, I can organize childcare when necessary, but this requires pre-planning and money – and even then, sometimes, pre-planning fails.

This month, for instance, I missed my first conference – a conference I was looking forward to for months. I’d registered during my pregnancy and I knew I’d have a one-month-old baby, but the conference was in Edmonton (not too far and where my mother-in-law lives), which seemed manageable at the time (and it should’ve been). Worst-case scenario, I figured I’d only attend my panel and the plenary talk. I wrote a draft of the paper prior to delivery, and my husband organized his schedule to accommodate mine and watch Lalina as I enjoyed the conference. Then he got sick. He was in no state to drive to Edmonton, let alone watch Lalina under a flu medication haze. My mother-in-law had a dance show, my family is in Quebec, and because of her young age, I couldn’t take Lalina to a drop-off day care. Hence I failed to attend the conference and cancelled my presentation.

Never once did I consider taking her to the conference, despite her easy disposition. Not once. It would be unprofessional, no? To show up at my panel with a sleeping baby in a sling? Even if my paper was on balancing motherhood and writing – even though it was a women’s writing conference and should, from an outsider’s perspective, be supportive of my predicament. But no – I didn’t even think to ask or explain what had happened to the organizers. Instead, I said I had a family emergency and missed the conference. Only when I told one of my husband’s colleagues why I hadn’t attended the conference and she asked “why didn’t you just take Lalina with you?” did I find myself wondering why the thought never crossed my mind. My immediate response was, “well, it would be unprofessional.” She said, “I don’t think so. You were stuck, so why not? We have a preceptor who just had a baby and she brings her to class, and once she even breastfed while teaching.” I was filled with envy – this preceptor was comfortable enough with her roles as mother, doctor, and teacher to breastfeed in front of her students. Until that moment, I’d always considered medicine far less accepting of women balancing motherhood and profession – I was wrong.

I still think that showing up at the conference with a newborn would’ve proved unprofessional. After all, it’s not like Lalina was a registered participant and therefore had a right to attend. My problem isn’t with how it may have been misperceived if I’d showed up with her, but rather with my assumption that my profession, in this instant, had to be put on hold because of circumstances that seemed on the surface to be beyond my control (husband’s illness); and yet, there were options that, unfortunately, never even crossed my mind as possibilities. Was this my subconscious telling me that I can’t do it all? Is this post, perhaps, my refusal to admit that academic superwomen are an abominable myth and that women can’t balance career and family? But what about that preceptor breastfeeding and teaching? She’s got it together – isn’t this the type of professional I need to be to raise a daughter who will forge ahead and believe, not in Santa, but in the fact that she can have it all? And I use the word “fact” purposefully because I want her to have it all – and I believe she can have it all. The “all” just needs to be confidently claimed by herself and those around her – starting first and foremost with myself.

Veronique Dorais Ram, PhD Candidate
Department of English, University of Calgary



7 comments:

  1. For all women out there - use technology to your advantage. Veronique, you could have skyped into the conference. It could have been easily set up. We, women, need to use technology and the resources around us in order for us to "have it all"

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  2. My husband directs a Writing Studio at Banff, and every so often a faculty member or participant will bring their baby or small child. He is firmly convinced, and says it every time, that having a baby around brings out the best in everyone and is never a problem or distraction. People are delighted by babies, and they behave better around them. Congratulations on your babe, Veronique. I look forward to meeting her some time.

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  3. One of the things I so appreciate about this post is the careful consideration of the notion of permission.

    I love all of the suggestions about technology, acceptance, rights that are offered both by Veronique's post and by the comments themselves. What really strikes me here in Veronique's post is the way in which she's questioning why those rights and technologies didn't occur as obvious or even apparent choices. While technology is relatively easy to set up, and people certainly act better around babies (itself an interesting if not problematic phenomenon) the crux of the post here seems to me to be: why are these not obvious, or maybe easy, or unfraught (yes, unfraught) choices?

    Passing the mic now....

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  4. Struck by the image of the breastfeeding teacher, I remember when I inadvertently projected a photo of my baby daughter on the big screen in front of a class I was teaching, and how I felt both proud and vulnerable. She has attended some public academic events with me, but only of the more casual kind (department meet&greet, grad student stuff), and always with my husband along to co-parent.In terms of conferences, I'm always both amazed and unsurprised that few offer any childcare.

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts, and congratulations on your new baby.

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  5. Pam: true - thanks for the comment.

    sp: yes, indeed, Skype could've been an option - but again, as Erin noted, the thought didn't cross my mind until later. Unfortunately, I can't Skype into Wordfest readings (or the majority of other readings, for that matter). Like Andrea noted from her experience, I can bring Lal to events - but I'm unlikely to do so without a co-parent. On that note...

    Andrea: thanks for the comment - do you find that if you bring the baby, people will talk only about the baby with you? I certainly don't mind discussing Lal, but I find it interesting that others will now, more often than not, ask about the baby rather than my research.

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  6. As a woman of colour, I don't believe in the notion of permission. Women of colour have a long history inserting themselves into conversations where they did not have "permission." Veronique: we need to ask Wordfest or conference why they will not skype you in? Why is this not made available to you or to others who cannot be part of the conversation? I understand, it was not the obvious choice but skype and other means of "being at the table" are new and we have to demand that organization start using technology as a tool for inclusivity.

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  7. Just want to suggest that the issues this post raises are not actually things that can be solved by technology. If representing your work is what was important, you could have asked conference organizers to have somebody else read your paper: happens all the time, a low-tech solution. But if, as I take it, the point is how you could fully participate in the congregational magic of a conference, let's be clear: skype makes you the talking head on a static laptop - or, more likely, the straining-to-hear head on a static laptop. It's not really like being there.

    So what about the post's bigger questions: is it "professional" (your word, Veronique) to bring a baby to a conference? How do we adjust to radical changes to our professional - and personal - persona? Is it possible to "have it all," and if not, how do we make smart decisions about what not to go after?

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