February 14, 2010

Timing Life…

Category: Academic,Alzheimers — Biella @ 10:11 am

The Chronicle recently published a piece that drew a lot of attention on the difficulties that female academics with kids face during the first 4-7 seven years of their job when academics are expected to do nothing but produce, produce, and … produce and yet because they have produced children, they can’t produce all that much writing. I don’t share the author’s predicament in that I don’t have kids. But I have had to be an (often long-distance) caretaker for the last 8 years, 4 of which I spent considerable time in PR taking over my mom’s caretaker’s duties.

Although when it comes to female academics and kids there is a lot that can (really must) be done to facilitate a career and motherhood, when it comes to taking care of my mom, being an academic has been an odd and mixed blessing, although it did require me to play with the system self-consciously or else it would have been an early academic death.

When my mom was first falling pretty ill, I was wrapping up my dissertation. Though I was ready (on paper at least) to go on the market, I did not step foot in it. I knew that if I landed a job it would be the end of seeing my mom and since she only had a few years of capacity left, I decided to 1) apply only for one postdoctoral position (that had no teaching and was in NJ making it very easy to fly home frequently) 2) if I did not land it, I would return home to spend time with her, keep on writing but not graduate. If I had started a job right after my dissertation, I would have killed my chances of churning out articles, and worse, not have seen much of my mom.

I was lucky enough to land this postdoctoral fellowship, which was a life savior. I was able to get a heck of a lot of work done that I would never ever would have been able to do my first two years of teaching (kids or no kids) and I spent many months in PR as well. I always encourage graduate students to apply for these positions because the payback is enormous (with the exception of fellowships that require a ton of teaching), even if the applications are really time consuming, more so than applying for jobs.

Though rarely stated in such terms, the first few years of an academic position is not unlike medical residency. It takes a brutal amount of time, not only because of the sheer time you have to work but also because there is so much new to learn and so many different responsibilities to juggle. It is exhiliarting but draining, even disorienting.

But there is one important difference from our medical school counterparts (aside from the blood and guts and gore :-) ): their hell continues throughout the year, while our hell diminishes during the summer when classes end and writing is supposed to dominate your attention. Also since I am not required to be here once classes ended, I am able to leave NYC and spend it back home. I would simply not be able to do this with most any other full time job (unless it involved telecommunting) and for that I am grateful I landed the job I did. Academia, despite its rat race quality, has allowed me to visit my mom throughout the year and summer.

Given the importance of summers for writing it seem that departments/universities can do a lot for female faculty simply by sponsoring or helping to pay for summer day care for two years, thus offsetting some of the costs and then providing them with the space needed to write/produce.This can accompany the policy that some, though not enough schools have, which is turning off your tenure clock for the year you are pregnant, and in some cases, even giving you leave. Thankfully at NYU you can stop your clock not just for pregnancy (which they now automatically do because when it was optional some female professors were not taking it!) but also for circumstances like mine. I was given a short tenure extension, which was not easy to ask for but it is important to do so. I am extremely grateful they have this policy.

Something else partially unique about caring for a parent is the perspective it affords. Although it would be a lie to say I suffer no anxieties about my job, I find it hard to get embroiled in a lot of the petty politics of academia, a perspective that clings to me, especially after having to take care of someone with Alzheimers, and especially my mom who we nicknamed the ‘Russian Terror’ for her turbulent (but really fun) personality. Sitting in front of your computer to write and think about some obscure academic topic feels not only easy after those experiences but a scamish sort of privilege.

My mom is now in a nursing home and I no longer have to spend time taking care of her. Instead I visit and see her and get overwhelmingly sad when I do. In one month, it will be her 2 year anniversary in a nursing home and I still have not come to grips with the situation. It strikes me as obscene and unreasonably cruel that this illness can afflict a person for years, even a decade or more. Perhaps more than anything it is the sheer massive length and persistence of this illness that makes it so hard to bear. And I am sure my work–for better or for worse–has acted as an emotional refuge, where I drown myself in work that I love instead of drowning in the sorrow that I often feel, making what is a difficult job far easier.


  1. It’s perhaps worth pointing out, as the comments on the linked site do, that academic fathers can also take a hit from child rearing, particularly in countries which allow couples to share maternity/paternity leave allowance. I find the idea that academic fathers can just swan off to conferences while their partners look after the kids doesn’t fit at all with my experience but maybe US academic culture is just different in this respect.

    Comment by b — February 16, 2010 @ 2:42 am

  2. totally agree. NYU gives paternity leave as well (and I believe a sizable chunk too!) and my scheme would be helpful to both parents as the kids, when so young when be in day care.

    The pregnancy part, however, can impact mostly a women and yet some handle it fine and other are sick through large chunks of it.

    Comment by Biella — February 16, 2010 @ 5:51 am

  3. I certainly agree with b; the natre of assumptions around who does what in parenting mean, of course, that gender-neutral, pro-parenting policies will still mostly be an improvement for women (which is good, since they’re generally coming from a more difficult position).

    More family-friendly workplaces are definitely one of those areas, though, where men ought to be very interested in advancing feminist viewpoints, because better ability to balance work and family will be not just a better lot for women we care about, but for us directly – if we want to have a life that supports more time being a dad and less time being the stereotypical old-fashioned dad who’s always at work.

    Comment by Rodger — February 17, 2010 @ 1:18 am

  4. Taking care of oneself and finding ways to keep sane and above water allow a person to be better able to take care of others whether they be children or someone who is ill. I am reminded of the example of an airplane crashing with a mother and child. The mother must take the oxygen mask first, and then can take care of the child. Giving the mask to the child would be of little help with a passed-out caregiver. Sometimes parents use babysitter, other caregivers use respite care.

    Comment by Kevin Mark — February 18, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

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